Wireless phones. Consumer electronics. Memory chips. Could you pick three tougher lines of business to be in right now? Somehow, with just such a portfolio, Samsung Electronics Co. managed to more than double its profits in the most recent quarter, to $1.6 billion.
How? Once a humdrum manufacturer of commodity electronics largely sold under other companies' names, South Korea-based Samsung is reaping the rewards of moving aggressively into higher-end products that carry fatter profit margins. It has invested heavily to produce cutting-edge designs, from flat-panel TV monitors that can be hung on walls like paintings to an elegantly thin DVD player. The company moved up the memory-chip price chain to sell more devices to video game makers. And it became the No. 3 producer of cell phones, with a premium-priced line that includes handsets with color screens.
But just as critical as the turnover in product was the face-lift Samsung gave its brand. Last year, it took a first stab at creating a new image with visually arresting ads such as one that posed an impossibly stylish woman in blue makeup, yellow nail polish, and ostrich feathers next to one of its TV monitors. This year, it plans to spend $200 million on ads focused on the company's promise to provide a "DigitAll Experience." That's an attempt to drive home the link between Samsung's new upscale image and the lifestyle its customers crave, says Eric B. Kim, executive vice-president for global marketing operations. Says Kim: "This is our first attempt to be at the leading edge rather than being a follower."
Now more than ever, companies see the power of a strong brand. At a time when battered investors, customers, and employees are questioning whom they can trust, the ability of a familiar brand to deliver proven value flows straight to the bottom line. If, shaken by the plummeting stock market and concerned about the security of their jobs, consumers start cutting back on spending, they're more likely to stick with names they know they can rely on. "When a brand earns our trust, we not only repeat our purchases, but we also tell all of our friends about it," says David Martin, U.S. president of New York-based Interbrand Corp., a pioneering brand consultant that teamed up with BusinessWeek to create our second annual ranking of the most valuable global brands.
Brands usually aren't listed on corporate balance sheets, but they can go further in determining a company's success than a new factory or technological breakthrough. That's because nurturing a strong brand, even in bad times, can allow companies to command premium prices. Purveyors of products ranging from Budweiser beer to BMW cars have been able to keep growing without succumbing to the pricing pressures of an intensely promotional environment. A strong brand also can open the door when growth depends on breaking into new markets. Starbucks Corp. (SBUX), among the fastest-growing brands, recently set up shop in Vienna, one of Europe's cafe capitals, and says 400 of its planned 1,200 new store openings this year will be overseas.
To sort out which global brands are holding their ground and which are crumbling, Interbrand and BusinessWeek created a ranking of the top 100 by dollar value. The list by Interbrand, a unit of Omnicom Group Inc. (OMC), is based on the idea that strong brands have the power to lift sales and earnings. Interbrand attempts to figure out how much of a boost each brand delivers, how stable that boost is likely to be, and how much those future earnings are worth today. The value that is assigned is strictly for the products with the brand on them, not for others sold by that company. Therefore, Coca-Cola Co. (KO)--easily the top brand again this year, with a value approaching $70 billion--is ranked just on those products carrying the Coke name, not Sprite or Powerade.
Because Interbrand relies on a rigorous analysis of cash flows rather than mere consumer perceptions to calculate brand values, changes in the business climate or a category's economics can have a strong impact on those values. An economic downturn can erode values even among companies that have resisted the temptation to cut marketing budgets, slash prices, or compromise on quality. In today's perilous economic climate, it's no surprise, then, that 49 out of the 100 brands on our list--and 7 of the top 10--fell in value this year. That compares with 41 that dropped in value in our 2001 ranking. Some of the hardest-hit brands represent industries--telecommunications, finance, travel, and luxury goods--that have been body-slammed by the downturn.
Take Boeing Co. (BA), whose ambitious brand-influencing efforts--from advertising to relocating its headquarters from Seattle to Chicago--helped put it on the list last year at $4 billion. But September 11's devastating impact on air travel almost instantly put on hold airlines' plans to expand their fleets, causing Boeing's hard-won brand value to plunge 27% this year, to $3 billion--a billion dollars of value wiped out.
