Interbrand announced the results of its BEST GLOBAL BRANDS 2014 survey recently.  At the event, the company also handed out a fascinating booklet entitled YOU AFRI CAN.

Apple came in at number one for the second year running, followed by Google, Coca Cola, IBM, Microsoft, GE, Samsung, Toyota, McDonald’s and Mercedes.

The survey is interesting for a number of reasons. For starters, it shows just how valuable brands are. The Apple brand is valued at an astounding US$ 118 billion, Google just behind it at US$ 107 billion, and Coca Cola a little way back at US$81 billion. Even the 100th placed brand, Nintendo, is worth owning – it’s valued at roughly US$4 billion.

What’s particularly interesting is to find out that brand valuation – so common these days – hasn’t been with us for very long at all: Interbrand says that it conducted the world’s first brand valuation in 1988. These days, so the booklet says , there’s  ‘an increasing recognition that brands were not built simply through communications, but through a combination of business activities covering products and services, environments, culture and communication – all of which created the total brand perception held by customers and employees alike.’

The survey’s also interesting because it shows how all-pervasive brands are. In the top 100 there’s an extraordinary selection of companies: tech like Apple and Google; social media like Facebook; online retail like Amazon; bricks-and-mortar retail like H&M and Ikea; FMCG like Colgate and Kellogg’s; soft drinks like Coca Cola and Pepsi; financial services like HSBC and Goldman Sachs; fashion like Zara; alcohol like Jack Daniel’s and Johnnie Walker; luxury goods like Gucci and Louis Vuitton; automotive like Toyota and Mercedes; fast food like McDonald’s and Starbucks; entertainment services like Disney and MTV; professional services like Accenture; and heavy industry like Caterpillar and 3M. Don’t let anyone tell you branding’s not important in their business!

From a South African perspective, it’s disappointing that not a single South African brand features in the top 100. Not MTN, not Investec, not Sasol, not even ENSafrica.... It’s only a matter of time surely!

What’s also interesting about the survey is the mix of old and new: a considerable number of companies that our parents didn’t grow up with, like EBay, Oracle and Huawei, but just as many that they did, like Nestle, Shell and Chevrolet.

But let’s turn to the booklet. It gives some fascinating insights into how the top brands manage to stay relevant. It should, I think, be required reading for anyone who’s in business.

Success is, we’re told, all about change and disrupting traditional business models. Or as Amazon CEO, Jeff Bezos, has said: ‘What’s dangerous is not to evolve.’ So this is how the top 10 do it:

  • Apple keeps on coming up with new products including the Apple Pay mobile payment platform and the Apple watch. It has apparently also made peace with Samsung on the issue of smartphone patents. Apple’s goal, we’re told, is to become the ‘digital hub of consumers’ lives’. Or, as Wired magazine has said, ‘Apple’s supreme goal is to make everything in your life work better.’
  • Google CEO, Larry Page, feels that his company can do better than the one billion users it already has, and he’s pushing the company into new areas – robotics, artificial intelligence and biotechnology. Page expects his employees to produce products that are ten times better than those of competitors. He tells them this: ‘If you are not doing some things that are crazy then you are doing the wrong things.’ 
  • Coca Cola, which has been with us for 128 years, knows it can’t afford to stand still, and now takes far more account of health-conscious consumers.
  • IBM, the grand old man of computing,  entered into a partnership with uber-hip Apple in 2014, with a view to ‘combining IBM’s enterprise-scale computing with the elegant user experience of Apple.’
  • Microsoft has recently purchased Nokia and rebranded its Windows Azure cloud computing offering to Microsoft Azure.
  • GE may be all about big machines and engines used in industry, yet it applies the same principles used in consumer marketing. The company’s marketing boss says this: ‘We are all people… business marketing does not have to be boring marketing. You can’t sell anything if you can’t tell anything.’
  • Samsung ‘continues its journey to become an increasingly aspirational brand.’
  • Toyota,  still the most valuable car brand despite having to recall over six million vehicles, is changing perceptions from trustworthy to quirky, with marketing campaigns like ‘Let’s go places’ and ‘Go fun yourself’.
  • McDonald’s isn’t complacent about the fact that it serves meals to 70 million people every day – like Coca Cola, it’s responding to demands for healthier options.
  • Mercedes, a company that enjoys a rare timeless appeal, still innovates significantly in areas like emissions-reduction

The booklet looks at an interesting trend, the one of increasing personalisation of brands. It dubs this  ‘The Age of You, something which it describes as ‘a world in which everything is connected, preferences are anticipated, experiences can be customized just the way you want them, software transforms our devices so that they understand our personalities and habits – and your personal data become the key that unlocks it all.’ It looks at how Nike has embraced this with NIKEiD, which allows customers to personalise their ‘performance, fitness routine and style’. It suggests that we’re fast moving to a world where brands are shaped around the individual.

This trend is closely linked to big data. The booklet says this: ‘The unintended consequence of big data is that product companies have to become software/technology companies too.’ Already Google knows what you search for, Amazon knows what you buy, Facebook knows who you like, and Apple knows how you like your computing experience. The next step is for all this information to be shared: ‘The promise of big data is to enable brands to provide more of what consumers need (even before they know they need it) and, ideally, nothing that they don’t need.’  This will, it’s claimed, help us to overcome that great 21st century problem - ‘choice paralysis.

It’s fascinating stuff. And not just from a business perspective. Because the ubiquity, enormous value, increasing fame and constant re-invention and stretching of brands has huge trade mark implications. These should certainly not be ignored.