Rise Of The Cult Brand

In this issue we present our fourth annual BusinessWeek/Interbrand ranking of the world's most valuable brands. Add it all up and the top 100 brands in our survey are worth a staggering $1 trillion to the world's top marketers. Beyond the math, though, we believe that assessing and tracking the value of global brands is key to understanding how companies worldwide are responding to their customers' needs. The steady acceleration of Toyota Motor Corp.'s (TM ) brand value is a case in point -- a gain of 9% since 2003 and a spot in the top 10 as the auto giant has pushed quality to ever-higher levels and pleased buyers with better features and sleeker designs.

Analyzing the shifts in this year's rankings, though, it's clear something else is in the air: Consumers are changing how they view and even relate to brands. They remain purchasers of products, true, but through the power of the Internet and as a result of cultural and demographic shifts, many consumers now actively form larger communities around their favorite brands. Creating this new sense of belonging is what the most successful marketers are striving for. And those that have succeeded -- among them Apple Computer (AAPL ) (No. 43), Starbucks (SBUX ) (No. 98), eBay (EBAY ) (No. 60), and Amazon.com (AMZN ) (No. 66) -- made some of the biggest gains over the past year. They have become "cult brands." How? By forging distinct, attractive identities, creating bonds beyond the point of purchase, and reinforcing those bonds through constant contact. More important, they beget proselytizers who will chat up the company to their buddies, set up Web sites, attend events, and proudly identify themselves as users.

To explore global cult brands, we tapped Associate Editor Diane Brady of our Corporation department in New York, as well as our global network of correspondents. Brady and team found a slew of surprising examples: an Apple iPod user who launched a protest site about the product but considered the move an act of love; an IKEA shopper in Shanghai who chronicled the minutiae of his local outlet on a Web log; eBay customers who obsessively protect the integrity of the site. And it's not just younger companies: 101-year-old Harley-Davidson Inc. (HDI ) is more iconic than ever, with its 886,000-member Harley Owners Group.

London-based Kerry Capell chronicles the global community building -- concerts in Mexico, free cab rides for cardholders in New York City -- that has turned No. 33 HSBC (HBC ) into a global banking powerhouse. Moon Ihlwan in Seoul looked at the successes of No. 21 Samsung in transforming itself from a me-too brand into a creator of cool, leading-edge products with Webcast events that attract thousands to their site. Frankfurt-based Gail Edmondson noted the fanatical zeal of amateur Porsche (PSEPF ) (No. 74) drivers who gather to learn how to maximize the use of their cars.

"There have always been cult brands," Brady writes, "mostly smaller labels unknown to the masses. But these days building cults, or at least strong communities, is a widespread strategy."

By Bob Dowling, Managing Editor International

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