Bottom Line: Beauty trumps technology, retail shines, and Amazon pares down Apple as consumers seek emotional and social connections with brands.

Our 2011 Brand Keys Loyalty Leaders List is out. For many brands it's been a meteoric rise and for others it's been a slow and steady decline, or in some cases a freefall. It all comes down to delighting the customer and creating an emotional bond. Brands that can do that not only go to the top of the Loyalty List, but become top earners too.

Some brands have suffered loyalty losses as consumers shifted to less expensive brands that had considerable meaning. But this year's rankings also prove that brands that understand how real emotional connections and delight can serve as a surrogate for added-value will always create stronger loyalty bonds – no matter what the economy is like.

Beauty brands, like Mary Kay, Estee Lauder, Crest Whitestrips, and Maybelline accounted for one-third (32%) of this year's Top 100 Loyalty Leaders. Of the 528 brands in 79 categories we examined, the top 10 brands were:

1. Amazon
2. Apple (smartphone)
3. Facebook
4. Samsung (cellphone)
5. Apple (computer)
6. Zappos
7. Hyundai
8. Kindle
9. Patron (tequila)
10. Mary Kay (cosmetics)

Below are some of the major themes that emerge from this year's Loyalty Leaders List.

Emotions Drive Brand Loyalty

Brand loyalty has always been driven by emotion and this year's rankings indicate that more than ever consumers are looking to emotionally connect with brands that stand for something and delight them. And connect with each other too.

Social Networks Leap Into Prominence

Social network sites, a new category for 2011, had three of the six brands consumers named, not only in the top 100 but in the top 25 brands.

Loyalty Leaders Top 50

The top 50 ranked Loyalty Leaders ended up being composed of eight product/service categories. Beauty brands account for 32% of the list. But the 'emotional engagement' women share with their favorite beauty brands, while very powerful, also extends to technology, as consumers seek to customize their life experiences as well as their looks.

Tech: 20% of Top 50

Technology brands account for 20% of the top 50. Nothing is better at fueling a consumer connection than technology, although as tech brands have lost real meaning (turning from "brands" into "category placeholders") there are fewer tech brands in the top 50 than last year. Technology Loyalty Leaders include Apple, Samsung, Kindle, Google, LG, Bing, Sanyo, and Sony Ericcson.

Retailers Ring Up High Loyalty Ratings

Mirroring 2010 rankings, 16% of the top 50 Loyalty Leaders are retail brands. Amazon moved to the #1 spot, displacing the Apple iPhone (#2). Other retailers generally ranked lower than last year, an indicator of the challenges wrought by the economy, and retailers' struggles to differentiate on something more than price. Brands included Zappos (#6 and new to the list), Wal-Mart (#13, -3), J. Crew (#21, -8). Other retailers included Target (#33, -7), Sam's Club (#38, -9), Kohl's (#44, unchanged), and BJ's (#50, -7).

Strong Alcoholic Beverages Showing

Of the top 50 brands, 12% were alcoholic beverages, in the two categories surveyed: vodka and tequila. Vodka leaders included: Grey Goose, Ketel One, 3-Olives, and Stolichnaya. In tequila, it's Patron and Don Julio. No beer brand made it to the top-50 ranking this year. Sam Adams ranked #58.

Starbucks Soars – from 432 to 100

On the other side of the bar, Dunkin Donuts coffee (#12 up from #14) and McDonald's coffee (#26, down from 18th) were the only other beverage brands to make the top 50. Starbucks, a brand synonymous with coffee, has been in the process of reinvention, and demonstrated the largest increase in the rankings, ending up in 100th place, up from #432 last year.

Auto Brands Run Out of Gas

Automotive loyalty rankings were generally unchanged. Hyundai parked in the #7 spot. Toyota, a perennial loyalty leader, #37 last year is now #59, feeling the effects of recalls, the tsunami, and the economy. It might have been worse for Toyota, but with loyalty comes 'The Rule of Six,' i.e, loyal consumers are six times more likely to give a brand the benefit of the doubt in uncertain circumstances.

Loyalty Leaders Top 100: Gains and Losses

Brands that showed the greatest gains in loyalty, vaulting them into the top 100 included:

  • Starbucks (+352);
  • Skechers (+290);
  • Ford (+237); and
  • (+150)

Skechers invented a new athletic/exercise shoe category. Ford and Starbucks reinvented their brands. Overstock has been slowly moving up the list building loyalty over the years.

Among the brands in the top 100 that saw the greatest losses were:

  • Nokia (-63),
  • Blackberry (-51),
  • Chanel cosmetics (-23),
  • Eucerin moisturizer (-23),
  • True Value (-21), and
  • 3-Olives Vodka (-18)

The Loyalty Losers

Out the 528 brands included in the 2011 survey, the bottom 10 included:

519. Bank of America
520. Dr. Pepper
521. Budweiser
522. Friendster
523. BP
524. Tylenol (OTC Allergy)
525. NHL
526. Taco Bell
527. American Apparel
528. Borders

Unlike economic use models, which rely heavily on historical data and profitability conjecture, the Brand Keys Loyalty Model and rankings are 100% consumer-driven, and are independently validated, predictive, leading-indicators of brand and corporate profitability.

The good news is that brand loyalty is understandable. The better news is, it can be quantified and predicted, useful for creating actionable strategies and sequencing tactics for real ROI. And especially in these economic times, knowing what's coming down the road gives a brand an extraordinarily powerful advantage.

For a the complete list of the 2011 Brand Keys Top 100 Loyalty Leaders rankings (versus their standings last year) we invite you to visit the Brand Keys website.