Brands Up.

New Labour has proved a marketable package, but it may be that Tony Blair and his cabinet colleagues should now go the whole hog and reinvent themselves as individual brands. A survey recently found that consumers consider Heineken more trustworthy than the Prime Minister, and brands like BT and BMW are better known than Gordon Brown and Jack Straw.

You know where you are with a brand. Invented in the 19th century to reassure consumers they were getting the real McCoy, brands have long been the way shoppers navigate in a sea of unknowns. They are beacons of consistency, badges of style. You know what you're getting when you buy Marmite, Tennents lager or PG Tips. Or do you? Most of our best-known brands have become baubles for multinationals. Brands are revenue streams, assets which are made to sweat and sold between international corporations for millions. Marmite may have been a national institution since 1902 when it was invented as a product of the brewing industry in Burton on Trent. But it's now owned by the New Jersey based American giant, CPC International - as are Bovril, Pot Noodles and Hellman's Mayonnaise. Lea & Perrins is part of the French company, Danone, and PG Tips isn't owned by Brooke Bond; it's part of the gigantic portfolio of margarine baron Unilever.

You think brands deliver consistency? Think again. Persil is owned he by Unilever in Britain and by Henkel in Germany. Persil is Omo in Spain and the Netherlands and Skip in France and Greece. Flora is Flora in the UK, but it's Becel in France and the Netherlands, and it's Rama in Germany and Russia.

Names are misleading. Customers of the posh sounding Jeeves of Belgravia may be dismayed to know it used to be owned by the down market chain Sketchley, until they sold it to a German shoe company called Mr Minute. The QE2 sounds quintessentially British, but book a cruise and you'll be swelling the coffers of Norwegian ship builders Kvaerner.

It's somehow equally disappointing to learn that the trendy new chain All Bar One is owned by boring old Bass. All Bar One may be decently designed, but so it should be. Bass has a long way to go to make amends for inflicting on the high street those fake Irish bars and eyesores, O'Neills. Don't, however, think you can get away from Bass by drinking Grolsch, Carling, Hoopers Hooch, Caffreys or Britvic Soft Drinks - Bass owns the lot. And if you round off your evening by staying in the Holiday Inn, you'll bump up its profits nicely.

We like to think brands mean something. Consumers don't buy products; they make style state-ments and are often prepared to pay a premium for the privilege. "The amount of reliance placed on a brand is quite high, but it's not very well justified," says Robert East. You certainly may not have planned to benefit Barbie makers, Mattel, when you bought Scrabble, nor profit the highly secretive Proc-ter and Gamble when you popped a Pringle or washed your hair with Vidal Sassoon. You may have known P&G owned Ariel, Tampax and Pampers, but did you know it also owns Sunny Delight orange drink, Crest, Clearasil, Pantene Pro V, Cover Girl, Max Factor and Hugo Boss?

You might think Virgin at least delivers on its promise. As brands go, it has more reason than most to lay claim to certain values. It's inextricably associated with the founder, Richard Branson. Yet even Virgin is not what it seems. In February, The Economist did an audit of the empire: Virgin owns less than 50 per cent of Virgin Direct, Virgin Cola, Virgin Spirits, Virgin Cinema, Virgin Vie and the Virgin Clothing Company. Hardly like a Virgin at all.

Does it matter? Should we worry about who owns what? "No," says Nicholas Morgan, marketing director for premium malt whiskies at United Distillers (owned by Diageo.) "People buy a bottle of Bells or Johnnie Walker. They don't think about United Distillers and we don't want them to. Information about the company gets in the way. It's not good for anyone.

Consultants Inter-brand agree - but so they would. Inventors of brand names Hobnobs and Mondeo, Interbrand were the first people to say you can put a price on a brand, and write it on the balance sheet. "Most consumers are not that bothered about who owns the brand, providing they get the service they want," says its brand evaluation director, Alex Batchdor. "It's getting the product right that matters. When ownership changes, no one gives a stuff."

But shoppers may care much more than he would like to think. Angry consumers have in the past inflicted major boycotts on the products of Barclays, Shell and Nestlé when they didn't like what the companies were up to. Batchebr at Interbrand and Morgan at United Distillers say no one is being misled - it's very easy to find out who owns what. But not from the product it's not. Bylaw, all products need to have is an address you can write to. There's no need to put any-thing about the parent company. So there's no way of knowing, when you're buying a product of, say, Kraft Jacobs Suchard, that its parent company is the tobacco giant Philip Morris. There's even less chance of knowing that the Chinese government owns part of Midland Bank and First Direct (because the Hong Kong government bought an 8.9 per cent stake in the banks' parent company, HSBC.)

Nor is it easy to unravel what ownership means at Rolls Royce after BMW bought the marque and VW bought the factory. Ask either company exactly what is going on and both refer you to Germany.

Not caring about ownership is also not an argument you could get past a Manchester United supporter. Man U is the sports brand par excellence. The All Blacks are one of many clubs on record as saying it's the brand on which they want to model themselves. It's the best-known sports brand in the world - which is precisely why Rupert Murdoch would like to buy it, much to the fans' dismay.

Andy Walsh, spokesman for the Manchester United Independent Supporters Association, will fight a change of ownership tooth and nail. "We'd lose all our independence. It would no longer be Man U. A football club generates a feeling of family, rather than a business, and in terms of the emotional attachment, who owns it matters very much."

There are other reasons why ownership matters. "Ownership is important in terms of public policy and accountability," says Robert East, professor of Marketing at Kingston University Business School. It's where responsibility lies. Excluding own brands and fruit and veg, most supermarket products are made by just three companies (four if you include booze). They are Unilever, P&G, Nestlé and Diageo. It's a stranglehold even the supermarkets seem unaware of.

"Every week, we used to send a salesman to the supermarkets from each of our four main companies: Van Den Berg Foods, Bird's Eye Walls, Lever Bros, and Elida Fabergé," says a spokesman for Unilever. "The supermarkets often had no idea they were all part of the same company."

Ownership certainly matters to the companies. This year Guinness (which already owned United Distillers), merged with Grand Metropolitan. The newly formed group came up with the unlovely name Diageo. The regulators made it sell Dewar's whisky and Bombay gin. The two brands cost Bacardi-Martini £1.15 billion.

Brands are the life-blood of companies. You can buy a familiar but floundering brand, as Unilever did with Colman's mustard, re-market it, then through brand extension flog the brand to death. On the back of the mustard (made in Norwich for seven generations), Unilever has now launched Colman's dry sauces, and Colman's and Oxo condiments.

But Unilever is beginning to change its brand strategy. "We think people want to know who is controlling what, and who's behind the things they buy," says a spokesman, Stephen Milton. "They don't want some faceless conglomerate, and we think it's a trend that will continue." You can therefore expect to hear more about Unilever - which is just as well, as you're likely to have plenty of its products in your home.

It's a high-risk strategy. Persil Power, accused of rotting your clothes, probably caused less of a hiccup to Unilever's share price than New Coke's did to Coca-Cola. Being known to all your customers - government/regulators, share-holders, trade and consumers - by the same name means you have to take great care of it. A blip in one area, and the whole thing crashes down -as Virgin may find now it has put its name on trains.

But it seems that the rewards can be greater. Whichever way they foster their brands, Nestlé, Unilever, P&G, Diageo and the rest have a long way to go. Every time someone does a survey, the super-brands that come out on top are the one-product or one-category companies, known by the names under which they trade. You might not like them a great deal, but with Coca-Cola, McDonald's, Sony and Microsoft you do at least know where you stand.

(From The Guardian November 5th 1998)