(Updates with Apple scores in the seventh paragraph.)
Feb. 13 (Bloomberg) -- Apple Inc., burnished by the iPhone’s success and memorials to Steve Jobs, displaced Google Inc. as top company in Harris Interactive’s poll of corporate images. Berkshire Hathaway Inc. and Johnson & Johnson dropped.
Apple earned the highest score in the 13-year history of Harris’ survey of U.S. consumers, buoyed by the Cupertino, California-based company’s financial success and products like last year’s iPhone 4S, said Robert Fronk, the pollster’s executive vice president. The rise came even as corporate America’s reputation sank, hurt by sagging views of the financial industry, Harris said today in a statement.
“After a little positive momentum last year, across the board, we saw the tarnish come back,” Fronk said in a telephone interview. “Whether it’s due to Occupy Wall Street or the bad news in general, the negatives of the banking and financial- services industries are spreading.”
J&J, the world’s second-biggest seller of health-care products, fell to seventh after three years of product recalls, the first time the reputation of the New Brunswick, New Jersey- based company has ranked below the top two in Harris’ annual poll. Berkshire, based in Omaha, Nebraska, plunged from fourth place to 24th, after an executive resigned in March and was accused by Chairman Warren Buffett of violating the firm’s insider trading rules.
Only eight companies were rated as “excellent” in Harris’ poll of 17,000 people, half the number in 2011.
Google, the Mountain View, California-based owner of the world’s most-popular search engine, slipped to second place from first last year. Rounding out the top five were Coca-Cola Co., based in Atlanta, followed by Amazon.com Inc. of Seattle, and Kraft Foods Inc., based in Northfield, Illinois.
Apple topped the public’s ratings for vision and leadership, products and services, financial performance and workplace environment, four of the six categories that Harris tracked. The company’s shares topped the $500 mark at the close today and advanced 41 percent in the past 12 months.
Along with the glow of products like the iPhone and iPad, Apple benefited from the praise aimed at co-founder Jobs, said Harris’ Fronk. The former chief executive officer, who rescued Apple from the brink of bankruptcy when he returned to the company in 1997, died on Oct. 5. The poll’s online surveys were conducted from Dec. 2 to Dec. 19.
“The outpouring around him as a visionary leader probably played a strong role in where they ended up,” Fronk said.
Steve Dowling, an Apple spokesman, didn’t immediately return a message seeking comment on the Harris poll.
Berkshire’s slide followed the March resignation of executive David Sokol, amid revelations that he had bought shares of a Buffett takeover target. In interviews, respondents also cited the company’s ties to Goldman Sachs Group Inc., the New York-based bank in which Buffett invested $5 billion in 2008. Goldman ranked 59th, second to last, in this year’s poll. Financial firms suffered four of the five biggest drops in reputation from last year.
Buffett may also have suffered from his endorsement of President Barack Obama’s so-called “Buffett rule,” Fronk said. Democrats said the proposal would ensure the wealthy don’t pay lower tax rates than other Americans. U.S. Representative Michele Bachmann, a Republican candidate for president last year, dismissed the idea as a “sound bite” and suggested Buffett donate his fortune to the government if he felt he wasn’t paying enough.
Buffett didn’t respond to a request for comment about the poll e-mailed to his assistant.
View of J&J
While J&J, which sells products as varied as cancer drugs, Band-Aids and artificial hips, remained among the most reputable companies, there were worrisome signs that it no longer commanded respect on vision, leadership and emotional appeal, Fronk said. Consumers questioned one of J&J’s “bedrock strengths,” the idea that it can be counted on to “do the right thing,” Fronk said.
“They’ve got a window here where, if they can prove to the general public and their customers that this was a blip, then they can bring some of those not-sure or neutral people back,” he said. “If there’s a belief that it’s a long-term erosion, they’re going to take a hit” to sales as well as their image.
J&J was pleased to again rank “among the most reputable companies among U.S. consumers,” William Price, a company spokesman, said in an e-mail. “We remain in a category of companies with an excellent reputation, reflecting the unrelenting commitment our employees have for the needs of patients and customers.”
American International Group Inc., the New York-based insurer rescued in a $182.3 billion U.S. bailout, took last place, just as it did the previous year.
--With assistance from Heather Perlberg and Andrew Frye in New York. Editor: Andrew Pollack, Bruce Rule
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