Is Your Brand the Best? What Polls Really Mean

Harris Survey Doesn't Say Much About Things Like Purchase Intent, Loyalty

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In recent years, Sony Corp. has stood helpless as Apple eats its lunch in the portable-music-player category it created; as it was forced to recall 10 million defective laptop batteries; and as its next-generation video-game console flopped like a sumo wrestler. "The Sony brand has taken a beating," said one investor at a recent gathering of shareholders, where promises of an imminent turnaround were made, adding: "It's too early to say 'Banzai!'"
Coke ranked No. 1 in the Harris poll.
Coke ranked No. 1 in the Harris poll.

Yet you wouldn't know there's trouble in Tokyo, much less a suicide watch, if you looked at the results of Harris Interactive's "best brands" poll, an annual study that captures the imaginations of journalists and provides big brands with bragging rights. Despite its struggles, the electronics maker topped the list from 2000 until this year, when it was dethroned by Coca-Cola, itself trying to fend off PepsiCo's creep into its market share. Harris' list also rewarded the likes of Dell, Ford and Kraft, slapping some poll-tinged lipstick on three corporate sows trying to pull off their own turnarounds.

So what does it mean to be a "best brand" as Harris Interactive figures it, putting those clunkers in the same class as gems such as Toyota and Apple? Only that a company comes to mind when a bunch of consumers are asked, "Which three brands do you consider best?" -- which is to say, not very much at all.

Troubled studies
A big survey from a polling operation that claims to be the 12th-largest and fastest-growing market-research organization in the world would seem to be able to tell the marketing business a lot about how it's doing. It would seem to be a chance to hear straight from consumers just whose story they're buying and whose is falling flat. Instead, it's yet another reminder of the troubles with brand studies that reward little more than awareness and seem to exist for little reason other than for journalists to write about them.

The question becomes: Is there any value here?

"We couldn't agree with you more that a one-question poll like this isn't going to help a brand marketer and isn't a true indication of the equity of a brand," said Robert Fronk, senior VP for Harris' brand and strategy consulting group, in an interview. "By the same token, you can't diminish the fact that, when asked, these are the companies that come to mind. The question is: Can [the marketer] take advantage of it?"

So why do the poll in the first place?

"Some of these polls are done for newsmaker purposes, as you know," he said. "Our PR firms love these quick little things to be able to work with."

Eager audience
And journalists do write about them. The Wall Street Journal's website ran a story, as did MarketWatch, Brandweek and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Technorati turned up about 20 blog posts on Tuesday, the day the poll was released to the general public, some with headlines such as "Coke Reigns Supreme."

But, of course, it's not just reporters and the general public that are seduced by this stuff. The ad business, too, loves heavily PR-ed research pieces that do little more than tote up the popular vote. Earlier this year Advertising Age exposed the disproportionate sway USA Today's post-Super Bowl focus group, known as AdMeter, has on how advertisers evaluate their buys in the big game. The problem with both is that they don't dig down and examine things such as purchase intent and loyalty, the kind of stuff that impacts sales and profits -- you know, the outcomes that marketing is supposed to achieve.

"We call these excellent answers to meaningless questions," said Robert Passikoff, founder of the consultancy Brand Keys. "These brands are not necessarily industry leaders and, in many cases, they're category placeholders. Sure, everyone's heard of Coke. Tell me something about profitability, about loyalty."
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