Top 10 Best Brands of the Decade

The essence of branding is being different. The logic is simple: if you hope to outperform competitors, you must give customers reasons to do business with you instead of someone else. And so you must clearly articulate these reasons in a brand position, defined as how we are different.

But it’s not good enough to carve out a position and leave it at that. The goal is to maintain ownership over the long term, which is a difficult matter of delivering consistent experiences at every touchpoint – say, for a decade or more.

10. Starbucks

starbucks coffee logo

Position: most expensive, strongest coffee / the “third place”

Position clarity: 90

Consistency: 50

Total score = 140/200

Despite a surprising number of dirty stores, mis-made drinks and holier-than-thou baristas, Starbucks has still delivered enough great experiences to boost its stock price by 263% this decade. It is frontline employees that are at once this brand’s greatest strength and weakness: with an average age in the 20s, they turn over at an enormously high rate – with a commensurate, negative affect on service quality. Scary to think how well Starbucks might do if they could solve the turnover problem (perhaps by diversifying their employee demographics).

9. Volvo

Position: safety / old and boxy

Position clarity: 75

Consistency: 90

Total score = 165/200

In the context of a brand discussion, you can say “safety” to someone and there’s a very good chance they’ll respond “Volvo.” Their ownership of the safety position is an achievement so remarkable, and so profitable, that the pointy heads at Ford – Volvo’s owner – have been looking to sell the unit for some time.

But Volvo also owns a negative position – old and boxy – which an audience will tell you if unaided.

Update: My bad – Volvo is actually losing money.

8. Lululemon

Position: empowerment / your butt will look great

Position clarity: 90

Consistency: 80

Total score = 170/200

Launched in 1998 by Vancouverite Chip Wilson, Lululemon went public in 2006 with a valuation of $225-million. In a recent year, they spent a measly $37,000 in advertising – underlining this brand’s unsurpassed word-of-mouth power. Yes, Lululemon’s success is driven by female consumers’ connection with the spiritualism of the brand’s Manifesto (which includes proclamations like “dance, sing, floss and travel”), but in the end, it’s all about the status that accrues to possessors of $100 stretch pants and resultantly beautiful bottoms.

In the dying moments of the decade, Lululemon gets docked 10 consistency points for disgracing their brand by trading upon the Vancouver Games without paying for the right to do so. Most unspiritual.

7. MasterCard

Position: priceless / for everything else, there’s MasterCard

Position clarity: 75

Consistency: 100

Total score = 175/200

For running its ever-entertaining “Priceless” campaign since 1997, MasterCard earns a perfect consistency score. The ads, long since embedded in the popular culture, were being seen in more than 100 countries, in 50-plus languages, by 2006. Thousands of people actually spend their time writing jokes and piecing together funny videos that build up to the “Priceless” punchline; a search of YouTube yields 50,000 results for “Priceless” and 18,000 for “MasterCard.”

Although perfect consistency has helped drive up the stock price by 468% this decade (vs. 38% for Visa), I struggle with what the brand position really is.

6. Porter Airlines

Position: flying refined

Position clarity: 90

Consistency: 87

Total score = 177/200

How do you know you’ve got your brand position nailed? When it’s expressed with 100% accuracy in a tagline as succinct and elegant as Flying refined.

When I first started flying Porter to Ottawa in 2006, the planes were basically empty and the prophets of doom were everywhere. But next year this brand will move 2,700 passengers every day, and in 2011, expects a total of 1.6 million of them.

The value proposition inherent in Flying refined has always been inescapable:

  • For all, a glamorous service that delivers many perks associated with business class
  • Prices competitive with economy fares on WestJet and Air Canada
  • Ultra-convenient downtown airport, meaning shorter, less-stress trip times
  • Genuinely fresh and friendly (non-unionized) staff on the ground and in the air

Wrap it up in wonderfully disciplined and consistent (yet playful) brand communications, and you have a rare brand that people love to talk about.

5. WestJet

Position: we care

Position clarity: 97

Consistency: 85

Total score = 182/200

Air Canada’s stock has lost 94% of its value this decade. WestJet shares have risen 152% over the same period. Just as diametrically opposed are the experiences customers have with these organizations. Despite spying on Air Canada in a manner perversely off-brand, WestJet’s clear differences from its rival make it one of the very few brands (along with Volvo) for which you can do a word association exercise in reverse: ask a group of friends “which is the brand that cares?” and you’ll see what I mean.

4. Subway

Position: healthy

Position clarity: 95

Consistency: 95

Total score = 190/200

It’s been a great decade for Subway. In 2008, they celebrated their 10th year with Jared, the guy who lost 245 pounds eating subs. Since hiring Jared as the exemplification of their healthy brand position, Subway has doubled its stores and sales: to 30,000 and $8.2 billion, respectively.

Subway knows on which side their buns are buttered. They’ve turned down no less than four hotshot ad agencies since 2000, who – surprise – wanted to make their mark, which naturally involved getting rid of Jared.

And so it is greatly frustrating to see the Canadian operation tinker with the longtime tagline – Eat Fresh. In a pointless diversion from the messaging of their U.S. parent, the Canadians have moved to Think Fresh. Eat Fresh – disavowing one of the greatest positioning stories in the history of brand management.

3. Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts

Position: the world’s best hotels / unbelievably good service

Position clarity: 95

Consistency: 100

Total score = 195/200

No one ever says they want to be “the Ramada” of their industry. Or even “the Westin.” It is Four Seasons, often used as a synonym for the best there is, that is so honoured. Despite their exotic locales and stunning designs, these hotels are renowned for the people that work in them: ask anyone about their stay at a Four Seasons and they will focus on the incredible service they received – not the property itself.

2. Energizer

Position: the longest lasting batteries

Position clarity: 97

Consistency: 100

Total score = 197/200

It may be that MasterCard’s Priceless tenacity was inspired by Energizer’s long-running Bunny campaign, now an incredible 20 years old. Both brands have continually met the difficult creative challenge of coming up with fresh twists on their messaging, while keeping threats to consistency (primarily in the form of restless executives and ad agencies) at bay.

1. Apple

Position: really cool technology that works so much better than PC

Position clarity: 100

Consistency: 100

Total score = 200/200

Apple is a shining example to branders everywhere: living proof that you can stake out a single, narrow brand position, and through single-minded consistency, grow your stock price by 682% in a decade. As with any brand that aspires to greatness, this kind of clarity and consistency can only be driven from the top – in this case, of course, by CEO Steve Jobs. The consistency he demands can be experienced at every point of contact with this brand: at the Apple Store, in the quality and aesthetics of the products, and in the relentless brilliance of the long-running “I’m a Mac” ads.

Next week: Top 5 Worst Brands of 2009.

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