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At Berkshire Hathaway’s annual meeting in May, Warren Buffett, the world’s most famous investor, was asked by an analyst why he had not invested in Amazon, the ecommerce group.
The Sage of Omaha was frank. “I was too dumb to realise what was going to happen.” He had long admired Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder, he said, but: “I did not think that he could succeed on the scale he has.”
Amazon’s share price hit an all-time high some days later of $1,000 a share, as it benefited, despite being classified as a retail stock, from the tech surge that has been the main feature of the US stock market this year.
Anyone brave enough to have invested in Amazon 20 years ago, when casualties among West Coast-based tech companies were so frequent that the sector generated comparisons to the Wild West, would have made a return of about 650 times on their investment.
In this year’s BrandZ ranking of the world’s 100 most valuable stocks, compiled by Kantar Millward Brown, part of the WPP advertising group, Amazon’s brand value jumped by 41 per cent to $139bn and entered the top five for the first time.
Ben Wood, analyst at CCS Insight, says: “It’s really remarkable how the brand has evolved over time. It stands for much more than shopping and has expanded into other directions, like Amazon TV; it’s had unexpected success in the smart speaker market with Amazon Echo and Alexa [Amazon’s voice recognition system] is getting great momentum as well.”
One reason why Amazon has been able to evolve successfully from an ecommerce bookseller into diverse activities is that it has won the trust of consumers for its convenience and efficiency, despite controversies over tax and the quality of its jobs. It scores 23 per cent above the average brand for trust, according to BrandZ’s indices.
Tech companies dominate the rankings with Google, Apple and Microsoft occupying the top three slots for the third consecutive year with Facebook in fifth place. The brand value of the top five companies has risen by 14 per cent to $893bn, outperforming the 8 per cent increase of the top 100, valued at $3.64tn. Amazon has gone from seventh to fourth place, pushing out AT&T.
BrandZ calculates values by considering financial measures — revenues and profitability — combined with surveys of 3.1m consumers in 51 countries for their views about brands. The difference in methodology and the size of the consumer surveys are the main reasons why the rankings will diverge from those compiled by other organisations.
Some critics argue that rankings exaggerate the importance of brand values. Markables, a Swiss company that specialises in published trademark valuations, says that inconsistencies in the monetary worth ascribed to brands by the three biggest brand valuation suppliers — Interbrand, Brand Finance and Kantar Millward Brown — undermine trust in these calculations.
Christof Binder, managing partner at Markables, says: “The values compiled on the brand rankings are questionable at least, if not largely wrong.”
BrandZ says it does not respond directly to criticism but added: “All rankings and forms of measurement will have their critics. We stand by the methodology behind the BrandZ rankings because it is the only truly consumer-focused brand valuation ranking that is 100 per cent based on data.”
Doreen Wang, global head of BrandZ, says that consumer-focused brands such as Apple, Amazon and Facebook have been successful in ingratiating themselves with consumers and becoming a routine part of their lives.
“Consumers have a daily relationship with these brands — they will Google something, they will buy via Amazon on their mobile — consumer engagement is very high,” she says. “The internet giants also demonstrate great elasticity — they play confidently in new territories and categories to develop and expand their customer base.”
The importance of tech brands is demonstrated by how they have taken a greater share of the value of the top 100 than a decade ago. The 37 tech companies in the top 100 account for more than half the value of the total — 54 per cent. That is up from 37 per cent in 2006.
Reflecting the disruption of new technology, the average age of a top 10 brand has almost halved from 88 years to 42 over the same period.
Fast-rising tech companies this year include Netflix, Facebook and Shenzhen-based Tencent, each of which increased their brand value by more than 25 per cent.
Tencent, China’s largest internet portal, has seen its shares surge by more than 60 per cent over the past 12 months as its Weixin/WeChat app grows in popularity and the company expands further into mobile payments and cloud services.
Alibaba, the online retailer, China Mobile and Tencent are the only three Chinese companies in the top 20, which is otherwise comprised entirely of US companies from a variety of sectors. These American businesses include McDonald’s in fast food, Marlboro and Coca-Cola in consumer goods, AT&T and Verizon in telecoms and Visa and MasterCard in payments.
The rankings tell a tale of a resurgent corporate US, reflected in the 28 per cent rise in the Dow Jones over the past 12 months. American companies account for 71 per cent of the brand value of the top 100 companies. The value of their brands grew by 12 per cent compared with 2016, while those outside North America fell by 1 per cent.
The rankings also shine light on the emergence of lesser-known Chinese brands. There are 13 Chinese companies in the top 100, a big increase from 12 years ago when there was only one, China Mobile, the state-owned telecoms group that is now ranked third among Asian brands after Tencent and Alibaba. The combined value of the 13 Chinese companies is $406bn.
In previous years, companies from Brazil and India have found their way into the top 100 but emerging markets have not yet fully recovered from the 2008 crisis. Brazil is absent and the only Indian company, ranked 63rd, is HDFC, the bank that provides financial products in rural India and mortgages to middle class families.
Europe’s most valuable brand is Germany’s SAP, the business-to-business tech company. France’s leading brand is LVMH, the luxury goods conglomerate. Spain’s top brand is Zara, the high street fashion chain, while in the UK it is Vodafone, the telecoms company.
Within Asia, South Korea’s Samsung Electronicsdemonstrated remarkable resilience with a 23 per cent jump in brand value, despite the travails last year of its fire-prone smartphone, the Galaxy Note 7, which was banned from aircraft. The company also suffered the arrest of its acting head, Lee Jae-yong, on bribery allegations in February.
David Roth, chief executive of Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia at The Store, WPP’s retail marketing practice, says: “Samsung admitted the defect, they withdrew the product, they faced up to the issues and were visible. They did a lot of things right.”
The rankings also attest to the staying power of the US tech sector, which finally tempted even Mr Buffett to invest, first in IBM in 2011, then in Apple last year.
At the Berkshire meeting, it emerged that Mr Buffett had made an even bigger mistake in the tech sector than failing to invest in Amazon. Charlie Munger, his colleague, volunteered that this was missing out on Google. “I think we screwed up a little,” he said.
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