The headlines this year were full of failing or dead brands, from Circuit City and Max Factor to Pontiac and Saturn. (For more about eight major brand failures, see CNN Money's wrap-up.) And let's have several mournful moments of silence for the defunct newspapers and magazines—the Rocky Mountain News, Gourmet, I.D., and many others.
But my own Brands of the Year list isn't a eulogy; it's a salute to brands that survived (sometimes despite serious damage) and made us look, talk, and think.
For a longer view, see my Brands of the Decade: 2000-2009 post.
In alphabetical order:
Accenture. The Tiger Woods debacle embarrassed all of the golfer's corporate sponsors, but none more so than Accenture, the global management consulting firm: More than 80 percent of Accenture's ads had carried Woods's photo along with taglines like "We know what it takes to be a Tiger." In early December, Accenture cut its ties with Woods, who had been the company's only pitchman for six years. According to a front-page New York Times story, published Dec. 17, "now that Mr. Woods has confessed to infidelities amid an assault of media coverage, Accenture wants him to disappear." It was a painful lesson in the risks of putting all your advertising eggs in one basket. And it bracketed a decade that had begun with another big Accenture brand story: the company's court-mandated name change from Andersen Consulting. Andersen had hired global branding firm Landor to develop a new name, but in the end chose a name submitted by an employee in the firm's Oslo office. "Accenture" is supposed to mean "accent on the future"; to many ears, however, it sounded like "ax censure."
Ally Bank. Something good had to come out of all those bank failures, right? For the former GMAC Bank, the "something good" was an opportunity to distance itself from the dismal specter of General Motors, its corporate parent. Ally Bank, which made its debut in May 2009, is an online bank (which keeps the overhead low) whose name suggests friendly support—unless you skim too quickly over the quotation from a brand consultant in a Wall Street Journal story about Ally: "It's like walking down the dark alley with your arms up," he said, apparently in reference to consumer anger over the financial crisis. Any connection between the bank's new name and the first name of former GMAC CEO Al de Molina, who was asked to leave the company in November, is probably coincidental.
Etsy. The online bazaar for handmade items was launched in mid-2005, but 2009 was its watershed year. According to a New York Times feature story published last week, the number of registered members on the site more than doubled in 2009. The Washington Post reports that the company is profitable for the first time in its history. This week, Etsy acquired Adtuitive, "a contextual advertising service that matches retailers' inventory with content sites." In January, founder Rob Kalin will replace Maria Thomas (formerly of National Public Radio) as CEO. Perhaps most telling of all, Etsy spawned Regretsy, a site that features the very worst crafts for sale on Etsy. (You know you're hot when you're being spoofed.) Where does the Etsy name come from? Rob Kalin told Readers Digest it means "as if" in Latin. Read what The Name Inspector had to say. (The comments are interesting, too.)
G, Hut, Jack, Shack. For a bunch of brands, it was the year of truncation. The original Gatorade became "G"; Pizza Hut tried renaming itself Hut; San Diego-based Jack in the Box featured "Jack" in its new packaging, with "in the box" serving almost as a tagline; and Radio Shack experimented with "Shack." Shorter names for a downsized—or easily distractable—economy? Sounds about right.
iPhone. I wrote about iApple—the iPod-iTunes-iPhone complex—in my Brands of the Decade post, but 2009 was truly iPhone's year. Not only was it the most popular mobile-phone brand in the U.S. Not only were iPhone apps worth more than $2.4 billion a year. Not only was a Simpsons iPhone game announced. Even better than that? The brand was mocked on Saturday Night Live.* That's success.
Kiva. Founded in 2005, this San Francisco-based microfinance site created a new model for philanthropy by enabling online donations to specific small businesses around the world. In 2009, the company created a stir by allowing donors to make loans to U.S. entrepreneurs, too. Peer-to-peer lending in the United States has been controversial, and many observers felt the U.S. expansion deviated from Kiva's core purpose. But the move stimulated healthy debate about the nature of finance and philanthropy.
Muji. Haven't heard of it? You will. Muji—the name is a shortened form of a Japanese word that means "no brand"—is a Japanese retailer that sells more than 7,000 products, from clothing to kitchen appliances. All are designed in house using paper prototypes; waste reduction is valued, and very little money is spent on advertising. The company opened its first two U.S. stores, both in Manhattan, in 2007. (It also sells products in the MOMA gift store.) This year it launched a U.S. e-store and established a Twitter presence. But the real story is happening in China, where 19 Muji stores are expected to open in 2010, bringing that country's total to 30.
Pepsi-Cola. This was a design story that was spun as a brand story. In January, Pepsi's new logo was unveiled in a coy outdoor/transit campaign; in February, the baffling creative brief (which included the now-famous phrase "the dynamic of perimeter oscillation") was leaked (or spilled). Inside the bottles, nothing much changed, but the water-cooler conversation certainly was lively.
Snuggie. As the ads said, "A blanket with sleeves? My life is changed!" Throughout late 2008 and early 2009, the Snuggie and its rival, the Slanket, dominated TV and YouTube. There were Snuggie pub crawls, Snuggies for dogs, and, of course, a parody infomercial. Thanks to the Village Voice, you can review the entire Snuggie timeline.
Syfy. A spelling change spun as a name/brand change. The SciFi Channel became simply Syfy back in March; the company's president justified the expense by saying, "If I were texting, this is how I would spell it." Hard-core SF fans wrung their hands and called to Chthulu for revenge. The sun continued to rise in the morning.
Tropicana. Another makeover by Peter Arnell, the "guru" behind the Pepsi logo redesign. This one ended much less happily, but only after a thorough trouncing in the media and in the court of public opinion.
Twitter. Although the 140-character message service was launched in 2006, this was the year it was taken seriously as a global phenomenon rather than faddish fritterware. The reason for that shift, in far fewer than 140 characters: the Iran elections in June. Let it not be forgotten that 2009 was also the year that Ellen DeGeneres and Oprah Winfrey started tweeting. And it's the year that Ashton Kutcher became the first Twitter user to acquire 1 million followers. (The Kutcher milestone occurred in April; he now has more than 4 million followers.) In the United States, "Twitter" was the year's fastest-rising Google search, and it made Google’s global list (at #4) for the first time ever.
Bonus link: The best and worst brand-identity makeovers of 2009, from Brand New.
* Not the AT&T ad. That's real.