Monthly Archives: April 2009

Branded nations

What’s interesting to me about the latest league table of the world’s most valuable brands is not the continued dominance of Google at number one. It’s the nationalities of the brands. 

Millward Brown, a part of the WPP marketing and communications group, does the annual BrandZ rankings. There’s plenty of mumbo-jumbo in the explanation of the methodology. (Sample: “In the final step, the growth potential of these branded earnings is taken into account. This provides an earnings multiple that is aligned with the methods used by the analyst community, and also takes into account brand-specific growth opportunities and barriers.”) But that’s not my concern right now. Here are the top 25 ranked by Millward Brown’s assessment of brand value: 

  1. Google ($100 billion)
  2. Microsoft ($76.2 billion)
  3. Coca-Cola ($67.6 billion)
  4. IBM ($66.6 billion)
  5. McDonalds ($66.5 billion)
  6. Apple ($66.1 billion)
  7. China Mobile ($61.2 billion)
  8. GE ($59.7 billion)
  9. Vodafone ($53.7 billion)
  10. Marlboro ($49.4 billion)
  11. Walmart ($41 billion)
  12. ICBC ($35 billion)
  13. Nokia ($35.1 billion)
  14. Toyota ($29.9 billion)
  15. UPS ($27.8 billion)
  16. Blackberry ($27.4 billion)
  17. HP ($26.7 billion)
  18. BMW ($23.9 billion)
  19. SAP ($23.6 billion)
  20. Disney ($23.1 billion)
  21. Tesco ($22.9 billion)
  22. Gillette ($22.9 billion)
  23. Intel ($22.8 billion)
  24. China Construction Bank ($22.8 billion)
  25. Oracle ($21.4 billion)

By my count, the top 25 have 15 US brands, three Chinese (two banks, hmm), two British, two German, and one each from Finland, Japan and Canada. 

I’m not sure what to make of this. The US remains the world’s biggest economy, but its roughly equalled in size by the total European economy. Still, 60 per cent of the world’s most valuable brands are American, and only 20 per cent are European. China is rightly acknowledged as the world’s rising economic power, but there are only two banks and a mobile phone company in the top 25. No sign of Haider or Lenovo, the kinds of Chinese companies that could conceivably challenge on a global stage (they aren’t in the top 100, either). 

So should we sit back and relax as Americans, since we’re still clearly pre-eminent in the world of brands? Or is this another bubblicious illusion that is about to pop?

Reality-based writing


I’ve dramatically cut down the posts I do that are just pointing to something valuable (I use Twitter for that), but John Sides‘ regular pleas for journalists and columnists to actually use data, not anecdote or rough impressions, deserve shouting from the rooftops.  

Today brings a classic. The New York Times’ Gail Collins has a snarky piece about how it will remain difficult to get 60 votes even when there are 60 Democrats in the Senate. Those politicians just have no sense of unity, you see. Or do they:

I’ve said this before. I’ll say it again. In fact, I’ll shout it. THE PARTIES HAVE BECOME MORE UNIFIED. LOOKAT THE GRAPH, GAIL COLLINS.

Why? Because it’s easy to be unified when everyone agrees. And the parties have become more ideologically homogeneous and polarized in recent decades — even after the election of all those pesky Blue Dogs in 2006. See Nolan McCarty’s post.

Here are the 2006 and 2007 party unity data, courtesy of CQ. What percentage of the time did Ben Nelson vote with the Democrats in 2007? 70%. Evan Bayh? 79%. Joe Lieberman? 81%. And these guys are rabid guinea pigs? In a thunderstorm? 

Sides uses the table at the top of this post to make his point. Must be from some obscure political science journal, yes? It’s actually from an introductory textbook to American politics.

The greatest journalist

A J Liebling

I can recognize hyperbole, but it’s astounding and gratifying how many people I encounter who agree AJ Liebling was the greatest journalist in recent memory. Many years ago, pre-children, my wife and I went to Nantucket for a summer holiday (I’ve got a thing about Moby Dick). We were noodling in a bookstore when I came across a volume of Liebling.

“Who’s that?” my wife asked.

“The best journalist ever,” I replied.

A keen-eared browser nearby asked rather peremptorily, “Who’s the best journalist ever?”


“Oh. You’re right,” the unknown kibbitzer replied. 

My penchant for Liebling was newly aroused by a brilliant essay on just why he’s so good, by Michael Gorra. A snippet:

Liebling’s books went in and out of print, and so he would have liked the streetwise eulogy [Joseph] Mitchell gave him, in which he quoted the proprietor of a second-hand bookshop. Literary critics and historians might not know what would last, the bookman said, but he did. A used bookseller knows which books have life, which can be “read and reread and reread,” and over the years so many people had come in looking for Liebling that the man had started to keep a waiting list. To Mitchell that meant that though “Joe is dead…he really isn’t. He is dead, but he will live again,” and over the years he has shown many signs of standing up again.

