B.C.’s Most Loved Brands 2021

In our latest B.C.'s Most Loved Brands ranking, brands with a long-term view shake off the COVID crisis.

Credit: Courtesy of Save-On-Foods

Save-On-Foods takes the No. 1 spot for the second straight year

In our eighth annual ranking, brands with a long-term view shake off the COVID crisis

There’s nothing like a global pandemic to put brand loyalty to the test.

When our research partner Ipsos conducted its latest B.C.’s Most Loved Brands survey in January, British Columbians had suffered through almost a year of COVID lockdowns, health woes and other hardships. The 2021 ranking mirrors their experiences—and the uneven economic effects of the pandemic. It also shows that during a crisis, brands that have invested in building the love will shine.

“The biggest story is how things have shifted around as a result of COVID,” says Mike Rodenburgh, executive vice-president for Western Canada at Ipsos. “The sit-down restaurants have gone down. The consumer staples have stayed the same or gone up.”

And the perennial leaders remain dominant in our eighth annual ranking of the province’s top brands. For the second straight year, Save-On-Foods takes the No. 1 spot. Fellow retailer London Drugs moves up two places to No. 2, while BC Hydro slips from second to third. Rounding out the top five: A&W, up one, and YVR, down two.

“They’re strong brands, and they only jockey for a position or two,” Rodenburgh says. “It’s really, really tough to knock any of those brands out of their top-five spot.”

Telus also makes a good showing, climbing two places to No. 6. The telecom titan gives generously to communities across the country: last year alone, Rodenburgh notes, it donated $85 million, 5 percent of its pretax profit. “It’s a huge number,” he says. “They want to be the most giving company in the world, which is a pretty lofty ambition.”

At No. 15, BCLC continues its steady march up the charts, despite controversies over money laundering in local casinos. The Crown corporation has gained nine places since 2017. “That could be the result of improved perceptions of what they’re doing in terms of social purpose,” Rodenburgh says. “Also, it could be reflective of people’s sentiment toward the provincial government, which is something we’ve seen in other lottery jurisdictions as well.”

Chevron returns to the top 20, jumping eight spots, to No. 17. “It defies a lot of logic,” Rodenburgh admits of the U.S. oil and gas giant’s B.C.-based Canadian offshoot. “It might be reflective of the fact that over 2020, gasoline was less expensive.”

COVID questions

Ipsos included two COVID-related questions in this year’s survey. Besides having participants rate how brands did in responding to the crisis, it asked: “Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, do you use/buy each brand more or less than before the pandemic?”

For the most popular brands, their rankings lined up neatly with those that respondents said did well during COVID. “Maybe people’s perspectives of the brands themselves have an effect of colouring our perception of how well they responded to the pandemic,” Rodenburgh says. “My belief is people are more forgiving to brands that they love, and the opposite. When a brand hits hard times—and we’ve seen this time and time again in PR crises and things like that—people have a tendency to give a little bit of slack to brands that they really, really like.”

When it comes to usage, travel-related brands like BC Ferries, Flight Centre and YVR predictably got negative scores. The same goes for pandemic-afflicted restaurant chains Cactus Club Cafe, Earls Kitchen & Bar, Joey Restaurants, The Keg, Moxie’s Grill & Bar and Milestones Grill + Bar. Rating at least zero or better: brands such as BC Hydro, FortisBC, London Drugs, Save-On-Foods and WorkSafeBC, which have enjoyed consistent patronage in the time of COVID.

In other Ipsos studies, brands that people use much more than other typically earn better brand equity scores, Rodenburgh explains. “In this particular case, when you plot them on a map, there is almost no relationship between usage and Brand Love,” he says.

For example, The Keg registered a 48-percent decline in net usage, but it still gained one spot in the overall ranking to take 14th place. Likewise, YVR and BC Ferries—vaulting 10 places to No. 12—claimed top positions despite having usage scores deep in negative territory.

“What it led me to conclude is that I think there’s a general recognition by consumers that’s it’s an unusual year,” Rodenburgh says. “COVID had an impact on their usage of these brands, but it didn’t necessarily have a long-term impact on how much they love them.”

A tale of two credit unions

Leading this year’s top gainers is ICBC, up 16 places to No. 27. COVID-19 rebate cheques played a big role in that advance, Rodenburgh maintains. “We only got our cheques this spring, but they made those announcements last year,” he says of the $600 million in payments. “Obviously, that’s going to have a net positive effect on how people perceive them.”

Vancity, which leaps 13 spots to No. 35, is second on the top gainers list. “Vancity, for a long, long time, has been making a concerted effort to make investments back into your community,” Rodenburgh says, “which maybe in times of crisis helps their brand, because it’s built on that community foundation.”

He compares that showing with the performance of fellow credit union Coast Capital Savings, whose 16-place drop leaves it at 51st. “Coast Capital Savings would say the same thing [about investing in the community], but they don’t actually execute it nearly as well as Vancity does.”

