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Companies would probably be happy to be acknowledged and receive credit for exceptional achievements of the brands they own and manage. Firstly, it can be a source of pride and joy for managers and other employees involved in managing the brand for their inspiration, creativity and successful strategies and tactics they plan and execute — it is a show of appreciation that touches people better than financial values that matter mainly to business organisations and investors. Secondly, an award for excellence gives an opportunity for positive publicity that can help to promote the brand and further enhance a favourable image. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, it should be an encouragement for those who have already won the credit to keep their course and for those who still look forward to win that acknowledgement to aspire for excellence.

The Superbrands organisation manages a programme to that purpose: its key objective is to promote and reward the excellence of brands. It was established in 1994 in the UK by Marcel Knobil, an advertising executive, and is now operating (by licensing) in over 80 countries. The organisation outlines a three-stage selection process of consumer brands: (1) Building an initial shortlist of candidate brands by a team of the organisation’s chapter in each country; (2) A council of experts in marketing, advertising and communication evaluates and further screens the candidate brands to produce a semi-final list of eligible brands that will climb to the next stage; (3) The final winning brands are selected by a random sample of consumers taking part in a survey — the chosen brands are deemed Consumer Superbrands.

  • Note: Additional specialised leagues were created over the years (e.g., Business Superbrands, CoolBrands, Kid Superbrands) but in this post I will focus on the main league of Consumer Supserbrands.

According to the UK’s chapter, operated by the The Centre for Brand Analysis (TCBA), the key requirement that defines a Superbrand states:

“A Superbrand has established the finest reputation in its field. It offers customers significant emotional and/or tangible advantages over its competitors, which consumers want and recognise.”

This overarching requirement is supplemented by three additional criteria for brand appraisal: Quality, Reliability, and Distinction. These criteria should guideline the appraisal of brands in each country participating in the programme. Beyond the choice of Superbrands, the organisation takes pride in the publication of its books that entail case studies on brands awarded the accreditation of Superbrands.

In reality, it should be said, all countries apparently do not perform the process to the same extent and follow the same criteria (given the information issued on their Internet websites). They also do not publish their results (online) to the same level of scope and detail. The implementation of the programme in the UK — as the country of origin — seems to remain the most comprehensive:  TCBA selects the 1,700 initial entries, submits them to the judgement of the expert council, leading to elimination of about 40% of brands that received the lowest scores, and eventually the nomination of 500 Superbrands by a consumer sample (i.e., the brands more frequently selected). TCBA publishes online the top 20 brands for 2013 in ranking order as well as the brand winning in each product or service category (naturally there is some overlap between the lists); all brands are reported in alphabetic order. Case studies on selected brands can be downloaded from the website.

Interestingly, Superbrands Israel appears to get the closest to the UK in its implementation of the methodology: A team of the local licensee (“Forum Shivuk” marketing news publisher) selected the initial 2,300 candidates; an expert council of executives, academics and professionals (over 100, mostly CEOs and CMOs) led by Marketing Professor Jacob Hornik (Tel-Aviv University) evaluated and chose about 700 eligible brands; and finally around 300 brands were awarded as Superbrands in a consumer  survey (brands scoring above a threshold on “strength of attachment”). The selection process was based on a definition similar to the British one and three criteria as indicated above. The Israeli league of Superbrands for 2013 is sorted by product/service category (reported without a rank order). The survey was conducted by Market Watch-Ipsos Israel. Case studies from the 2012 edition can be accessed on the website.

In other countries the differences may extend beyond minor adjustments. For example:

  • Countries which highlight their council of experts but provide little or no detail of their selection process, particularly omitting information on the conduct of a consumer survey (e.g., USA, Australia, Italy);
  • Countries which use a rather different set of criteria (e.g., Australia names as criteria: market dominance, longevity, goodwill, customer loyalty, overall market acceptance);
  • Countries which publish (online) just a few dozens of Superbrands, not clarifying whether these are only the top winning brands or all the brands awarded in the country (e.g., Spain 26, USA 43, Italy 16).