Still, some companies compounded the problems of a down economy with management missteps. AT&T (T) plunged 30% in value, losing its place among the top 10 brands. The company spent hundreds of millions on aggressive, youth-oriented ads and upgraded the range of licensed products that bear the AT&T name in order to shed its stodgy Ma Bell image. But it didn't deliver enough exciting new products and services fast enough to sell customers on a "new" AT&T.
Amid the carnage, though, many companies found ways to add value to their brands. Samsung was easily the fastest-growing, its value rising an estimated 30% to $8.3 billion. While Coke continues to struggle to get back its rhythm in the U.S., its sales are still growing in the developing world, buttressed by a strong global marketing effort behind the World Cup. Thus, Coke eked out a 1% gain, adding $700 million in brand value. Despite losing some highly publicized battles in the courtroom over its tobacco liability, Philip Morris Cos. (MO) saw its venerable Marlboro brand push into the Top 10, adding 10% to its value. The company used deep pockets to squeeze rival brands out of prime display positions in stores.
Other winners exploited their strong brands by launching extensions into new products and categories. Too often, new flavors, formulations, and packages wind up as barren exercises in market positioning that clog retail shelf space while offering consumers nothing truly different. But this year's ranking offers proof that the right line extensions can make a difference. H.J. Heinz Co. (HNZ) boosted its brand value by 4% with ingenious ways of driving consumer interest in ketchup, from squeezable bottles to versions spiced up with flavors such as Smokey Mesquite. Diageo PLC's (DEO) once-tired Smirnoff vodka brand scored a 5% gain thanks to the success of a citrus-flavored, single-serve drink, Smirnoff Ice. Positioned as a sophisticated alternative to beer, Ice not only became a hit with younger consumers but also enticed them into giving a second glance to the core brand, which got a lift.
The Nivea skin-care line shows how to strengthen a brand by branching out. Beiersdorf went further than a line extension or two in garnering a 16% brand-value rise for its unit. Starting with women's skin-care products and a carefully nurtured image of wholesomeness and natural ingredients, Nivea has moved into men's products, including deodorants, shampoos, and even a moisturizer dispensed from an electric razor. Nivea has dozens of products today, vs. a handful five years ago. "They are a classic example of how far you can go with brand extensions," says Jan Lindemann, Interbrand's global director for brand valuation.
Advertising, of course, is one of the most direct ways to build a brand. But the danger in tough times is that you advertise price breaks and wind up cheapening a brand. That's why Dell Computer Corp.'s (DELL) ability to see a 12% increase in brand value is so impressive. The PC maker gave its promotional ads an additional brand-building role. They feature an enthusiastic young character, "Steven," congratulating customers with "Dude, you're getting a Dell!"--driving home the point that customers can get exactly what they want at low prices. After years of making that point in a dry way, Steven brought "real personality to Dell," says Scott Helbing, the company's vice-president for global brand strategy.
But ads can take a brand only so far. And if their claims are not backed up by performance, the ads erode value. For that reason, employees are a crucial link to the consumer. If employees are motivated to reflect the core brand values in all their activities, that radiates out to customers, and on to friends and family. Such word-of-mouth endorsements--which in the Internet era can circle the globe instantly--can be far more convincing than any marketing campaign. Brand winners usually "have inculcated what's great about their companies up and down the organization," says Scott Bedbury, a former top marketer at Nike Inc. and Starbucks who now runs consultant Brandstream in Seattle.
Even the best corporate names are under attack these days. Still, those companies are reaping the benefits of years they spent building customer trust and honing images of quality and dependability. To weather an extended bout of distrust and instability, strong brands are crucial. Companies also will have to work doubly hard to keep them intact.
Corrections and Clarifications
A table with "The Best Global Brands" (Special Report, Aug. 5) wrongly said that Merck & Co.'s painkiller drug Vioxx faces patent expiration. Vioxx' patent runs through 2013.
By Gerry Khermouch in New York