Americans Prefer Sony, Apple Brands; Microsoft's Appeal Wanes

For the seventh year in a row, Sony (SNE) has topped the list in Harris Interactive's annual survey of best brands, the polling agency said July 12.

Dell (DELL) held onto its No. 2 spot from last year, while Apple (AAPL) broke onto the list for the first time.

Meanwhile, Apple's rise to the tenth position booted out Microsoft (MSFT), specifically the tenth-place position Microsoft shared with Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) last year. Consumers ranked HP's brand seventh out of all surveyed.

The rankings came from the results of a Harris Poll of 2,351 U.S. adults surveyed online between June 7 and June 13, 2006.

Electronics products constituted four of the top 10 brands, with automobiles holding three spots, and consumer and packaged goods grabbing the remaining three. Consumers were asked which three brands they preferred the most, without being prompted by names of specific brands.

Interestingly, Sony maintained its brand image in the wake of several scandals that cast the company in a negative light, especially Sony BMG Music Entertainment's use of digital-rights-management software in November 2005, an action that prompted a consumer suit, (AMZN) refunds for Sony DRM-enabled CDs, and several antivirus companies to target the Sony DRM as malware, dubbing it a rootkit.

Although the software was provided by U.K. vendor First 4 Internet, consumers appeared to pin the negative experience squarely on Sony.

With scrutiny and legal pressures mounting, Sony recalled all unsold CDs and discontinued their use of copy protection software. Sony also offered to exchange consumers' CDs with CDs lacking DRM software.

Sony has also yet to ship its PlayStation 3 game console, and most of the news surrounding the player involves its price, which apparently will be the highest of the three consoles.

Part of the reason for the delay may be the console's use of the next-generation Blu-ray technology, which is locked in a dogfight with the competing HD DVD standard.

Despite the bad press, Sony remained Harris Poll's top brand. According to the NPD Group, which tracks retail sales in the U.S., the copy protection scandal put a dent in Sony's reputation, but not enough for consumers to forget Sony's history of quality products.

"Those issues were only recognized by a small segment of the population," said Ross Rubin, director of technology industry analysis for NPD. "Even with the scandal, Sony's quality innovations still resonated with most consumers who can't spell DRM."

Apple, meanwhile, found its way into the top ten brands for just the first time in 12 years. Apple's popularity spiked in recent years thanks to increased visibility of Apple products and its top-selling MP3 player, the iPod.

"Apple's expanding stores and the continued success of the iPod led to a great growth in brand recognition," Rubin said.

Microsoft did not make the top ten this year mainly due to a decrease in marketing and brand visibility, Rubin said.

"They marketed the Xbox which most people don't attribute to the Microsoft brand," Rubin said. Most people know of the Xbox, but don't readily associate it with Microsoft, he said.

However, Rubin said he believed that will likely change, given Microsoft's marketing clout that will back up the launch of the company's Windows Vista operating system.

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