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Apple reclaims spot as world’s most valuable brand

Five years since it last held top spot, Apple has is named world’s most valuable brand by Brand Finance Global 500 2021, with a brand value of US$263.4 billion.

Apple has the success of its diversification strategy to thank for an impressive 87% brand value increase, Brand Finance says. 

Under Tim Cook’s leadership, especially over the past five years, Apple began to focus on developing its growth strategies above and beyond the iPhone – which in 2020 accounted for half of sales versus two-thirds in 2015. 

The diversification policy has seen the brand expand into digital and subscription services, including the App Store, iCloud, Apple Podcasts, Apple Music, Apple TV, and Apple Arcade. On New Year’s Day alone, App Store customers spent US$540 million on digital goods and services.

David Haigh, CEO of Brand Finance, says Apple’s transformation and ability to reinvent itself time and time again is setting it apart from other hardware makers and has contributed to the brand becoming the first US company to reach a US$2 trillion market cap in August 2020. 

With rumours resurfacing that Apple’s hotly anticipated Titan electric vehicle foray is underway again, it seems that there is no limit to what the brand can turn its hand to.

“Steve Jobs’ legacy continues to flow through Apple, with innovation built into the brand’s DNA," Haigh says.

"As Apple reclaims the title of the world’s most valuable brand from Amazon five years since it last held the top spot, we are witnessing it Think Different once again. From Mac to iPod, to iPhone, to iPad, to Apple Watch, to subscription services, to infinity and beyond.”  

Amazon thrives in 2020

Despite relinquishing its position at the top, second-ranked Amazon has still managed to record a healthy 15% brand value growth to US$254.2 billion. The retail giant is one of the few brands that benefitted considerably from the pandemic and the resulting unprecedented surge in demand as consumers turned online following store closures. Over Q2 and Q3 of 2020, e-commerce platforms experienced the highest revenue growth since 2016.

Most recently – further leveraging the circumstances of the pandemic – Amazon has acquired 11 passenger planes from struggling North American airlines to expand its air logistics capabilities. A tactical purchase to support its fast-growing customer base, but also a strategic move towards building its own end-to-end supply chain, the fleet can allow the brand to become a serious contender in air transportation in due time.

Another example of Amazon’s relentless innovation in the face of global adversity, the brand has also announced its foray into the health sector with the launch of Amazon Pharmacy and fitness tracker Halo. Before it brought success to Apple, daring diversification had already been the hallmark of Amazon’s growth strategy, which it continues to pursue with impressive results.

“Playing a crucial role in supporting a new economic mode in lockdown, Amazon has found itself at the centre of attention more than ever before," Haigh says.

"With a revenue boost came reputational risks – from questions about the treatment of workers, to accusations of benefitting from the tragedy of the pandemic, to pushback against a global corporation in support of local retailers. Jeff Bezos has a difficult task at hand to steer the Amazon brand through dangerous waters," he says.

Also leapfrogged by Apple, Google sits in third spot following a marginal 1% uplift in brand value to US$191.2 billion. Slightly behind its peers in terms of diversification, Google recorded its first ever revenue decline as a result of the pandemic. The vast majority of the brand’s revenue comes from advertising, which took a hit over the last year as marketing budgets tightened.

Technology drives brand value

In a year epitomised by global lockdowns, with working from home becoming the new normal and an unprecedented reliance on digital communication, retail, and entertainment, tech brands and brands successfully leveraging technological innovation have significantly boosted their brand values. Accounting for 14% of total brand value in the 2021 ranking, tech remains the most valuable sector in the Brand Finance Global 500, with 47 brands represented and a combined brand value just shy of US$1 trillion at US$998.9 billion.

Aided by the increased demand for home deliveries and safe means of travel during the pandemic, Uber has seen a 34% brand value jump to US$20.5 billion and entered the top 100 at 82nd. Similarly, Meituan, China’s largest provider of on-demand online services has gone up by an impressive 62% to US$7.2 billion, resulting in one of the biggest hikes up the ranking, as it jumped 216 spots to 265th.

Similarly, software providers such as Microsoft (up 20% to US$140.4 billion), SAP (up 9% to US$18.0 billion), Salesforce (up 29% to US$13.2 billion), Adobe (up 25% to US$11.7 billion), and a new entrant to the ranking, Servicenow (up 39% to US$4.3 billion), all enjoyed a boost in brand value as businesses raced to transition online and offices gave way to remote working for the greater part of last year.

“With the onset of the pandemic, tech brands have experienced unprecedented demand for their products and services," Haigh says.

"At the same time, across sectors, brands which have pushed the boundaries of technological innovation have remained a cut above the rest, able to pivot their business to adapt to consumers’ changing needs. 2021 is the final call to get on board for all brands still stuck in the 20th century.”

Tesla races up ranking

The importance of technological innovation as a driving force behind brand value is best exemplified by Tesla (up 158% to US$32.0 billion), the fastest-growing brand in the Brand Finance Global 500 2021 ranking. Emerging unscathed from the various controversies surrounding CEO, Elon Musk, Tesla’s market capitalisation has grown by an eyewatering US$500 billion over the last year, making it worth as much as the nine largest automobile manufacturers in the world combined.

The California-headquartered auto brand has also celebrated record numbers of sales this year, ramping up production of its Model Y car and expanding into new markets by opening a plant in Shanghai. As the world’s best-selling plug-in and battery electric passenger car manufacturer as well as a pioneer in using artificial intelligence in the automobile industry, Tesla has continued to strive for innovation and sustainability, developing more efficient battery cells.

While Tesla races ahead of the crowd, it has been a difficult year for most traditional car marques in the Brand Finance Global 500 2021 ranking, as 4 in 5 have either depreciated in value or stagnated. Last year’s most valuable brand in the industry, Mercedes-Benz (down 10% to US$58.2 billion) has seen the largest brand value drop among all auto manufacturers in the ranking. The iconic German marque struggled to formulate a coherent electric mobility strategy and communicate a clear vision for its electric car models. With sales further impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, Mercedes-Benz slipped in the ranking behind Toyota (up 2% to US$59.5 billion).

E-commerce cashes in

Another testament to the role of technology in driving brand value, Haigh says e-commerce brands are among those retailers to have thrived the most in the past year, with Amazon’s impressive performance at the centre. 

Chinese equivalent, Alibaba.com has also benefitted from the unprecedented surge in demand, as consumers turned to online shopping during the pandemic. The retail giant’s brand value has been boosted by an eyewatering 108% to US$39.2 billion, making it the second-fastest growing brand in the ranking behind Tesla. Alibaba subsidiaries, Taobao, up 44% to US$53.3 billion, and Tmall, up 60% to US$49.2 billion, have enjoyed parallel successes, their online business models providing ease of access and convenience for consumers.

Digital media stream on

Yet again demonstrating the importance of future-proofing brands by going digital, gaming and streaming services enjoyed a significant boost in brand value this year as users turned to online means of entertainment in the wake of the pandemic. 

Netflix enjoyed a spike in usage, causing its brand value to increase by 9% to US$24.9 billion. With 37 million new users by the end of 2020, Netflix’s success has driven improved revenue forecasts and brand equity scores. Despite this, the streaming platform’s growth was not as substantial as in previous years due to challenges posed by competitors such as Disney (down 9% to US$51.2 billion) and new entrant HBO (down 3% to US$4.0 billion).

In line with positive trends in brand value in the new media sector, Spotify entered the ranking for the first time, enjoying an impressive 39% boost in brand value to US$5.6 billion. The last year has seen a significant increase in new users as the music streaming platform expanded its operations into 13 new markets.