That is the place to turn to actual Superbrands leagues. The following are selected highlights of the latest results I found interesting or noteworthy from the UK and five additional countries (UK and Israel for 2013, USA and Australia for 2012, and Spain and Italy for 2011). Every country can nominate as Superbrands their own national-home brands as well as global brands.

  • Rolex, the Swiss brand of luxury watches, is the strongest, most highly appreciated, top-ranking Superbrand overall in the UK. It is also recognised as a Superbrand in Israel. On a more popular trendy end, however, Swatch is also named a Superbrand in these two country.
  • The second and third place in the UK are won by brand names of two major corporations of computer technology, Apple and Microsoft, respectively. Microsoft is also a Superbrand in Israel together with the name of its Windows operating system. Apple, however, is “replaced” in Israel by two brands of its mobile device products, iPhone and iPad, likely reflecting the shift of attention from PC and laptop computers to smartphones and tablets. We may also note that Samsung is a Superbrand in the UK, Israel, and Australia.
  • The brand of Google, the dominant provider of search and other information services on the Internet, is placed sixth in Britain. It also appears in the league of Superbrands in Israel and in Spain. But we also need to acknowledge other online Superbrands such as YouTube (in UK, Israel, Spain — actually also owned by Google!) and Facebook (UK-14th, Israel). Somewhat surprisingly, none of these are mentioned as Superbrands in the US. In Israel, a native navigation applet, Waze, highly publicised in the past year, is also a Superbrand.
  • Airlines are still prominent brands: British Airways in the UK (a lucrative fourth place), Alitalia in Italy, El-Al in Israel, and Qantas in Australia. Nevertheless, the airlines are going through rough times where Alitalia and El-Al are particularly in jeopardy.
  • In the media: The BBC, despite all its recent troubles, is awarded a Superbrand accreditation in the UK, and even in the 13th place, while The Times of London is the leading Superbrand in the press media; The New-York Times, frequently cited worldwide, is a Superbrand in the US; The commercial TV broadcast Channels 2 and 10 are Superbrands in Israel but not the public Channel 1, while in the press the veteran Yediot Aharonot and the challenger free newspaper Israel HaYom that fight neck-and-neck both gained a Superbrand award.
  • Two automotive brands reached the top list in Britain, Mercedes-Benz (10) and BMW (11). Mercedes is named a Superbrand also in Israel and in Italy. Other vehicle Superbrands in Israel include BMW, Cadillac, Chevrolet and Volkswagen. Italy has awarded its sportive Lancia.
  • Notably, two famous children brands are among the top 20 in the UK, Lego (15th) and Disney (16th).  Both are Superbrands also in Israel. These are brands that follow one for a lifetime.
  • Spain has awarded the Football Club of Barcelona a Superbrand title, but not Real Madrid. In the UK, Manchester United is acknowledged this year as a Superbrand, first in the sports & fitness category, but followed by the FCs of Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal, and Liverpool.
  • Campbell’s, known primarily for its soups, is a food Superbrand in the US. It is also acknowledged as Superbrand in the UK, yet Kellogg’s (cereals) is winning there in the general food category and Cadbury (chocolate) in the confectionary, snacks & ice cream food category. Kellogg’s is 9th but also on top from that category appears Heinz (12th). In Italy the native Ferrero Rocher famous chocolate brand is a Superbrand, so acknowledged also in the UK and Israel. Ferrero has another Superbrand in Italy — its Gran Solei cold deserts.
  • The last tribute will be given to alcoholic drinks: Jack Daniel’s (whisky) is the winning Superbrand in this category in Britain; Bailey’s (Irish Cream) is another favourite brand awarded. Italy has named Martini as Superbrand. And Israel has given the title to Jack Daniel’s as well as Johnny Walker, Absolut (vodka) and Chivas Regal.

Many more brands of goods, services and retailers have received this award, every reader is invited to explore and reveal them to his or her own taste or interest.

Public institutions and not-for-profit organisations are also now regarded as brands and therefore can be acknowledged as Superbrands. The BBC broadcasting organisation and the Royal Albert Hall for art performances of music are public institutions. In a category designated to associations & charities, the winning Superbrand is Cancer Research UK. In the US we can find not-for-profit organisations like Autism Speaks and Americare, and in Australia we find Australian Made and Guide Dog Australia.

