February 04, 2008

If you've followed me for any length of time you've probably found that I'm often dubbed a branding gal. It's one of my biggest passions. Whether I'm pitching new business, servicing existing clients, at a speaking gig or teaching college students, I always ask the question, "Name some top brands." As nebulous as the question sounds, I almost immediately get answers. Think about it for a moment. How would you answer?

Well I'll tell you most nowadays say Apple or name an Apple product like iPhone, iPod or AirBook. Seems Apple can do no wrong. Clients often say Dell, Nike and Google. Students say Apple or some sort of food/drink -- Starbucks, Domino's, Doritos -- you get the drift.

I'm sure you won't disagree; we all have relationships with brands. I am fascinated to learn why people associate with certain brands positively and negatively. How much does advertising and word of mouth play a role in their minds? How do they become aware of, then a fan of, a new brand within a category? What makes a brand slip down on the food chain?

I'm always happy when the Brand Keys Customer Loyalty Engagement Index winners are announced. For those of you who don't know the study, it's annually in the spring and fall, examining customers' current relationships with 382 brands in 57 categories. Winners are those brands best able to engage consumers and create loyal customers.

As quoted in today's Marketing Daily, Robert Passikoff, Brand Keys founder said, "Ties between brands used to be the exception, but there are more ties than there have ever been. This speaks to commoditization." He continued, "Many brands are now just placeholders. It's nice to be No. 1, but people don't perceive any differences between No. 1 and number two in many cases. People know the brand names, but they don't know what the brands stand for."

So who fared well, you ask? I was surprised to see several ties among categories this year:

Airlines: JetBlue/Southwest
Athletic footwear: Air Jordan/New Balance
OTC allergy medicine: Benadryl/Tylenol
Banks: Wachovia/Washington Mutual
Plasma HDTV: Pioneer/Panasonic
Gasoline: BP/Sunoco
Online travel: Expedia/Orbitz
Upscale hotels: Hyatt/Embassy Suites
Wireless phone service: Verizon/AT&T
Bottled water: Aquafina/Fiji
Pizza: Domino's/Papa John's
Mass merchandiser cosmetics: Mary Kay/Maybelline
Diapers: Wal-Mart White Cloud/Playskool
LCD HDTV: Samsung/Panasonic
Long-distance phone service: AT&T/Verizon
Quick-serve restaurants: McDonald's/Subway
Home improvement stores: Lowe's/True Value

Within other categories there were also ties. Many were in computer hardware, software and electronics. For instance Gateway/HP tied for second place (to Apple and Dell) among computers. This shows a lack of differentiation in regard to consumer's brand perception. Scary but true.

Kudos to some of the brands that made it to the list for the first time: W Hotels (luxury hotels), Vitamin Water, Luv's, Kayak (online travel), American Apparel, Northwest Airlines, Volvic (bottled water), Wal-Mart and National Grid (energy provider).

One big surprise to me was the coffee category. Last year Starbucks had slipped to No. 2 to Dunkin Donuts. This year Dunkin Donuts remained No. 1 and McDonald's came in at No. 2. Come on, Starbucks, get back on the caff already.

Check the list out for yourself. Certainly I have much more to say about what drives consumers' relationships toward brands. Post your thoughts and opinions here on the Spin blog. In the meantime, this local gal says cheers to Sam Adams, the No. 1 non-light beer.

By Seana Mulcahy
Courtesy of

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