Superbrands 2014: no brand is safe, but it’s never too late…

(Originally written following the publication of Superbrands 2014, then handed between editors until it was too late to publish. Points still valid though..)

The annual Superbrands list is a fun one. Unlike some brand lists/‘indexes’ that are based on complex, notably opaque, brand equity models; models which often employ statistical calculation bordering on voodoo, it simply turns to the public with a list selected by experts and asks them about their perceptions.

Once a long list is selected by industry experts, participants are asked to consider which brands are ‘Superbrands’. A Superbrand being a brand which has established ‘the finest reputation… [and] offers customers significant emotional and/or tangible advantages over other brands, which (consciously or subconsciously) customers want and recognise.’ In addition, they are asked to judge the brands against the factors of quality, reliability and distinction.

To answer those questions, participants have to fall back on their own perception of brands, and, arguably, also their perception of the perceptions of brands. With that in mind, it’s interesting to try and figure out the reasons behind the movements in the ratings. Since we’re in a perception-led territory, it makes one look back at the passing year and try to deduce how events, communications and the general zeitgeist banded together to create such an impact.

If I had to summarise the lesson for brands from this year’s results it would be ‘no brand is safe, but it’s never too late.’

The three tech Superbrands of Apple, Google and Microsoft, have all registered a fall of between 1 and 12 places. Facebook fell out of the top 20 altogether. This may come as a surprise considering the ubiquity of these brands in our life. So what could it be?

Keeping up the high, possibly unrealistic, expectation of the public for ongoing innovation could be a reason.  But maybe there’s also a law of diminishing returns. This is a common brand lifecycle pattern that brings indifference with ubiquity. Those techbrands find it harder to make people pay as much attention to their actions or get as excited about their innovations as they used to. Both smartphones and social media, the biggest drivers of the presence of these brands in our life, have had their moment and have not produced comparable remarkable moments in recent years. In addition, people are starting to notice some of the prices we pay when engaging with those brands, even if it’s ‘only’ our attention and the time we spend with them. To that are added privacy and other corporate behaviour concerns such as tax avoidance. Very soon, from brands that exude novelty and excitement about the future they start their decline towards an emotional domain that is commonly associated with ubiquitous brands that the public is less excited by, even though they deliver consistently most of the time. Consistency can be appreciated, but it isn’t remarkable. Sound hard to believe? Think of mobile operator brands, none of which are in the top 20. They used to frequent the top of the charts until not long ago, but are now perceived as not that different from utility companies. Smartphone wars took over media and public attention from mobile operator wars but now their novelty too is lost.

On the other hand, we have British Airways making a surprising comeback. I liked finding British Airways at the top. British Airways has been struggling with its brand for years, trying different directions, and yet the brand seemed to continue a slow decline.

While my fellow British business travellers like complaining about the quality of the experience, the value for money and the crew’s attitude, I’ve always liked BA. Maybe it was the dominant role they played in my own move to England and, for many years now, they have been a reliable symbol of coming home every time I land back in London.

When BA finally made a move that was clearly about the essence of their brand, namely, the ‘To Fly. To Serve.’ campaign, many of my colleagues dismissed it as too little too late. They said this type of retro sentimentalism wasn’t going to work for the sceptic public or the disgruntled workforce. Well, it seems the British public disagrees. ‘To Fly. To Serve.’ demonstrated BA returning to its roots. A brand declaring what it’s really about at its core clearly and powerfully isn’t merely sentimentalism. It works. A prominent example is how much Coke has used it since it emerged from the Cola wars of the early 80’s, frequently referring to itself as being ‘real’.

It’s a shame it took so long for British Airways to realise what the public actually wants it to stand for. Then again, better late than never.

A Brand’s position always boils down to its fundamental truth, followed by relevancy to its stakeholders/audience and differentiation from the competition. Marketing often attacks those issues in the wrong order. Starting with differentiation, you often get a quirky but quickly forgotten campaign. Some of the UK’s mobile operators are currently investing heavily in those. However, it’s BA with its ‘boring’ yet heartfelt message that made this year’s unexpected comeback.

One hopes BA’s success heralds a period where more brands get back to their roots, explore their creed, and possibly emerge playing a more meaningful part in society. If those tech brands want to win back the public’s heart, maybe they should look into what their role could be beyond never-ending innovation. Paying UK taxes properly would make a nice start to meaningful engagement with the public.

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