Superbrands survey

Consumers are seeking out brands that act as dominant ‘presidents’ of their categories, according to the latest Superbrands survey.

Mount Rushmore

With the UK in recession, you might imagine that consumers are turning away from expensive products or brands and focusing on budget options. But the 2009/10 Superbrands survey reveals that consumers are sticking with high-profile brands they believe represent the best in their fields, despite often coming with a price premium.

Microsoft topped the research this year, which surveys more than 2,000 people and polls an “expert” panel to judge which brands are considered best for quality, reliability and how easy it is to distinguish them from their competitors. Microsoft regained the top position from last year’s winner Google, which is now in third position.

Meanwhile, luxury watch brand Rolex entered the chart in second place overall. This is the first year it has appeared in the research. British Airways came in fourth place, despite negative press attention over its chaotic opening of Terminal 5 at Heathrow and multiple redundancies, while the BBC was voted into fifth place.

Stephen Cheliotis, chief executive of The Centre for Brand Analysis, which administered the research on behalf of Superbrands UK, says aspirational and well-established brands have made gains in consumer perception ahead of companies like Google because they offer some permanence and reliability in uncertain times.

“Microsoft has done a lot with its consumer-facing operations to reclaim its top spot, while Google has been surrounded by controversy, such as interest-based advertising and Streetview, so has lost a bit of its credibility as the top superbrand,” he says.

He adds that the first stage of the research began in September 2008, shortly after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, which may have increased the desire among respondents for secure, reliable brands. It may also reflect the greater involvement of consumers themselves in the research, which was put together by the Superbrands “expert” panel for nine years before involving consumers to generate the results for the last three years.

Cheliotis calls the big names that dominate the research listings and have done so for many years “the presidents of categories”. These companies, which tend to bear international footprints, are well known for their product portfolios. For example, Microsoft is the “president” of technology and Google remains “president” of the internet. Coca-Cola dominates drinks, while Lego holds sway in the toy sector.

Although the “presidents” may rule the findings, there are some surprises in the list, which may illustrate how consumers are changing their priorities in a recession away from material goods towards brands that offer them knowledge or experiences. Encyclopaedia Britannica demonstrates this, breaking into the top ten for the first time, alongside fast food, supermarkets and traditional high street retail brands. 

Cheliotis says: “The rise of Encyclopaedia Britannica is demonstrative of people’s desire to learn more when times are hard. It’s amazing because if you asked a consumer ordinarily, there is no way that it would do very well without them being prompted.”

So why is the brand now being rated so highly? Cheliotis says it’s not only the desire for knowledge among consumers but also that Encyclopaedia Britannica is seen as offering high quality and an authoritative voice in a world where many information sources are online and user generated. “Consumers rate it as high quality and different from all the other encyclopaedias out there,” he adds.

Another trend picked up by the research is more predictable – the desire to save money. Cheaper food options have made large gains this year. McDonald’s has risen 227 places in the rankings and KFC is up 164 spots, although both remain outside the top 100. Supermarkets are also rising up the rankings as people keep spending on vital foodstuffs. Budget supermarkets have made particularly good progress with Asda rising 213 positions to 216th place.

This is a turnaround from the results of the research in previous years where fast food fell out of favour due to consumers adopting healthier lifestyles.

Those brands that failed in the last 12 months, such as Woolworths, Zavvi and SCS, appear to have made little impact on the consumers responding to the research, says Cheliotis, as these names never made it onto the list in the first place. Their absence can now perhaps be seen as a telling sign of problems to come for these failed businesses.

“Despite a massive public outcry over the demise of high street stalwarts such as Woolworths, Zavvi and SCS, none of these brands appeared in the Superbrands top 500 list in the last three years,” he notes. “Others like Royal Doulton, which has always done well, survived administration with the formation of a new company. Of course, sectors like financial and automotives have been partly subject to nationalisation, but the top 500 shows that consumers do hold them in high respect and would not want to see them disappear.”

Microsoft has done a lot with its consumer-facing operations to reclaim its top spot, while Google has been surrounded by controversy, such as interest-based advertising and Streetview, so has lost a bit of its credibility as the top superbrand

Stephen Cheliotis, The Centre for Brand Analysis

He admits that some brands do better than others in the research because the survey results are not split into audience demographics. Popular brands such as airline easyJet and newspaper The Sun do not appear in the top 500, for example, but this may be because these are more familiar or important to a younger audience so do not receive enough overall interest.

However, Cheliotis adds that some brands in some sectors are facing a “slippery slope” because they could be seen to be too dominant, with “cracks about to appear”. The last two Superbrands surveys have demonstrated an increase in consumer fear, with the now infamous queues at Northern Rock correlating with the 2008/09 survey, and the Lehman Brothers collapse influencing respondents this year.

