Is Hewlett-Packard One of the Dow's Best Brands?


What's in a brand? Any investor who follows the Dow Jones Industrial Average (INDEX: ^DJI) knows how important a strong brand can be -- and how damaging it is when a company's brand becomes tarnished. The index has undergone many changes over the years, and many of these changes were enacted in response to the diminished value of one brand or the strengthening of another.

When the automobile became a common sight on city roads, the Dow responded by adding the strongest auto manufacturers to its exclusive list. The rise of a consumer culture prompted the Dow's inclusion of the most popular department stores. Companies that developed and marketed advanced technology have found a place in the Dow's ranks in every era from the Electric Age onward. Branding mattered then, and it matters even more today.

Today, we'll be taking a look at the brand behind Hewlett-Packard (NYS: HPQ) , a Dow component since 1997 and Interbrand's 15th-most valuable global brand of 2012, to better understand how it was built and how it has helped create one of the world's largest companies.

Building brand value
Thanks to a decade's worth of data from the Interbrand consulting firm, we can analyze HP's branding successes (or failures) over the past 10 years relative to some more standard corporate measures. We'll also dive into some of HP's pivotal public moments to see how those moments helped build a brand to stand the test of time.

Sources: Interbrand, Morningstar, and Wolfram Alpha.

Over the last decade, HP's market cap has dwindled by 57%. Its annual revenue (with its most recent trailing-12-month revenue serving as 2012's result) has grown by 68%. The company's latest brand value is 31% greater than it was a decade ago.

The discrepancies between brand value, revenue, and market cap are surprisingly large -- particularly considering that HP's image as a doddering dinosaur took shape a long time before Interbrand's relatively mild downgrade this year. Revenue growth has not been matched by bottom-line gains, which were little-changed for years before plummeting in 2012 as a result of various charges and writedowns.

Behind the brand
Interbrand points out that HP's game of CEO musical chairs has resulted in "internal instability [that] has resulted in the lack of a cohesive business strategy or brand strategy, which threatens both financial results and HP's reputation." That's a bit of an understatement. Interbrand also dings HP for its imminent fall from the top of global PC sales rankings -- which Lenovo seems all but certain to claim within the next year -- and for its too-slow, too-sloppy approach to growing its enterprise services business in a bid to become the next IBM (NYS: IBM) . With respect to the brand, the Meg Whitman era is starting to come together with HP's "Make it Matter" campaign, but the company has a long way to go to win over consumers it has lost over the course of many missteps in the last few years.

HP has a deep well of brand history to draw from, should it wish to highlight its commitment to innovation on either the consumer side or the enterprise side. HP, in a sense, is Silicon Valley: It was the original garage-founded tech start-up in Northern California. It was also the first company to market a "personal computer" when consumer PCs weren't even a glimmer in IBM's eye. Unfortunately, highlighting a storied history in the middle of a difficult transition period might only serve to make consumers more aware of HP's failures to live up to that history. Technology doesn't leave much room for nostalgia.

HP has been integral in pushing the adoption of consumer technology, especially low-cost printers, but it doesn't have grand stories the way IBM or Apple (NAS: AAPL) or Microsoft (NAS: MSFT) do. That gives its brand less of a cushion against changing trends, as there's little brand value in being a low-cost PC manufacturer in a post-PC era. Some members of HP's own executive team apparently see little value in their company's products. Executive chairman Ray Lane foolishly (small "F") allowed himself to be photographed while using a MacBook, an expression of childlike joy plastered across his face. While most consumers will never see the picture, its existence serves to diminish the brand as long as HP continues to compete with Apple in the laptop market.

Meanwhile, HP continues to fall behind in mobile, an arena into which it has failed to release any remotely successful devices and which it has all but exited after divesting its Palm operating system. The longer HP sticks with its PC manufacturing business, the harder it will be to make that transition, especially considering the intense mobile competition between Apple on the high end and numerous devices running Google's (NAS: GOOG) Android on the low-to-middle range of the market. At least HP is ahead of Dell (NAS: DELL) in the mobile curve, but that's a bit like winning a bicycle race against a man with no tires. Dell's founder is on the record as rejecting a smartphone foray, leaving it to compete with HP in a difficult Windows 8 tablet market.

Another major blemish on HP's brand is its decision to cut 27,000 jobs, which reflects poorly in a time when jobs are foremost on everyone's mind. It may be necessary to get costs under control, but that doesn't make it a good move in the eyes of consumers. If anything, HP is one global brand that Interbrand may be overly generous with. It would be shocking if the company's brand value didn't drop significantly in Interbrand's 2013 report.

Stay ahead of the curve
HP's fortunes are closely tied to Microsoft's, as the PC maker relies on Windows for its consumer devices and will compete with Microsoft in enterprise software services. Microsoft's fortunes may wind up being the key to all PC-era companies in the post-PC era, which is why the Fool has assembled a team of our best tech analysts to cover the company for our exclusive premium research service. Does Microsoft have what it takes to force PC dinosaurs to evolve? You can find out when you subscribe to our Microsoft research reports today.

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Fool contributor Alex Planes holds no financial position in any company mentioned here. Add him on Google+ or follow him on Twitter @TMFBiggles for more news and insights.The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple, Microsoft, Google, and International Business Machines. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Google and Apple. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended creating a bull call spread position in Apple. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended creating a synthetic long position in International Business Machines. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended creating a synthetic covered call position in Microsoft. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

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