After moving away from building long-term brand equity, Coast Capital has made a change to its marketing leadership, Rodenburgh observes. “If we see their brand going down, that might be one of the reasons, is that they didn’t make those long-term investments in building the brand,” he says. “Whereas a brand like Vancity reaped those rewards.”

What a buzzkill

Although Okanagan Spring Brewery gained 10 places, finishing 33rd, Rodenburgh is surprised not to see more booze brands near the top. “Alcohol did a booming business during COVID,” he says. “Some of the other local alcohol businesses didn’t gain as much as I would have thought.”

Winemaker Mission Hill (No. 39) and brewer Kokanee (No. 47) are up six and four points, respectively, but Granville Island Brewing (No. 44) and vodka soda purveyor Nude Beverages (No. 62) both lost ground.

Whistler Blackcomb (No. 31) reversed its decline over the past few years with an eight-place surge. Rodenburgh, who skied at Whistler this past winter because Vancouver-area mountains didn’t have enough lift capacity, offers a theory about the brand’s resurgence. “This year, there was nobody on the mountain,” he says. “It was a great season; the snow was fantastic.”

Changing perceptions of Whistler Blackcomb’s U.S. owners could have played a role, too. “Maybe people have warmed up to Vail Resorts a little bit, or at least they hate them a little bit less,” Rodenburgh jokes. “To be fair to them, I think they tried to do a pretty good job at managing their businesses and keeping people safe and having a good experience. And I think they probably saw some positive results from that.

Soup and juice maker Happy Planet (No. 63) tops the Brand Love losers, plunging 25 places. The PNE (No. 24, a loss of 14 spots), Moxie’s (No. 50) and Milestones (No. 45) also took big hits as casualties of COVID shutdowns. Then again, Joey was third among the gainers, moving up 12 spots to claim No. 37.

“It might be reflective of the fact that their product mix just simply is not doing well relative to the competitive alternatives,” Rodenburgh says of Happy Planet. “And maybe they need to look at new product options that can help revive the brand.”

By contrast, oat milk maker Earth’s Own, riding the dairy alternative trend from under the same co-op umbrella, moves up to No. 53 from 59th place. Move over, avocado toast.

He wears the (stretchy) pants

Also near the bottom end of the ranking, outdoor clothing and gear maker Arc’teryx seems to have benefited last year, but its seven-place gain only gets it to No. 55. “To a certain extent, Arc’teryx is a niche brand,” Rodenburgh says. “It’s hard for niche businesses to do, generally speaking, really, really well in a general-population survey like this. And generally speaking, the bigger the brand, the better you score on something like Brand Love.”

Arc’teryx did much better among male survey respondents, while the opposite is true for fashion retailer Aritzia (No. 64, up four places). But intriguingly, stretchy-pants sartorialist Lululemon (up three spots to No. 49) skewed toward men. What’s up?

“I think they’ve done a pretty good job at producing better options for men’s clothing,” says Rodenburgh, who began buying Lulu during COVID. “It might also be the fact that I don’t think I’ve worn anything business-related in well over 12 months, and I’ve literally lived in track pants for the last 12 to 14 months. And so maybe that’s also what’s happening, is all these guys who previously had office jobs have discovered how comfy it is to lounge in Lululemon wear.”

In other retail news, MEC continues its slide, losing four spots to finish 46th. Now owned by a U.S. private equity firm, the struggling former co-op suffers from a long-term problem, Rodenburgh argues: trying to cover too many outdoor gear and apparel categories and not doing any of them spectacularly well. “I think they just lost their way,” he says. “That’s precipitated the downfall of that business.”

Fashion-wise, the merchandise in the chain’s stores feels off-trend, Rodenburgh adds. “If you’re Grizzly Adams and you dress like Grizzly Adams, then you’re probably going to see something at MEC that you like. But if you’re a quasi-fashion-forward sports enthusiast, you’re probably not shopping at MEC.”

Rodenburgh often sees values-focused businesses run into similar trouble, he says. “They hold onto these value-oriented principles so tightly, they lose sight of the fact that they actually have to resonate functionally well with whatever they’re selling.”

Back to brand basics

Asked what brands can learn from this year’s list, Rodenburgh has a simple message: “Make investments in building your brand love, and in times of crisis, consumers will give you a little bit of slack.”

Such investments in brand equity account for the differences in how restaurant chains did in the 2021 ranking, he reckons. “Some of them performed much better, and some of them didn’t,” Rodenburgh says. “And they were all hit negatively by the pandemic.”

It’s a good lesson for marketers, he says—and it runs counter to current thinking, which fixates on converting people into buyers. “Many, many, many digital-native marketers only focus on that conversion, and they ignore the fact that they need to focus on long-term brand-building.”