I'm not fussy, but…


It’s not as egregious as the errant statistics in last week’s New Yorker, but my heart sank just a little bit when I read the following in Peter Boyer’s unremarkable story on the US auto industry: 

The engineering and research facility, designed by Eero Saarinen, was considered a triumph in the Internal Modern style, with its low glazed-brick buildings and interiors that featured suspended granite stairways with stainless-steel spindles. 

Saarinen, of course, designed in the International Modern style. It’s odd, in any case, to use that phrase. The famous 1932 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, curated by Philip Johnson and Henry Russell Hitchcock, was titled “The International Style”. That came to describe a particular variant of Modern architecture. There’s something not quite right, even slightly archaic, about International Modern as a phrase. To say nothing about Internal Modern.

Statistics that I don't believe


No, not the tosh written by Mark Penn in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal. I don’t think it needs to be dignified by a blog post. (If you need it, Scott Rosenberg has the definitive debunking, and Mickey Kaus has the best snark.) The statistic I’m skeptical about is in this week’s New Yorker: 

Profits from international wildlife smuggling, the Department of Justice has estimated, are second only to those from drug smuggling. 

That’s one snippet from a compelling article on invasive species in Florida, by Burkhard Bilger. Given the fame of The New Yorker’s fact-checking department, I have no doubt that the Justice department did make that estimate. I just can’t believe wildlife smuggling really places second as a profitable illegal activity to drugs. 

There’s another not credible statistic in the same article: “nearly a hundred million Americans own exotics [imported, exotic species]”. Can it really be that one in three Americans has a python, monitor lizard, capybara or mynah bird?  

Despite those slips, if you want to be horrified by what could be in your backyard if you lived in Florida, read the article. Burmese pythons are not your friends.

Arma virumque cano

Aeneas at the court of Latinus

If you are a classicist manqué, who seeks out reinvigorations of the ancient world, I can highly recommend Ursula K. Le Guin’s Lavinia. She takes a character who figures only slightly in the Aeneid, and constructs a wholly believable life and story. Beautifully observed, sparely written, very affecting. You’ll like it even more if you’ve read your Dante.

Oracle/Sun: IBM not worried


As might be expected, there’s been plenty of worthwhile coverage of the Oracle acquisition of Sun Microsystems in the tech blogosphere. TechCrunch and GigaOM do the round-ups, with Om Malik’s questioning about Oracle’s ability to digest the acquisition being particularly cogent. I also think Dennis Howlett in ZDNet is worth a look:   

Putting on my curmudgeon’s curmudgeon hat I can’t help but think this is a dark day for the enterprise computing business. Who worse to entrust your entire stack than Oracle, that voracious consolidator of application providers and now, it seems, guzzler of open source and hardware?

What puzzles me, however, is the frequent suggestion that the acquisition enables Oracle to become a full-fledged competitor to IBM. Leave aside that even post-acquisition, Oracle will be less than one-third IBM’s size. What matters is that too many commentators are seeing the emergence of a competitor to what IBM once was, not what it is today. Look at IBM’s latest annual report: 57% of the corporation’s $103 billion revenues come from services, 22% from software and 19% from “systems and technology”, or hardware. Software remains highly profitable for IBM, but it is above all a services company, competing with Accenture, Infosys and Tata. 

On a completely different note, I really wonder about the collective intelligence in the Oracle/Sun tie-up when I look at the picture of Larry Ellison and Scott McNealy celebrating the deal (above). What’s the point of the broken jigsaw puzzle? And McNealy’s cheesy grin? There’s nothing in that picture that evokes for me a vision of the future.

The humble commentator

I’ve always been suspicious of confident forecasters. William Goldman’s truism about Hollywood applies far more broadly: nobody knows anything. 

So the Financial Times’ Tony Jackson deserves several cheers for his advocacy of humility today: 

We simply do not yet know where we are going on the big stuff: house prices, deleveraging, real incomes, the behaviour of the Anglo-Saxon consumer. 

All we have, meanwhile, is random observations… 

The general point on credibility holds. Eventually, one of those false dawns [the stuttering market rallies in the current crisis] will turn out to be real. 

Whether it is this one, nobody really knows — myself included. 

Picture of the day: a novel "take-one"


From The Zimbabwean newspaper, via Chris Blattman:

Trillion dollar flyers and posters. A trillion dollar hand-out. To highlight the plight of Zimbabwe and the cause of the ‘Zimbabwean Newspaper’ we handed out trillions of dollars of worthless Zimbabwean money stamped with provocative messages and a call for support for the Zimbabwean newspaper, we also turned the money into giant posters, with trillion dollar tear-offs.