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Where Digital Brands Succeed (And Surprisingly Fail) at Brand Relevance

Charlene Li

What makes a brand great? Some lists of the most “valuable” brands base the rankings on financial statements. These lists weight heavily toward large, global brands that spend a lot on advertising.

But I believe that brand lives in the eyes of the beholder, namely customers. To that end, Prophet Brand Strategy, which is the parent company of Altimeter, conducted research that asked 10,000 US consumers to rate 400 brands across 27 categories along 16 different criteria [methodology]. The result is Prophet’s Brand Relevance Index (BRI), which debuted this week. [press release, Forbes article]

What The Study Tells Us About Brand

What I love about this study is that it breaks down and **measures** brand relevance across four principles that make a brand “relentlessly relevant” (see below).  What we found was that brands that made it into the Top 50 mastered being Ruthlessly Pragmatic and at least one other principle.


The Top 50 Relentlessly Relevant Brands

Here’s a graphic listing the Top 50 most relevant brands:

BRI presentation

Here are some of my reactions and insights:

  • Chik-fil-A?!? If you live in a part of the US where this chain is located, you know how obsessed people are with it. It’s not just the food, but the sense of purpose that infuses every order and interaction.
  • Coffee. Americans love their coffee, in three very different ways with Starbucks, Keurig, and yes, with Folgers leading the pack. This category definitely had an advantage when it came to the criteria, “I can’t imagine living without”.
  • Convenience trumps luxury. Luxury brands don’t make the list, but brands like Betty Crocker do. When the kids are grumpy or I’ve forgotten to buy the class treat, that box of cupcake mix is priceless.
  • You don’t have to big to be relevant. For me, this was the most interesting finding – new, small digital brands like Spotify and Etsy made the Top 50 list. They must be doing something right, and doing it quickly and effectively to have built a relevant brand in such a short time.

What Internet Brands Do – and Don’t – Do Well

Let’s take a closer look at what some of the Internet upstarts like Spotify and Etsy are doing to make it to the Top 50 – and what some major brands like Google and Facebook are not doing that keeps them out of this list of most relevant brands. For this analysis, I looked at the top Internet Services and Retailer brands in the Top 50 (Amazon, Spotify, Pandora, YouTube, and Etsy) and compared them to the rest of the Top 50 to see what they did better or worse.

  • Digital has a natural advantage. No surprise, consumers feel these brands are more likely to be “available where and when I need them” and are “modern and in-touch” by virtue of the type of services they provide.
  • Happiness is delivered, pragmatically. By a wide margin, the Internet brands in the Top 50 are much more likely to rank higher than their peers on the criteria “makes me happy”, “makes my life easier”, and “delivers a consistent experience”. While Amazon in particular ranks very well for being “ruthlessly pragmatic” and “makes me happy” (presumably when you see an Amazon box on your doorstep), its lowest score by far was on the criteria “connects with me emotionally.”
  • Distinctly inspiring. As a group, these brands are much more likely to “make me feel inspired” and “has a purpose I believe in”. In fact, Etsy took the #1 rank for “purpose” across all brands surveyed with Spotify right up there at #9.
  • All Internet brands fall short on trust – except for Amazon. Across the board, Internet brands ranked significantly lower on agreement with the statement “I trust”. The exception is Amazon, where it’s relentless pragmatism and dependable delivery appear to have lifted the brand on the trust factor.

Trust or Bust

Let’s take a closer look at the trust issue. While Google scored high on bring “ruthlessly pragmatic” and consumers felt Facebook “distinctly inspired them”, both missed being in the Top 50 because of lower trust rankings, relative to other brands.

Besides Amazon, only three other brands broke the top 100 when it came to consumers saying they strongly trust these brands – Pandora, Etsy, and Spotify. It’s clear to me that what separates an Internet brand from being a top relevant brand is this issue of trust.

And the problem extends across the entire category. As a group, the Internet brands ranked lower on trust than brands in other categories. In the survey, where consumers were asked to rate how much they trusted each brand in the study, AirBnb, Craigslist, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, Uber, Vine, Waze and Yelp all found themselves in the bottom half of the rankings in the area of trust. On average, only 35% of consumers surveyed felt that they could strongly trust the Internet brands evaluated in this study.

What can these and other Internet/digital brands do about the “trust problem”? Rather than resign yourself and attribute the problem to simply being a digital brand, let’s take a closer look at Chik-fil-A, which ranks #4 on trust across ALL brands and blows the competition in its food services category out of the water. The company infuses a sense of purpose into everything it does and everyone it serves. Each order ends with “My pleasure”, and it certainly feels that way when you encounter the people at Chik-fil-A. 

Internet companies need to systematically invest in building trust as much as they invest in building products and services. One way to do this is to read the research by my colleague, Susan Etlinger “The Trust Imperative” or watch her TED Talk, which lays out a framework on how to systematically build trust.

What Do You Think Are The Most Relevant Brands?

I’d love to hear your reaction to the list of the Top 50 most relevant brands. Which ones are you surprised didn’t make it? And in particular, what do you think these Top 50 brands do well to be relevant to their customers? After all, it’s why we invest in brands, so that they can be relevant to the people they serve.