Brandweek main feature story: most improved brands of 2009

Poll: Ford Voted 'Most Improved' in '09

Jan 9, 2010

- Noreen O'Leary

In the worst year ever for the U.S. auto industry, Ford actually bettered its standing with consumers, topping the list of the most-improved brands, according to an online BrandIndex poll based on more than 1.2 million interviews last year.

Rounding out the top five most-improved brands are Ford’s Lincoln and Mercury marques which came in at No.3 and No. 4.

Consumers are also voting with their wallets. This month, the automaker said it capped the year with a 33 percent increase in December sales, posting higher results in every Ford category and brand. While full-year sales were off 15 percent, Ford was still able to increase market share one percentage point higher than in 2008—the first such gain for the automaker since 1995.

In the BrandIndex poll, in which 5,000 people are interviewed online each weekday from a representative U.S. population sample, Ford saw its score jump nearly 22 points. Ted Marzilli, general manager of BrandIndex, said that compared to its Detroit competitors, what Ford didn’t do over the past year may have helped its reputation as much as what the car company is doing to improve its products.

“Beginning in December 2008 and in January 2009, we saw an uptick in Ford’s numbers because of its decision not to take TARP [Troubled Asset Relief Program] money,” Marzilli observed. “Its score continued to climb as they did a good job telling people about their revamped product line, which got good feedback in the trade and consumer press and helped fuel consumer momentum. It’s been a really amazing story, and the improvement in brand perception of Lincoln and Mercury reflects that.”

Facebook, with more than 350 million members, weighed in as the second most-improved brand. Facebook posted a nearly 20-point increase in its score. The social networking site’s latest change in privacy settings, initiated late in 2009, drew criticism from watchdogs. But Marzilli said those issues don’t seem to be such a big concern for consumers who have now been on the Internet for more than a decade and are increasingly comfortable in supplying personal details like credit card information online.

Meanwhile, the two-year-old startup Fox Business Channel was cited as the No. 7 most-improved brand. Marzilli noted that over the past two years Fox cable network brands have all preformed “very well.” Said Marzilli: “Fox is associated with Republicans and conservatives. Maybe the loss of the Republicans in the last election is causing them to galvanize around Fox.”

The recession, of course, continues to influence the kind of brands high on consumers’ radar. Discounter Big Lots was the eighth most-improved brand while fast-food chain Chick-Fil-A ranked No. 10, indicative of out-of-home dining habits these days.

BrandIndex also asks consumers to annually rank the “most healthy” brands, meaning the brands that are perceived to be the strongest. In 2009, Clorox-—synonymous with bleach and disinfectants—climbed the ranks to seventh place, from No. 11, as people fretted about H1N1 last year. Otherwise, the brands perceived as most solid are largely unchanged from 2008, with the Discovery Channel ranking No. 1; the History Channel, two; Google, three; Craftsman, four; and Johnson & Johnson, five.

In a tough economy, consumers turned to the tried and true. M&M’s, Pillsbury, Campbell’s, Quaker, Nabisco and Betty Crocker were all rated in the top 20. Said Marzilli: “At times like this, people look to the brands they associate with trustworthiness and the comforts of their childhoods, whether it’s a bowl of Campbell’s soup or Quaker oatmeal or Betty Crocker cookies.”