This raises the question if any organisation, product or other entity that provides a service is appropriate to be treated as a “brand”. Many non-business organisations are required to engage in marketing effort of some form to reach its customers and/or donors. We should consider, however, some more qualifying questions when selecting candidates for this kind of branding award, as follows: How does the organisation relates to and interacts with consumers? What kinds of products or services does it offer to individuals or communities? Is it in competition?

The expansion by Superbrands Israel of entities that can be awarded exemplifies how things may go wrong. Awarding the credit to organisations or institutes such as HaBima National Theatre, Magen David Adom (equivalent to Red Cross), The Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and associations for combatting cancer, for organ donation, or for the soldiers, is reasonable and acceptable, similar to institutions and associations recognised in other countries. On the other hand, internal and overseas intelligence organizations (“Shin Bet” & “Mossad”), the army (IDF), Raphael (military industries), Yad VaShem for commemorating victims of the Holocaust, and the Supreme Court do not belong in this kind of league. Even more absurd is the inclusion of the Iron Dome anti-missile system. Symbols of culture and heritage and carriers of values of the people and country that assume important functions should not necessarily be recognized as brands. The list of Superbrand People that includes public figures like political and state officials, novelists and artists is not any more appropriate. I doubt if any entity, no matter how widely accepted, meaningful and cherished it is, should be treated as a brand.

The Superbrands approach is unique in using the judgement of both experts in relevant fields and consumers in the selection and qualification process: experts apply their professional judgement to choose brands eligible for the award before consumers use their personal-subjective judgement to evaluate and/or select the deserving brands that will receive the accreditation. The Superbrands organisation has to ensure that these principles are honoured in every country participating in the programme and that licensee operators implement the methodology adhering to the same or very similar standards (e.g., UK and Israel). It should further specify clear criteria for defining entities eligible to be a “Superbrand” and boundaries for the number of brands that the “league of Superbrands” should include. This is important for the recognition of the programme as international; it would also facilitate and increase the validity of comparison of results between countries.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

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The past thirty years in Great Britain have been marked by some major economic and social changes, most notably de-industrilisation, decline in job security, a transition to service economy, and the rise to dominance of the financial sector. These developments have occurred to differing degrees in other Western countries as well but perhaps not in as a dramatic way as in the UK. Only in the past month we have witnessed the awakening of a heated public debate on these socio-economic developments in reaction to the death of late Baroness Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister of the UK between 1979 and 1990, due to her reforms in the 1980s. Most people would describe themselves nowadays as “middle class” and yet people are at difficulty to define and agree on what that status means. The gross division of the British society into upper class, middle class and working class does not seem to hold any longer.

The BBC’s research branch Lab UK launched in 2011 a major research project, the Great British Class Survey (GBCS), in co-operation with an academic team led by Professors of Sociology Mike Savage of London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and  Fiona Devine of the University of Manchester. They embarked on developing a new model of social class whilst taking, however, a different approach to defining the determinants of social status that is not based solely on occupation and other economic variables.  At the core of the project the BBC underlines the large Web survey it has carried out, in which 161,400 respondents in Great Britain participated; this survey was accompanied nevertheless by another national survey in a representative sample of about 1,000 respondents interviewed face-to-face (the use of two data sources is discussed later in the post-article).

The model developed by the research team working with the BBC includes seven classes. The model still identifies layers of social class but their organisation is different from previous models that relied primarily on indicators of education, occupation and economic wealth; the model thus reveals new types of class segments. Most remarkably, the “middle class” is more diffused, splintering horizontally across more unique and distinct class segments, also replacing the reduced traditional working class.

