The 5 brands consumers love most

While high-tech names like Google and Apple rank highly in Forbes' top 100 corporate brands, classic names J&J and General Mills outrank them. Who's No. 1?

By MSN Money Partner Oct 7, 2011 12:15PM

By Forbes

 

What's in a brand?

 

Blood, sweat, tears, money, media buys, agency relationships, boards, CMOs, ROI, CPMs, M&Ms -- but also, simply, and in many ways, more important, consumer perception.

 

At a time when consumers control brands as never before, have a recession-borne frugality that shows no sign of ebbing and demand more from corporations than just basic products and services, the dominance of a brand is arguably determined less by the views of peers, academics or the financial community, and more so by real people.

 

Forbes, in partnership with Burson-Marsteller, Penn Schoen Berland and Landor, conducted an exclusive, quantitative online survey among 2,500 U.S. adults in August 2011 to do just that–measure consumer perceptions of 100 top brands. Forbes and its partners generated a list of 100 consumer-facing brands at the corporate level using financial metrics such as revenue, profits, sales and earnings growth, total return to shareholders, and advertising spend.

We then took that list to consumers and asked them to rank the brands using a numeric scale of 1 to 9, based on 12 attributes: "is honest and trustworthy," "has ethical leadership," "maintains high standards of quality in its products and services," "invests in innovative ideas and research," "upholds transparent communication practices," "invests in its customers," "dedicated to making communities a better place," "positively impacts the everyday lives of its customers," "leverages business success and expertise to make a positive contribution to society," "cares about the issues that matter to me," "understands and addresses my unique needs," and "genuinely wants to make a difference in the world."

 

These are corporate brands, not product brands, and that was intentional: This is a time when, increasingly, organizations like Unilever (UL) and Procter & Gamble (PG) are communicating directly to consumers with corporate brand messages a la P&G's "Thanks, Mom" campaign that supported Team USA in last year's Olympic Winter Games. Some are doing this better than others. So the goal was to see how corporate brands are resonating in consumers' minds.

 

The top name

Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) netted out as No. 1 on the entire list, surprising given its significant business woes such as recalls and lawsuits. People have developed a trusted relationship with J&J -- primarily through their baby products -- "that's a very powerful emotional connection that's hard to dislodge," said Scott Osman, global director of corporate social responsibility at Landor.

 

Largely absent from the top of the list were hot tech and Internet companies that get so much buzz these days; instead, the list-toppers were old-school food brands, companies like General Mills (GIS), Hershey (HSY) and Kraft (KFT).

 

"The survey shows the extent to which the food industry has been doing an excellent job of reaching consumers," said Mark Penn, CEO of Burson Marsteller and Penn Schoen Berland. "The food industry has come a long way in the last decade in being very responsive to consumers' needs and that has made a considerable difference."

 

These are companies that have been around for years and make products like Lucky Charms, Kisses and Velveeta. But beyond their products, they and others on the list are organizations increasingly known for their charitable giving, sustainability efforts, environmental cleanups, transparent business practices, clearly labeled packaging, respected leaders, ground-breaking innovation. These are benefits that go far beyond the crispness of corn flakes or the cleaning power of laundry detergent–though those attributes are important too.

 

"Purpose goes beyond consumerism," said Michael Berland, president of Penn Schoen Berland. "It's really about brands that make lives and the world around them better."

 

Consumers have higher expectations of what a corporate brand is and does–for them and for their neighbors, their communities. Social media has created an open forum for debate and discussion and opinion-sharing, so there really is nowhere for brands to hide. But there is a much greater opportunity for corporations to be transparent not only about their products and services but also their efforts to make the world a better place.

 

We do Google it

That the food brands, the classic consumer brands, ranked so highly in consumers' minds was not surprising. It was more surprising to find Google wedged between food brands—a reflection on Google's having secured a stronghold in consumers' minds as being a necessity in their lives. In fact, Google (GOOG) ranked No. 1 on the list ranking brands by the attribute, "genuinely wants to make a difference in the world."

 

Google ranked lower on ethical leadership and trust, but overall it came in at No. 3: "Those two areas hold it back from being No. 1," Mr. Penn said. Google, Apple, Amazon, in fact, are all newer brands that have come onto a list that is dominated by brands that have been around for a very long time.

 

Companies including Nike (NKE), Dell (DELL) and Starbucks (SBUX), meanwhile, ranked in the middle, indicating not that they aren't benefiting consumers and the world, but that they aren't effectively communicating the positive changes they're making, Mr. Osman said.

 

Reflective of the financial and energy crises that have so captivated the public, at the bottom of the list are Fannie Mae (FNM) and BP (BP), which promoted sustainability yet was criticized for greenwashing; the oil spill and subsequent PR fiasco killed any remaining brand trust.

 

The top 5

 

1. Johnson & Johnson. Products such as Purell, the Johnson & Johnson baby care line and Band-Aid are ubiquitous in consumer homes and part of daily lives.

 

2. General Mills. Products and brands include Cheerios, Wheaties, Yoplait and Betty Crocker. And many more.

 

3. Google. "Let me Google that for you." When your identity becomes a colloquial verb, you know you've made it.

 

4. Kraft Foods. Worldwide brands and products include Cadbury, Jacobs, Kraft, LU, Maxwell House, Milka, Nabisco, Oscar Mayer, Philadelphia, Trident, Tang, Velveeta and Kraft Dinner.

 

5. Hershey. A whole generation of kids who don't know what the world was like before Hershey's Cookies n' Cream candy bars now exist.

 

 Read the full list of 100 at Forbes.com

 

More from Forbes