POLITICOS MAY SPOIL REBOUND

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Brands are back. But for how long?

Pat Buchanan's populist rhetoric against the evils of big business, which played so well in New Hampshire, could fast erode the brand-name bandwagon. And corporations seem to be giving him plenty of ammunition.

But for now, a dozen of the top 15 companies on America's "Most Admired Companies" list in Fortune, such as Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson and Microsoft, are well-recognized brand names. "Those who were writing off brand names just three years ago are now singing a very different tune. Brands are once again a power to be reckoned with," Fortune said.

It's hard to believe that it was only three years ago this April when a drastic price cut by Marlboro cigarettes pulled the rug out from under all other brands. Marlboro's 40 (cents) -a-pack reduction was made to bring its price more in line with private-label cigarettes, which were grabbing market share.

The move triggered a massive adverse reaction against brand names in general based on the premise the big brands were overrated and overpriced and vulnerable to the lower-price generic brands. Stocks of companies with household brand names got hammered.

As usual, the market overreacted. After the dust settled, investors realized the Marlboro pricing move was a special case. Philip Morris was drastically overcharging for Marlboro, but most big brands didn't make that mistake.

What it boils down to is that consumers trust brand names. They know they can rely on the quality and the consistency that the big brands represent.

As the presidential campaigns heat up, however, politicians on both sides of the aisle are starting to take potshots at the corporations that market their famous brands.

"Corporate profits are setting records, and so are corporate layoffs," Sen. Bob Dole told the New Hampshire legislature. "The real average hourly wage is 5% lower than it was a decade ago."

The Wall Street Journal headlined a Page Two story on Valentine's Day: "Wage-Benefit Increase Sets 14-Year Low." Productivity-what workers produce-also is stagnating: Since 1979, productivity has grown at an average annual rate of just 1.1%.

The numbers, I worry, could hurt strong brand names-and the advertising that generates them. If workers aren't making enough money to get ahead, they're bound to cut back on spending. Maybe those cheaper generic brands will start looking pretty good again.

When the politicians rail against all the companies that are taking care of their stockholders at the expense of their workers, trust and confidence in the vaunted U.S. corporation is likely to suffer.

And if trust in business begins to falter, can consumer brand names be far behind? Consumers are also workers, and too many companies seem to have forgotten that part of the equation.

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