The unusual structure of this social class model can be attributed primarily to the acknowledgement by the researchers that the social standing of people depends not only on the stature of their occupation and their economic wealth but also on additional personal resources that people develop over time. They rely on a schema developed by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu that recognizes in culture a crucial pillar contributing to a person’s competences and stature. Bourdieu identified three forms of capital: economic capital (wealth and income), cultural capital (based upon educational upbringing, it defines a person’s tastes and ability to appreciate and engage with cultural goods such as arts and food), and social capital (the breadth and nature of contacts and connections in a person’s social networks that can benefit him or her). The expansion of the concept of “social class” hereby suggested by the researchers deviates from the concept’s “classical” economic foundations but it nonetheless enriches the model by bringing it closer to the concept of “lifestyle” — a connection that should be well appreciated in a marketing context. It allows one, for instance, to account for whether a person has more fine tastes or a stronger tendency to open-mindedness that may enhance his or her standing in society. Savage and Devine and their colleagues argue in favour of their approach that:

“This recognition that social class is a multi-dimensional construct indicates that classes are not merely economic phenomena but also are profoundly concerned with forms of social reproduction and cultural distinction” (2, p. 5).

A quick review of the new seven class segments (1):

  • Elite — The most privileged group with highest levels on all types of capital, but particularly distinguished by the greatest economic capital.  The largest (over-) representation of CEOs and other senior managers is found in this class.
  • Established Middle Class — Not as wealthy as the elite but still very high on all three capitals. The most gregarious group that also scores the second highest on cultural capital.
  • Technical Middle Class — A small but distinctive new class that is prosperous but more secluded, concentrating on its links to other profession experts. They are distinguished by their social isolation and cultural apathy.
  • New Affluent Workers — A rising group of young people who are successful in their jobs, with middling levels of economic capital though without acquiring higher education; yet, they are socially and culturally active that appears to give them a leverage.
  •  Traditional Working Class — Relatively older people, they constitute the remaining working class of the past (their offsprings are believed to belong in the new segments of New Affluent Workers and the Emergent Service Workers.) They are low on all forms of capital though not completely deprived, reliant especially on current high values of their houses.
  • Emergent Service Workers — They are young and urban though less well-off economically than the new affluents, positioned in relatively basic and low paying jobs in services (e.g., at call-centers, bars and restaurants); they are also characterised as highly active socially and culturally.
  • Precariat — The most poor and deprived group of precarious proletariat with low scores also on social and cultural capital.

The young segments that represent the newer generation of the “working class” seem to be a more savvy generation, less indifferent to or accepting of their social status, better connected, and working to improve their well-being, not only at their jobs. Are they types of “middle class” or “working class”? This is unclear — those familiar classes seem more confounded. The place of the lowest social class is taken now by the Precariats. Division in the British class system may have changed in form and structure but it remains powerful: Savage argues that the society is increasingly polarised between the elite at the top and the ‘precariat’ class at the bottom and with divisions growing deeper (3).

Hereafter a question is raised: What does this model imply for consumer behaviour?  The model provides a new foundation upon which marketing researchers and managers may develop better understanding of consumers’ motives and drivers, and the background to their behaviour. It can help answer not just what consumers can afford but what they may aspire for. It may further reveal how consumers aim to achieve their goals or implement their interests, suggesting specifically what kinds of products and services are utilised in the course of doing so. But the social class model is not sufficient to that end — it has to be joined by another model that elaborates on consumer lifestyles. The new opportunity for improvement that unveils with the new model is in creating a more meaningful and congruent bridge between a social class model and a lifestyle model. This bridge would be primarily cultural but there may also exist a social common denominator.

  • Economic capital is measured by household income, household savings and house value (the latter two are joined in a ‘wealth’ index).
  • Cultural capital takes in consideration leisure interests, taste in food, taste in music, use of media, and travel destinations for holiday. The researchers have borrowed the conceptual distinction of Bourdieu between elevated “highbrow” genres of culture and “popular” culture, but they apply it in a more flexible manner. First, following recent research, the model assumes that respondents from any class may simultaneously practice genres of both “highbrow” and “popular” culture (i.e., each type receives a separate score). Second, they furthermore refrain from making judgement about forms of culture that may appear degrading and use the term “emerging” instead of “popular” for describing culture forms like sports, playing video games, browsing the internet and participating in social media networks. Forms of “highbrow” culture include among others engaging with classical music or jazz, visiting museums, art galleries, theatres, and French restaurants. On these facets “social class” and “lifestyle” meet.
  • Social capital is evaluated through two metrics: the number of occupation groups (out of 34 possible groups) of the people with whom a respondent has social connections and a mean status score of those occupations. Models of lifestyle should now also relate to socialising activities and the kinds of information consumers share, given the significant place in time and content that social media networks fill in their lives. A lifestyle model may contribute some additional information on connections in the “real world” and/or in the “virtual world” that the social class model does not seem to distinguish (though it accounts for use of social media under “cultural capital”.)

