U.S. Weakly: American Brands Take Hits

Gfk Roper Study Shows Coke and Other Giants Losing Likability Abroad

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American brands: red, white and battered.

Coca-Cola, McDonald's, Colgate-Palmolive and Kodak are among blue-chip U.S. brands taking a beating when it comes to how liked they are around the world, according to a study by GfK Roper Consulting, in part because of their country of origin. Attitudes toward Americans and their culture are increasingly negative, said Jennifer James, senior consultant at Roper. "Our foreign policy has contributed."
Coca-Cola and McDonald's are not as well-liked internationally as they once were.
Coca-Cola and McDonald's are not as well-liked internationally as they once were.

The Roper study tracks the so-called likability of 60 major brands, about half of them American. According to Roper, which has been conducting the study for a decade, American brands have been losing popularity in developed regions for several years. What's different this year, however, is that developing markets are also eschewing American classics.

"This past year we're starting to see consumer favorability waning in the developing markets in Asia, Latin American and Central Europe," Ms. James said. "That's why we're seeing slippage."

Worse than others
Though American unpopularity abroad is seen as a major factor, Ms. James said foreign brands are also waning -- but not as much.

American companies posted four of the five biggest drops in likability. Coca-Cola tumbled the furthest, nearly 40%. The biggest gainers were all foreign: Germany's BMW, Mercedes and Volkswagen, along with Japan's Sony and Honda. (Sony and BMW both jumped more than 30%.)

Rounding out the top 10 were Disney, Microsoft, Nestlé, the less-expected National Geographic and Google.

Experts are undecided on whether Roper's results are a statement about jingoism or consumerism.

"I don't see a mindless, myopic, country-of-origin effect," said Ann McGill, senior faculty member at the University of Chicago's Graduate School of Business. "That doesn't say an American problem but an American category problem."

American-identified brands
And Robert Passikoff, founder of Brand Keys, said American brands doing well may not be identified as such. "I'm not sure people look at brands like Yahoo or Google and necessarily think it's an American brand, given the kind of media ecology that exists," he said.
Brand Identity
Points assigned by Roper are amalgamations of survey responses, not percentage changes from the previous year. Source: GfK Roper

Ms. McGill pointed to Disney's success, up 19%, as proof that Americana isn't totally reviled. She also noted that most of the biggest and most popular brands, except Sony, had taken hits. After all, Coca-Cola, Nike, Pepsi, Colgate and McDonald's still made the top 10 in Roper's list of most powerful brands.

Ms. McGill said consumers may be just suffering from marketing fatigue and taking it out on the biggest, most familiar brands. "It's not clear to me that this is anything about us, but [rather] the young, sophisticated consumer disliking the idea of branding in general, as it seems inauthentic to them."

Survey relevance?
Then there's the issue of whether these one-question polls are a true measure of anything. A top winner in both the Roper survey and a recent Harris Poll's Best Brands survey is Sony -- which, as Ad Age pointed out in a story last month, has been well behind Apple in the portable-music category, suffered a recall of 10 million laptop batteries and has been trounced in the video-game market. What's not to like?

Mr. Passikoff calls the methodology of the Roper study one-dimensional. Roper asked 30,000 subjects in 25 countries whether they had heard of a brand, whether they liked it, trusted it, would pay more for it and would recommend it to a friend.

"It's what we call the excellent answer to the meaningless question," he said. "What you have here is what they said they thought, not what they really think."

Psychological factors
Mr. Passikoff said these studies ought to contain a psychological questionnaire to determine a consumer's emotional bond with a brand. Still, he agrees with the general direction of the survey, saying his own research two years ago showed that American brands were on the wane abroad.

Ms. McGill said the data are open to flaws also because they depend so heavily on what the consumer is feeling at the time.

None of this fazes Mike Fausulo, chief marketing officer of Roper's top-ranked brand. "The consumer attesting to the brand, to me, is the most effective measurement we could have," the Sony executive said. "When consumers say they trust and love your brand, that does kind of make my day."
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