Brands with no barriers

Marketing: products with a strong corporate identity are climbing the league table, while the public is warming to worthy campaigns
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The Independent Online
The toppling of Coca-Cola from its pedestal as the world's top brand is a sign of things to come, according to a new book.

Interbrand, the consultancy behind The World's Greatest Brands, points out that although Coca-Cola may one day wrest its crown back from the fast-food giant McDonald's, corporate rather than product branding will become increasingly important.

"Successful brands will be those that communicate clear values stretching across a number of products. The brand will not be attached to a group of products but to the consumers themselves," it says.

It is a view that Irene Inskip, deputy managing director of branding specialist CLK, supports: "Coca-Cola is what we call a monolithic brand - it has reached a great number of people. But with McDonald's, there's a richer offer."

By this she means that Coca-Cola is so strongly associated with one product that even when it attempted to introduce a derivation, there were problems. On the other hand, McDonald's acts as a kind of umbrella; beneath the famous golden arches the company can provide customers with all kinds of variants on a theme and can even cater for passing fads without necessarily affecting its overall image.

Interbrand believes that this idea of the brand applying to consumers will lead to more and more niche marketing. Virgin has already taken the youthful and cuddly image associated with founder Richard Branson from record sales into airline travel, cola sales and now financial services, while Marks and Spencer is seeking to capitalise on its trustworthy image in the personal finance field. Many others are likely to follow Virgin and M&S in the next few years.

"We have become so good at targeting individual lifestyles that in due course there will be a brand for the professional gay man living in the centre of a cosmopolitan city. It will cover not only his car, but his supermarket and travel insurance," says Interbrand's Raymond Perrier.

His colleague, Simon Mottram, sees many companies moving away from the old stand-alone policy practised by the likes of Unilever - where customers knew the brand names but had no idea who owned them. And the corporate brands cannot just come out of the shadows to endorse their products. Their name must do something for the company itself, such as indicate certain standards or values and convince the consumer that if he likes its product X he might try product Y.

The Interbrand team also sees new types of brand emerging, such as charities and other not-for-profit organisations, cities (New York, for example), and even individuals (like the US basketball star Michael Jordan, whose comeback led to significant rises in the stock of companies associated with him).

In other areas, though, the compilers of the list were conservative. They used four criteria for ranking brands: weight, or dominance of a market; length, or extension into other markets; breadth, or appeal across age, religious and other divides; and depth, or customer commitment. Accordingly, they were careful about what they deemed to be fashion brands (even those like Nike that are felt to be all-powerful) and so not guaranteed to be around in several years' time.

Yet a company like Microsoft, which was barely heard of when Interbrand surveyed the scene six years ago, was given a big enough score to put it in ninth position, while IBM has slipped to 11th.

The march into fresh continents has helped Disney take third place, while Kellogg's and American Express have seen their brand strength diminish - perhaps, says Interbrand, "as a result of aggressive brand building by competitors". The same problem has presumably hindered Coca-Cola's rival, Pepsi, which could only manage 17th position.

With such varied records among household names, it is clear brands cannot just be left to fend for themselves; they must be nurtured and developed. Advertising is one way of raising awareness, though it will not ensure lasting success if the products do not meet expectations.

Another way is to focus on distribution. Ms Inskip recalls that an old Coca-Cola slogan was "Within arm's reach of desire". In other words, it was always on hand whenever anyone wanted it.