It is not proposed to build a single integrative model that stands the risk of diluting either construct of “social class” or “lifestyle”. Rather, the new social class model and a lifestyle segmentation model should be married by crossing one with the other, the former focusing on the resources consumers hold and the latter elaborating on how those resources are expressed and employed in reference to consumer behaviour.

We would want to know more about the psychographics of members of the new social classes to understand how they can be expected to behave as consumers. Here are two issues to consider for probing:

What kind of shoppers the New Affluent and Emergent Service workers are likely to be? — more critical, cautious and price-conscious or more easy-spending on any products and services and their brands? They may choose products and brands they believe can improve their well-being or their image in the eyes of others. How do these two segments differ? (hint: the emergent service workers are said to be more eager to “live the day”, more seeking experiences rather than products (1)).

Consumers in the Established and the Technical middle class segments both have plenty of economic resources but the former has a much more varied range of social connections and is more culturally active, mixing highbrow and emerging forms of culture — how does that distinguish them as consumers with respect to time and money they spend with family and friends at home or outdoors, on their personal interests and hobbies, on the Internet, etc.?

It should be noted that this model outcome could not be obtained if based only on the web survey of the BBC’s GBCS. The researchers found a strong selection bias in the large web sample, lifting it socially upwards, that is, the web sample exhibited over-representation of Britons from well-educated social groups. It means that this sample could not be adequate for modelling social classes of the whole British society. The GBCS received high publicity in media channels of the BBC which may have served well for recruiting a sample of its audience but not beyond that. However, the bias may also be due to low rates of Internet literacy and usage in older and less privileged social groups.

Compared with the second national sample in a parallel survey conducted by GfK, it clearly shows how the web survey is biased upwards with respect to occupations, household income and ‘wealth’. The model was built by a method of latent class analysis on an integrated sample dataset where respondents in the national sample received their original weights to reflect the correct composition of the population, while respondents in the web sample were “fragmented” by giving each a weight of 1/161,400. All cases are classified simultaneously, yet the class system structure is based more heavily on the national sample and the GBCS sample serves primarily to provide greater detail on the profiles of those classes.

  • The differences between the two samples remain clear: the Established Middle Class is the largest segment, 25% of GfK national sample but it “grows” to 43% of GBCS web sample; the Elite is just 6% of GfK sample but 22% of GBCS sample; conversely, the New Affluent Worker is 15% of GfK sample but just 6% in the GBCS sample; and the Precariat segment that takes 15% of the GfK sample is almost non-existent in the GBCS sample. (2)

The new British social class model recently published reveals additional important facets to social standing, based not just on economic resources but influenced also by social relationships and cultural capital. The enriched model also offers a bridge to associate with a lifestyle model that would shed more light on implications of the classes for consumer behaviour and marketing. It may also give encouragement to consumers that they can invest in their social and cultural capital to improve their well-being and social standing before they are able to increase their economic capital.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

Sources:

1. The Great British Class Survey (GBCS) Special Section on BBC News Online:

(a) “Huge Survey Reveals Seven Social Classes in UK”, BBC News: UK, 3 April 2013 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-22007058

(b) “Class Calculator: Can I have No Job or Money and Still Be Middle Class?”, BBC News Magazine, 4 April 2013    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-21953364

2. “A New Model of Social Class: Findings from the BBC’s Great British Class Survey Experiment”, Mike Savage, Fiona Devine et al., Sociology (Online), April 2013 (link is available on BBC website, 1b)

3.  “The British Class System is becoming more polarised between a prosperous elite and a poor ‘precariat'”, Prof. Mike Savage discusses the results of the research, London School of Economics: British Politics and Policy at LSE (Blog), 4 April 2013,   http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/archives/32264

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