What is the top brand? Let me google it…

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It’s mid-September, the leaves are turning brown, the swallows are heading south and a marketer’s thoughts turn to brand valuation. That’s because this is the week that the most famous document in branding is published.

It is always fascinating to see which brands have gained and lost equity over the past12 months according to Interbrand’s annual Top 100 ranking of the world’s most valuable brands. How far have Nokia and BP fallen? How much has Apple’s brand equity increased?

But these are very much the side stories for 2010. The first thing I look at is to see which brand occupies the top spot on Interbrand’s list.

Every year, since BusinessWeek started publishing Interbrand’s Top 100 in 2001, Coca-Cola has been valued as the biggest brand in the world.

That probably made a lot more sense a decade ago than it does in 2010. Clearly Coke is a mighty brand, but is it really the most valuable one on the planet? Even in 2001 BusinessWeek added the caveat: “Coke is still No 1, but can it hang on to the top spot?.” The answer for the past ten years, according to Interbrand at least, has been an unequivocal “yes”.

Alternative valuation firms, however, would disagree. Both Brand Finance and WPP’s Brandz index rank Coke at third and fifth, respectively. While Brandz’ valuation of Coke’s brand equity at $68bn tallies closely with Interbrand’s 2009 estimate, there are huge differences in how the two firms assess the value of some of the other big brands in contention for the top spot.

Notably, Interbrand valued Google’s brand equity at only $32bn last year. That’s less than a third of the value that Brandz attributed to Google, which – at $114bn – made it the top ranked brand on their list this year.

As my former colleague and marketing guru Tim Ambler would remind us – all valuations are subjective and prone to degrees of variance. But by any standard, $82bn is one hell of a difference of opinion. So I will be intrigued to see just how much Google’s brand has improved in the eyes of Interbrand this year.

How long can a 19th-century medicinal tonic head the list of the world’s biggest brands? Or, to put it another way, surely Google’s exemplary brand associations combined with its stranglehold on search in many parts of the world make it a far more valuable asset than a fizzy beverage whose best days are behind it? If you could pick Coke or Google as a future bet, which one would you prefer?

Certainly last week we witnessed the kind of brand management that will eventually make Google the undisputed champion of the branding universe. Visitors to Google’s home page discovered to their delight that the logo on the home page was composed of a multitude of dots which moved and changed position as a user’s mouse approached it. The internet was rapidly abuzz with this latest variation of the Google logo and what it signified.

How long can a 19th-century medicinal tonic head the list of the world’s biggest brands?

Jump forward 24 hours and Google appeared at San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art to announce Google Instant – a new modification to its search engine that makes Google’s search engine quicker, more efficient and even more superior to the competition. But forget the product improvement and look at the way that this new innovation was marketed.

Only rarely do you actually glimpse true acts of branded differentiation. This happens when a brand transcends its category and competitors, and does what its positioning dictates. The only rule of branding is that there are no generic rules. In Google’s case the brand defines itself around “ten things that we know to be true”.

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See Mark Ritson appear at The Annual, Marketing Week’s new conference on 29 September 2010 www.theannual.co.uk

Thing number seven states that, “there is always more information out there”. That means that Google must be fluid, to change to reflect new developments, information and daily occurrences. If that is what Google’s brand stands for then a fixed and rigid logo is simply not appropriate for the brand. Hence the fact that on a regular basis Google breaks one of the central rules of branding – thou shalt not present thy logo inconsistently – and changes its logo to reflect what is happening around the world.

On St Patrick’s Day a shamrock appears inside the Google logo. On the anniversary of the invention of Lego – the Google logo is built from bricks. And when Google upgrades itself to allow more fluid, real-time searching its logo changes to herald this new feature.

Show me a strong brand and I will show rules being broken. Consistency is an overused word in branding. Yes we must be congruent to the positioning of our brand, but the implication of that congruence – as Google ably demonstrates – is to disrupt not only the rules of search but also the general rules of branding.

So I will be looking carefully at the Top 100. Because Google deserves the top spot.

Mark Ritson is an associate professor of marketing, an award-winning columnist and a consultant to some of the world’s biggest brands

For more information or to book your place at the Annual go to www.theannual.co.uk

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