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strategy and business
 / Summer 2009 / Issue 55(originally published by Booz & Company)


The Trouble with Brands

Most consumer brands are not creating value. The exceptions share a set of “energized” attributes that companies can identify and exploit.

Illustration by Alex Williamson

Many companies that produce goods and services for consumers face a serious dilemma — quite apart from the effects of the current global economic downturn. For at least the past five years, the tried-and-true formulas to boost the sales and market shares of brands have been becoming increasingly irrelevant and have been losing traction with consumers. Globally, the aggregate value of brands to consumers has been falling steadily, and this decline began well before the recent slump in stock prices.

We know this through extensive research we have conducted on brands. Since 1993, we have been tracking the way consumers perceive and value products and services around the world to explain how brands grow, decline, and recover. Each year, we interview almost 500,000 consumers around the world, and each quarter, 15,000 consumers in the United States. We have studied 40,000 brands across 44 countries on more than 70 brand metrics, which include everything from the awareness consumers have of a brand to the particular ways it makes them feel.

Beginning in mid-2004, we discovered several curious and sobering trends in the data. Consumer attitudes about all sizes and segments of brands were in serious decline. Across the board, we saw significant drops in the key measures of brand value, such as consumer “top-of-mind” awareness, trust, regard, and admiration. This was true not just for a few brands, but for thousands, encompassing the entire range of consumer goods and services, from airlines and automobiles and beverages to insurance companies and hoteliers and retailers. We found that most brands were not adding to the intangible value of their enterprises the way they used to. Instead, the majority of brands seemed to be stalled in the consumer marketplace.

But at the same time, separate research we did on the financial performance of consumer companies revealed that brands were indeed creating more and more value for companies and shareholders. This was evident in increasing share prices, driven higher by the intangible value that the markets were implicitly attributing to brands. This pattern held as equity prices rose through 2007, but even after the recent collapse of prices, our models show that brand value continues to account for roughly a third of the total stock market value of corporations. In other words, there was — and is — a mismatch between the value that consumers saw in brands and the aggregate value that the markets were ascribing to them. This contradiction comes about because the perceptions influencing the dollar votes of consumers on Main Street are very different from the financial and mechanical analysis used by traders and analysts on Wall Street.

When all the facts were put together, we discovered that, yes, there was an increasing expansion of the value that financial markets are attributing to brands, but this value growth is actually attributable to fewer and fewer brands. Sure, for financial juggernauts like Google, Apple, and Nike, brand value continues to increase powerfully, but the number of these kinds of high-performance, value-creating brands is diminishing across the board, while the actual value created by the vast majority of brands is stagnating or falling.

This overall mismatch between consumer attitudes toward brands and the market values of the universe of companies that produce and own them is, we believe, a recipe for disaster at two levels. At the macroeconomic level, it implies that the stock prices of most consumer companies are overstated: A “brand bubble” is implied in their stock prices, and once it deflates — or worse, pops — it could further drive down valuation multiples and stock prices around the world. Meanwhile, for leaders of consumer-related corporations, the mismatch points to a serious, continuing problem in brand management.

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  1. Gregor Harter, Edward Landry, and Andrew Tipping, “The New Complete Marketer,” s+b, Autumn 2007: Organizations with strategically focused, broadly responsible CMOs may produce better results than their traditionalist peers.
  2. Leslie H. Moeller and Edward C. Landry, “Measuring Your Way to Market Insight,” s+b, Spring 2009: Marketers can develop their analytical prowess to better understand their customers.
  3. Nick Wreden, “Marketing: By the Numbers,” s+b, Winter 2006: A review of books about marketing’s new accountability.
  4. For more business thought leadership, sign up for s+b’s RSS feed.
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