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ANALYSIS: Not so super superbrands?

This summer saw many corporate marketers focus their attention on branding, with the launch of two annual landmark documents: the Business Week/Interbrand '100 Top Global Brands', and the Superbrands Council 'Business Superbrands 2005'. Both purport to showcase the best in branding, but have different ways of achieving this.

Interbrand's 'Top 100' is in its seventh year, and compiled by calculating the net present earnings the brand is expected to earn during the year to July 1 2005. It makes no attempt to distinguish between B2B and B2C brands, and includes brands from each area. Of the predominantly B2B brands featured, technology unsurprisingly dominates: IBM is third, GE fourth, Intel fifth, HP 13th and Cisco 17th. Coca Cola is top of the pile.

By contrast 'Business Superbrands', is focused only on those brands that are directly targeting business customers. The 2005 Business Superbrands list includes 83 companies – its largest roster to date, representing an increase of approximately 50 per cent. (A full list can be found at www.superbrands.org.)

However, unlike the Interbrand 'Top 100' it is compiled entirely without reference to financial value, and is based on “intuitive ranking” by a judging panel. There is no hierarchy in the published list: either a brand achieves “Superbrand” status, or it does not. If it does, it has the opportunity to feature in a glossy, hardbound superbrands annual, at a cost of around £7000.

How to become a superbrand?

Stephen Cheliotis, chairman of the Superbrands Council, the private company which owns and runs Business Superbrands (plus two B2C-focused companion products), explains that brands cannot apply to be a superbrand. “There are no submissions. We have a team of freelance researchers who create a list of around 8000 companies. This is then cut down to around 1000. We include any company that has a feasible chance. The judging panel then intuitively scores each brand between one and 10. They do not score anyone they have not heard of, or any brand they have personal involvement with.”

Cheliotis claims the authority of the panel (which includes senior marketing figures from the likes of JWT, PWC and Cable & Wireless) validates the process and its conclusions. He accepts there may be cynicism regarding the paid entry in the Business Superbrands book, but says the organisation is entirely upfront about the pricing involved, and adds that this inclusion in the book is entirely voluntary and has no bearing on the awarding of Superbrand status, commenting, “The award cannot be taken away, and they can still tell the whole world that they are a Business Superbrand,” although adding, “£7000 is not a lot of money for these companies – budgets are not normally a reason to not be involved.” The perhaps unintended implication is that it is an affordable means for big brands to pat themselves on the back.

Meanwhile, external observers are less convinced by Cheliotis's arguments. Richard Bush, joint MD of specialist B2B agency Base One, believes the basis on which the Superbrand Council operates is flawed. “Not only are the experts appointed to make these selections all marketing people judging brands that, in the main, are not targeted at them, but they are judging them 'intuitively'.”

He continues, “This is where the project goes wrong. It treats the brands like consumer brands and fails to recognise that within the 1000 or so shortlisted there will be many that have never, and will never target their communications, acquire customers or look for referrals amongst any of the honoured panel. Their audiences are quite specific and often specialist. They will have different needs, wants and habits. They will use different emotional and rational judgement criteria to select from the brands in front of them at different stages within the buying process. And so to make an intuitive assessment is completely wrong.”

Altruistic objectives?

Whilst he may be critical of the means, Bush is supportive of the ends (or at least, the first part), which are described as promoting, “a greater appreciation of the discipline of branding and a greater admiration for the brands themselves.”

How the latter objective will be achieved is clear enough, with 20,000 copies of the book printed and distrubted by the organisers and the featured brands, but achievement of the former is more vague. Cheliotis accepts that small businesses are not represented amongst the Business Superbrands, and that there is a need to communicate best practice to them, but describes the education element of the programme as “ad hoc” rather than “structured”.

The programme's website lists the “outputs” as: the book; a launch event, attended by the winners; research into the effect of Superbrand status within the accredited institutions and an advertising and PR campaign. In short, there are no broader education initiatives, or attempts to achieve the altruistic objectives. This undermines the initiative and opens it up to cynicism.

Richard Bush concludes, “I would love to see a real assessment of great business brands but I would want it to be done properly, based on the brand perceptions, relationships and experiences enjoyed by actual buyers and influencers that are exposed to the brands in their real environments. Not a select group of 13 who cannot possibly be in a position to make that sort of judgement.”

 

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