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Credit: London Drugs via Twitter

London Drugs is a front-runner again this year

COVID may have upstaged our seventh annual ranking of the province’s top brands, but there’s still plenty to learn from the latest survey, which includes a new gauge of companies’ social values

Before we get to B.C.’s Most Loved Brands, let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room.

Sometimes major events can change the social context of consumer behaviour, with sudden and significant implications. And sometimes those events don’t line up with an editorial calendar that’s planned months in advance. Our seventh annual ranking of B.C.’s most popular brands, presented with research partner Ipsos, is an unfortunate casualty of the COVID-19 crisis. Ipsos conducted its Most Loved Brands survey in January, before the pandemic swept across the globe, bringing unprecedented disruption to societies and businesses.

For consumers, the change has been dramatic. When Ipsos polled people in Canada and worldwide in April, it found that consumer confidence was at its lowest ebb in years. Obviously this is a big deal for businesses in the short term, but how relevant is Brand Love in a time of crisis—and more important, does Brand Love measured in the pre-COVID era reflect what’s happening during the pandemic?

Brand Love tends to change slowly, says Mike Rodenburgh, executive vice-president for Western Canada at Ipsos: “It’s the culmination of many years of business operations and marketing and communications from brands.” Although COVID has upended people’s lives, businesses have been forced to respond, and strong brand equity helps them to weather unexpected storms, Vancouver-based Rodenburgh explains. “So while the broader context may have dramatically shifted, people’s relationships with brands would largely remain unaffected because most brands have had a long-term relationship with consumers.”

The latest ranking will “be a useful point of comparison on how brands can adapt to a new environment, and therefore provide important context to next year’s study,” Rodenburgh adds. “So as exciting as this year’s results are, next year’s will be equally interesting.” That’s something to look forward to as we celebrate the 2020 winners.

Delivering the goods

We have a new No. 1 this year: recurring favourite Save-On-Foods, which moves up three spots from 2019, bumping BC Hydro down to second. Holding steady at No. 3 is YVR, followed by London Drugs, which falls two places, and A&W at No. 5 again.

Rodenburgh thinks Save-On-Foods’ delivery service helps explain its rise to the top. “Brands that make fairly significant investments in changing their business in a meaningful way, we frequently see that reflected in a growth in their Brand Love.”

As for perennial front-runner BC Hydro, its popularity comes down to delivering a consistent product, he reckons. “It works pretty much whenever I want it to work, except for when there’s downed power lines, and then I see on the news that the hydroelectric workers are up in the storm fixing them,” Rodenburgh says. “It shows a commitment to service that just makes for great news.”

London Drugs had a Brand Love index value of 173 in 2018; it slipped 10 index points the following year and 11 in the latest survey. “They clearly have a very successful business, but the metrics would suggest that maybe they’re not digging deep enough to change their business model or meet the needs of consumers,” Rodenburgh says. Also, the chain must contend with digital retailers like Amazon and even Best Buy (up a notch to No. 9) and Save-On-Foods. “All of those three present some pretty significant competitive pressures in various categories that London Drugs carries in its stores.”

A&W began its journey to the top five several years ago, around the time the company started promoting its hormone- and steroid-free beef and antibiotic-free chicken. “I feel like they have plateaued a little bit in terms of their strong innovation in better-for-you food,” Rodenburgh says. “Businesses like A&W have done enough to hold their place, but they haven’t done enough to accelerate their brand forward.”

Frequency of use tends to reinforce how much people love a brand, Rodenburgh adds. “Given that eating out isn’t an everyday occurrence for most consumers, it might be a challenge for a brand like A&W to continue to move up in the ranking.” In that context, its ascent to fifth place is remarkable. The same goes for YVR, Rodenburgh says: “There’s only so many trips that people take in a year, so to see them rank third is really impressive.”

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Winners and losers

Much of the top 10 remains the same as last year, though the PNE joins the group, climbing seven spots to No. 10 and displacing BCAA (No. 11). “Something’s different there, for sure,” Rodenburgh says of the PNE, speculating that looser rules around carrying liquor outside of licensed areas at the fairground could have figured in its Brand Love surge.   

FortisBC (No. 12) moves up three places, continuing its path from 19th in 2017. Rodenburgh has a theory. “The relative cost of heating with gas continues to stay the same or go up only a little bit, whereas our hydroelectric costs are going up pretty substantially,” he says. “I’ve also noticed that Fortis has been more active with their marketing and media messaging over the last little while.”

