The Drum's New Year Honours: Brands of the year and ones to watch featuring Ryanair, Heineken, Airbnb, Haig Club and Selfridges

It's become tradition for The Drum to reveal its New Year Honours as we reflect on the year, and so over the next week we'll be presenting the crème de la crème of brands, agencies, people and creative work.

We've already revealed our agencies of the year, celebrating the companies which have impressed us the most over the past 12 months. Now it's time to highlight the brands which have excelled in 2014, either for innovation, creativity or reinvention. Additionally, we highlight the brands we think will be worth keeping an eye on in the coming year.

Brand of the year: Ryanair

Ryanair’s customer experience, for years a shining example of oxymoron, has been unrecognisable this past year, with the airline’s notorious chief exec Michael O’Leary abandoning his philosophy that negative publicity sells more seats than positive. And while we may miss entertaining quotes such as “You’re not getting a refund, so fuck off”, it is universally agreed this can only be for the better.

After issuing a profit warning in late 2013, the budget brand brought in its first ever chief marketing officer who went about resetting consumer perceptions, with much welcomed moves such as a 24-hour grace period for changes to bookings, a cut to controversial baggage fees, relaxation of hand luggage rules, making bookings possible in five clicks rather than 17, and bringing in its first ever advertising agency, Dare, to develop a definitive tone of voice which. Quite a turnaround from telling customers to fuck off.

Most creative brand: Heineken

It turned 150 years old in 2014, but by no means could Heineken be accused of slowing down in its anniversary year, confidently maintaining its place at the top of the beer market.

From campaigns such as its ‘Cities of the World’ activity which encouraged people unlock the secrets of their respective cities, to corporate responsibility efforts such as its ‘Dance More, Drink Slow’ partnership with DJ Armin Van Buuren, by way of The Sub (a domestic draft beer machine designed with Apple’s Marc Newson), pop-up bars (created by 20 young urban, interior and light designers from Warsaw, New York, Mexico City and Singapore), new packaging (a glow in the dark bottle, a rhythm pulsing bottle and the new Star Can), it has shown an unwavering commitment to creativity and innovation, carried out with a litheness and liveliness belying its size.

Best brand extension: Marley Natural

The best, and perhaps most obvious, brand extension of 2014 came from the family of Bob Marley who launched the world’s first global cannabis brand, fronted by the late reggae superstar.

Called Marley Natural and with a logo designed by Heckler Associates (the agency behind Starbucks’ branding), the brand offers a range of “heirloom Jamaican cannabis strains” as well as cannabis-infused lotions, creams and various accessories.

With Marley’s enduring legacy already placing him ninth in Forbes’ list of highest paid dead celebrities, and with an increasing number of US states decriminalising and in some cases legalising recreational use of cannabis, this brand extension has the potential to see Marley take top spot.

Best new brand: Haig Club

Doing something new and noteworthy in a space like Scotch whisky can be difficult, but arguably this is what the market is in desperate need of as Scotland’s whisky sales dropped 27 per cent in 2013 and offerings from Japan and Tasmania routinely outperform at industry awards. Hopefully this is where Diageo’s new Haig Club comes in.

With its single grain Scotch whisky, the drinks conglomerate has not only set about reinvigorating a much maligned category (grain whisky has long proven divisive among whisky drinkers) but it is also shaking up Scotch whisky as a whole, aiming squarely at those “who don’t think they like whisky”.

With David Beckham on board to bring a bit of sex appeal to the brand, Guy Ritchie directing its launch video, and a blue-tinted bottle from long-time Diageo collaborators Love that wouldn’t look out of place in a perfumery (the cobalt blue echoes the nosing glasses used by master blenders), it is a bold but authentic move that stands out on a shelf of the same old uninspired brands.

Best tech brand: Airbnb

Its new logo was subject to merciless meme-makers when released in July (within hours it sparked a wave of parodies, comparing it to, among other things, a vagina and a pair of balls), while its business model has fallen foul of authorities in cities around the world (the New York attorney general said in October that nearly three-quarters of its rentals in the city are illegal), but none of this has put stop to the defiant march of Airbnb as the home-sharing service continues to disrupt the hotel industry.

Founded in 2008 on what, at the time, seemed an unlikely proposition – sleeping in a stranger’s spare room or, worse, handing the keys to your home to someone you’ve never met – the rise of peer-to-peer businesses and sharing economies has encouraged 20 million strangers (10 million in 2014 alone) to do just that.

So successful has it been, in fact, that its website surpassed 800,000 listings this year, making it the biggest lodging provider in the world – bigger than any hotel chain. How it handles increased pressure from authorities and the entrenched interests of hotel groups will be interesting to watch, but already it has changed forever the way we think of holiday accommodation.

Best retail brand: Argos

Ditching its iconic little blue pens in favour of iPads, the transformation of Argos stores into digitally integrated spaces has been highly impressive as it continues to bring together online and offline for a speedier, smarter retail experience.

In no small part down to Ross Phillips, the associate design director at Dalziel and Pow, which has been behind new store concepts for the retailer, its high street offering is now a more pared-back affair, complete with raw and clean materials which prove the perfect foil to a raft of dynamic digitised displays streaming real-time product information, messages and campaigns.

The business has also been targeting higher sales from tablets and mobiles with a 60-second fast track collection service encouraging customers to order online pre-visit, a click and collect deal with eBay and, most recently, a swipe-to-like Tinder-style app for shoppers to find the perfect Christmas gifts.

Brand to watch: Selfridges

The high-end department store has lofty ambitions to become a major force in the omnichannel arena over the next five years. Armed with a £40m warchest, the retailer revealed the plan to “futureproof” its business in October with an overhaul of Selfridges.com – the biggest single investment since it launched four years ago. A dedicated app and a wider roll out of its click and collect service will follow, accelerating Selfridges’ bid to forge a more seamless transition from its bricks-and-mortar stores to its virtual channels. However, the retailer has a fight on its hands with Harrods and John Lewis ploughing more funds into elevating their own multichannel experiences.

Brand to watch: John Lewis

In 2014 John Lewis became the latest brand to look outside its organisation to the start-up community for inspiration on how to reach digital natives. The retailer erected its JLab technology incubator in the first half of the year and picked five finalists ranging from a streaming music service to a virtual 3D room app. John Lewis picked an iBeacon service as its winner and plans to use it to serve promotions and product information to shoppers based on their pricewise location in store. It will only be trialled in certain stores, however, with the company hoping to gauge consumer reaction to such a feature before a possible wider push.

Brand to watch: Atom

Atom has spent the last year prepping for its much-anticipated 2015 launch as the UK’s first digital-only bank. Its goal is to disrupt the financial market in much the same way First Direct did when it was formed, an ambition it has tried to realise by poaching two senior marketers from the bank. The launch, which is subject to regulatory approval, will allow customers to manage their accounts entirely via the internet and mobile apps.

Brand to watch: P&G

P&G announced plans to scrap 100 brands in 2014 in a drastic attempt to become a nimbler global business and quicken its growth. It marks a shift in approach for the world’s biggest advertiser, which had been focused on expansion that had seen its products cannibalise one another’s sales. The brands that remain will benefit from better focused marketing, research and development, according to the business, as it looks for new growth opportunities.

Brand to watch: Alibaba

Alibaba’s transformation into a global powerhouse found new gears in 2014 when its IPO raised a record-busting $25bn. The online marketplace, which has revolutionised the way Chinese consumers shop, has made no secret of its plans to expand to the West and has reportedly already met up with Hollywood big wigs to discuss hosting their content online.

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