Cheliotis explains: “The “super” superbrands will not be easily moved, but in times of downturn, brand value is worth more than anything. I expect the top brands to increase their efforts to raise their profiles and possibly break into higher positions against their rivals.”

Since there is already evidence that many businesses – even those included in the list, such as British Airways – are still struggling against the current economic backdrop, what should marketers take from this research? As yet, it appears that being considered good quality, reliable and distinctive is not enough to ensure commercial success.

Cheliotis admits that many brands are likely to struggle in the short term, even if consumers have a high opinion of them. But he says that since marketers must take a long-term view of business operations, making a memorable impact on consumers will ultimately pay off.

He argues: “It might not help financially in the short term, but building viable powerful brands will bolster customer opinion of them and help achieve sufficient market share without having to slash budgets dramatically or consolidate portfolios.”

President Brands


Brand ranking: 1

President of:
Technology – computer hardware and software

Dan Cobley
Google marketing director, UK, Ireland and Benelux

“Unlike other brands, consumer viewpoints of our brand are based on what we do, not what we say. We are fuelled by the concept that we are a consistent, reliable service, driven by people talking to people about our brand.

“We strive to make the brand approachable and enjoyable by taking business seriously, but at the same time adding a sense of humour and personality to our site through initiatives such as [art competition] Doodle 4 Google.

“We are well aware that users can change search engines with just one click, so we work hard to keep them coming back by taking all concerns seriously and continuing to innovate.”

Others in this category:
– Yahoo! (140)
– YouTube (169)
– Facebook (248)


Brand ranking: 5

President of:
Media – TV stations

Richard Arnold
Manchester United commercial director

“Manchester United’s essence is to strive for greatness, a theme that echoes from the club’s founding, both on and off the pitch. Part of the draw of football is the uncertainty of onfield success, but the depth of character that the club has means we’re not defined just by success, but also by 130 years of history, the affinity of the fans for the club and a unique ability to deliver a relationship between the fans, the club and the international partners.”

Others in this category:
– Chelsea FC (213)
– Liverpool FC (225)
– Arsenal FC (245)


Brand ranking: 41

President of:
Travel – general

Richard Curtis
Cunard head of marketing

“Our ability to maintain a clear and distinct brand positioning in an increasingly cluttered market creates a unique positioning which supports our over-arching brand [positioning] of ‘The Most Famous Ocean Liners in the World’, and for a brand with our story to tell that almost comes naturally.

“We constantly innovate to ensure that our liner legacy remains relevant and vibrant and this in turn keeps people engaged – tradition and heritage are important but so is product development and innovation.”

Others in this category:
– P&O Ferries (176)
– Royal Caribbean International (271)


Brand ranking: 43

President of:
Automotive – general

Michael Cutbill
AA marketing director

“People know and trust the AA brand – we’ve been delivering an excellent level of service and value for more than 100 years.

The AA logo is extremely distinctive and we have previously been voted the UK’s most recognisable brand. The AA brand is seen as part of the fabric of life in the UK; not just on our vans but also on roadsigns, maps, traffic and route information among other places.

“Low cost providers have tried to suggest that a pure garage-based service is just as good. Our investments in continuing to provide a quality service beg to differ and is why 95% of our members recommend the AA to a friend.”

Others in this category:
– RAC (79)
– Michelin (88)
– Goodyear (113)


Brand ranking: 83

President of:

Mark Critchley
UK marketing director of Durex owner SSL International

“The secret that lies at the heart of our success is innovation, fuelled by engagement with our customers. We consult with them closely as a part of our research and development process – as well as running the world’s largest survey about sexual attitudes.

“We also try to maintain this engagement as part of our marketing activity to keep us ahead of the curve and encourage customer loyalty. Our research has shown that people don’t just want safer sex, they want better sex too. And we invest in innovation to meet this need.”

Others in this category:
– Nurofen (90)
– Vicks (93)
– Savlon (106)


Brand ranking: 91

President of:

Colin Clarke
Senior vice-president of brand management, Visa Europe

“With more than 360 million Visa-branded payment cards, Visa has become integral to people’s daily lives. That is probably why we’re the top brand in the financial services category. People trust us, they trust their card will work and they know they can use it across the world.

“Even in the current climate, we are still seeing growth in card use with people preferring to use a Visa product over cash and cheques. Visa is there to help make life simpler for consumers and this year we focused primarily on using Visa for everyday spend.”

Others in this category:
– MasterCard (102)
– Lloyds TSB (105)
– Barclays (107)

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