Jumping five spots, the Vancouver Canucks join the top 20 this year. Before the pandemic ended its season, the resurgent team was in 18th place in the National Hockey League, having won 36 games and lost 27. The Whitecaps (No. 61) only played two games this season and had a tough time in 2019, winning just eight of 34 matches and finishing last in their conference. The soccer club suffered the biggest Brand Love decline on the 2020 list, diving 27 places. “What we know to be true about sports marketing and how much people love the teams, it goes hand-in-hand with their performance on the field or the ice,” Rodenburgh says. “So to a certain extent, those numbers are expected.”

Besides ICBC, which dropped 12 places, to No. 43, the Crown corporations did fairly well. Although BC Ferries fell 11 spots, it still landed at No. 22, just behind TransLink, and WorkSafeBC remains in the top 20 with BC Hydro. BCLC (No. 17) is steadily gaining ground, having climbed eight places since 2017. “They’re all just benefiting from the fact that ICBC is a massive lightning rod,” says Rodenburgh, who tells the troubled auto insurer not to worry: “The heat will be on someone else next year.”

Meanwhile, big names like Sun-Rype (dipping two spots to No. 14) and the Keg (down one to No. 15) showed stability. “They’re all roughly the same as they have been in previous years, which in some ways is good,” Rodenburgh says. “The big brands, they service their customers well; people consider them when they’re buying things and eating out.”

On that note, one surprise gainer in the age of DoorDash and Uber Eats is Panago (No. 26), which improves its standing by nine places. As pizza and other traditional food delivery businesses suffer digital disruption, Rodenburgh thinks Panago could be hanging in there thanks to product innovations like vegan menu items: “Maybe they’re maintaining their relevance with their customer base by shifting their offerings a little bit.”

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Values judgments

This year, for the first time, Ipsos asked survey respondents how well they think each brand does when it comes to sponsoring good causes or exhibiting strong social values. Eight of the top 10 overall brands also made the Social Values top 10, with Save-On-Foods taking first place and the Canucks finishing second.

“Generally speaking, the brands that do better on Brand Love also tend to score better on exhibiting those strong social values,” Rodenburgh says. “It’s a pretty strong correlation.”

However, there are exceptions: brands such as the Canucks and Vancity, which finished 48th in the overall ranking but has a high Social Values score. “They all seem to be exhibiting social values or people see them as having strong social values that are, to a certain extent, outstripping the love that people have for those brands,” Rodenburgh says.

Then there’s a popular brand like retailer Dollar Tree—shooting up six places, to No. 13 overall—which sits at the lower end of the Social Values index. Rodenburgh’s takeaway: “Giving back to the community and having a strong social purpose to your brand certainly seems to help with generating goodwill with consumers and getting your brand to be loved, but it’s clearly not the be-all and end-all.”

Telus (No. 8 overall) finishes sixth for Social Values score, despite the fact that it’s given hundreds of millions of dollars to the community. “If I were Telus and saw this number, I might be a little concerned that I’m not getting the credit for my money,” Rodenburgh says. He suspects that respondents might have ranked Telus lower than the Canucks because the latter focuses its giving on B.C. rather than spreading it across the country. “So it might just be an issue around concentration of money for some of these organizations and brands.”

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The not-so-great outdoors

Among the brands showing longer-term declines, Rodenburgh highlights MEC, which has plummeted to 42nd place from 14th since 2017. “Our data shows that they have strong social values,” Rodenburgh says of the outdoor apparel and gear specialist, which lost more than $11 million during the 2018 fiscal year and faces stiff competition from e-tailers. “But the trend over the past four years—it’s a real big problem.”

Aritzia (down just four places since 2017, to No. 68) and Lululemon (No. 52, two spots above its 2017 finish) haven’t seen a similar slide, Rodenburgh observes. “What’s interesting is MEC, a broad-based retailer, is slipping in relevance, but some of these niche retailers, their brand strength has remained about the same,” he says.  

From a digital perspective, Aritzia and Lululemon are “killing it,” Rodenburgh adds. “They’re doing so, so well, which then begs the question: why don’t they see their numbers improve in the same way that we’ve seen Save-On-Foods change?” Like other niche brands, Aritzia and Lululemon have a tougher time moving up the ranking, he notes. “They have succeeded in their niche, and there just aren’t enough people who follow those brands and that niche to really move the needle.”

Rodenburgh also singles out Whistler Blackcomb, which stays at No. 39 but has fallen nine spots since 2017. The ski destination is owned by Vail Resorts, the target of a recent petition signed by more than 6,000 people claiming that the U.S. giant’s 2016 takeover has resulted in problems such as less-reliable lifts, longer lineups and declining food quality, even though prices have risen. “Our data would be reflective of the general sentiment that I’ve heard among the skier community, that Whistler is slipping a little bit,” Rodenburgh says.

Whistler Blackcomb’s reversal “speaks to the importance of a strong customer experience and customer service,” he adds. “Unfortunately, that likely has hurt their brand.”

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