Top 5 Brand Winners of 2011

For reasons that will become clear later this month, I'm doing my annual "brand winners of the year" post today. As usual, I've included not just corporate brands, but political, ethnic and personal brand categories as well. Comments, of course, are more than welcome.

To see the first brand winner, click on the green Next button to the right.


Category: High Tech Brands
Biggest Winner: "Apple"
Corresponding Loser: "Microsoft" & "Samsung" (tie)

It's been a banner year for the Apple brand, not despite Steve Jobs's departure but because of it.

Apple's recent victories have been legion. The company has experienced a string of product successes which have upended the entire high tech industry. It has surpassed Microsoft in market capitalization and become the most valuable consumer-facing brand in the world with an 84 percent increase to $153.3 billion. And at one point, due to the debt-ceiling crisis, Apple's financial reserves were greater than those of the U.S. Government.

Even so, the Apple brand has suffered from being conflated with the personal brand of their former CEO, Steve Jobs. Many Apple fanatics (and a fair smattering of the business press) seemed to believe that Steve Jobs was like a comic-book mastermind and the rest of the company his willing drones, executing his creative will. In fact, Jobs has been out of commission for most of 2011, even as the company enjoyed one of its best years ever.

Now that Jobs is gone, it will quickly become clear that while Jobs may have created Apple's corporate culture, it's the culture, and the hordes of creative people working inside that culture, that are responsible for the company's ongoing success. The Apple brand will be strong, freed from the mythos surrounding its co-founder.

Category: Old Tech Brands Biggest Winner: "General Motors"
Corresponding Loser: "Toyota"

How quickly things change.

Just two years ago, GM was pretty much toast. The company had slipped from the #1 manufacturer of cars in the world to #2 and was losing money like crazy. In June of 2009 filed Chapter 11 and the U.S. subsidiary was forced into bankruptcy, and it looked as if GM's brands would eventually go the way of the Studebaker.

Today, GM is riding high. Using a loan from the U.S. government, it reorganized, cleared out unprofitable dealerships, launched a dozen or so hot new products, rebuilt its relationships with the labor unions, became profitable, and is poised to return to the #1 spot by the end of the year.

More importantly, from a brand perspective, GM managed to simplify its brand structure, eliminating the weaker product brands and throwing more emphasis on its corporate brand, while dumping the dull square blue "badge" (shown above.)

As a result of all of the above, GM now looks more like a winner than a loser. Will it last? Who knows? But for now, GM is riding high.

Category: Ethnic Brands
Biggest Winner: "Arab"
Corresponding Loser: "Al Qaeda"

Time was that the "Arab" brand was pretty much shorthand in the U.S. for "terrorist." To make matters worse, innumerable stories kept running of in the national news describing the worst aspects of Arab culture, like mutilating criminals.

Then came "Arab Spring" -- a phrase so lilting that it could have come right out of a Mad Men episode. Suddenly, Arabs have become the harbingers of a more democratic Middle East, early adopters of world-changing technology, and freedom fighters against a horde of evil tyrants.

Of course, it's probably only matter of time before the entire thing collapses into a welter of tribal conflict, religious bigotry, military coups and (as The Who so memorably put it) "the new boss, same as the old boss." But for now, hey, the brand is fresh and clean as newly-opened can of deodorant.

Category: Political Brands
Biggest Winner: "Bush"
Corresponding Loser: "Romney"

All brands, including political brands, consist of three basic elements: substance, packaging and brand name. While the Bush brand name is currently in retirement, there's ample evidence confirming that both the substance and the packaging of the Bush brand are on the upswing.

In terms of substance, what better endorsement of Bush's policies is there be than the pursuit of those exact same policies by the Obama administration? From Guantanamo to Iraq to Afghanistan to bailing out the banks, there's hardly been a Bush strategy that Obama hasn't co-opted. Since Obama is obviously an intelligent man, the only reasonable explanation for his following Bush's lead (thereby antagonizing his base while getting absolutely no credit from his enemies) is that the Bush team must have been right in the first place.

In terms of packaging, GW Bush (a ivy-leaguer from a family that's the elite-est of the elite) adopted a studied oafishness to endear himself to the public. Today, it looks likely that the next Republican candidate for President will be not the imitation but the genuine article, thereby confirming the devastating effectiveness of the cowboy imagery.

The only thing missing is the Bush brand name itself, which has already lost much of the toxicity it had in back in 2008. Can another Bush candidacy be far behind? (Jeb in 2016! Or Jenna in 2020?)

Category: Personal Brands
Biggest Winner: "Warren Buffett"
Corresponding Loser: "Ayn Rand"

Talk about Noblesse Oblige!

While the rest of the obscenely rich were out buying their second yacht, remodeling their third vacation home, or making sure that poor folk don't get insurance, the Buffster wrote an op-ed in the New York Times entitled: Stop Coddling the Super-Rich.

In the piece, he pointed out that the super rich had benefited it didn't make a lot of sense for people like him to be taxed at a lower rate than his secretary, when they are undoubtedly the beneficiaries of a lot of sacrifices from us peons.

By doing so, Buffett became the first mega-billionaire to become a spokesperson for the popular rage of the underclass. His name has even been attached to the "Buffet Rule", a Quixotic effort by the Obama administration to actually attempt to raise the taxes on the wealthy -- an idea that everybody (including Buffett, no doubt) knows is doomed to failure.

Even so, Buffett emerges as one figure on the national stage who's not afraid to speak the truth. And that's the kind of brand equity you can't buy, even with a huge charitable deduction.