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Apple pops, Wall St firms drop in brand study

Customers visit the Apple Store in New York City's Grand Central Station
Customers visit the Apple Store in New York City's Grand Central Station

By Nick Zieminski

(Reuters) - Apple Inc has the best image of any American company, scoring a record high in a new reputation study, while financial institutions filled the ranks of the worst.

Apple, co-founded by Steve Jobs in 1976, vaulted to No. 1 in Harris Interactive's annual public opinion poll on corporate brands. The Cupertino, California company raced passed last year's brand champ in the poll, Google Inc .

Banks and other Wall Street institutions, meanwhile, plummeted to alarmingly low levels in the survey released on Monday. Some of the nation's financial firms have images that now U.S. history, such as Enron Corp.

AIG ranks last in the research company's survey, falling behind Goldman Sachs and Bank of America .

Apple and Google have emerged as top American brands as the technology sector is distinguishing itself as the only industry with a mostly positive reputation. Harris, which has been tracking brand reputation since 1999, has found that tech companies have been consistently associated with strong vision, innovation and leadership over the past five years.

Tech is shining as the broader reputation of U.S. companies is sinking. Sixty percent of those polled say Corporate America's image got worse over the past year, while only 9 percent thought it improved.

Coca-Cola Co , Amazon.com Inc and Kraft Foods Inc rounded out the top five slots in the survey, which relied on responses from 12,961 people surveyed online in December. Respondents evaluated companies on six qualities: leadership, financial performance, workplace environment, social responsibility, emotional appeal and the quality of products and services.

Walt Disney Co , Johnson & Johnson , Whole Foods Market , Microsoft Corp and United Parcel Service Inc fill out the 2012 top 10.

APPLE THRIVES, FACEBOOK A NON-FACTOR

Apple earned a record high score of 85.62 on a scale of 100, helping the company rise from No. 5 a year ago. In addition to riding Jobs' legacy, Apple's gains were driven by product quality to profitability and environmental record.

"The timing of Jobs' death certainly played a role in bringing out an emotional attachment to the company and reinforced the elements of reputation that he brought (to Apple products)," said Harris Executive Vice President Robert Fronk, who leads the company's analysis of corporate reputations.

Apple, which was floundering a decade ago, is "the pre-eminent American corporation right now," Fronk said.

One of the biggest blemishes on Apple in recent years has been reports of harsh - some say inhumane - working conditions at manufacturing partners abroad, including in China.

In 2010, reports surfaced of a rash of worker suicides at Foxconn, which puts together the iPhone and iPad at its factories in southern China. Apple faced accusations of making migrant laborers lave long hours for paltry wages.

Apple responded rapidly, initiating a probe into those incidents. In January, it published a massive report detailing audits of working conditions along its entire supply chain.

One of the hottest names in the sector, Facebook, did not rank despite being familiar to billions of people.

"People don't currently think of Facebook as a company," Fronk said. Instead, the brand is looked at as a channel or a service than a corporation, something that will likely change after it goes public.

Harris Interactive annual ranking covers what are considered to be the 60 most visible companies. It includes household names ranging from Netflix Inc , Verizon Communications and Wal-Mart Stores Inc to Southwest Airlines and some overseas brands, like Hyundai Corp <011760.KS>.

BRUISED REPUTATIONS

Companies with the lowest reputation rankings are all financial service providers:

AIG, Goldman Sachs and Bank of America each garnered fewer than 50 points, a level that signifies the companies "risk remaining viable," according to Harris. Enron, WorldCom, Global Crossing and Adelphia Communications - all extinct - were companies that once populated the sub-50-point group.

Harris said it is not predicting the demise of AIG or Goldman, just drawing parallels and highlighting how consumers' opinions have shifted. For example, the Occupy Wall Street movement, by drawing attention to bank practices, caused 5 percent of consumers to switch banks, Harris found.

"Financial services companies and banks have been mishandling their corporate reputations even pre-Occupy Wall Street," Fronk said.

Rather than acknowledging the last decade's credit boom was an anomaly, banks have conveyed a desire to return to the way things were, he said.

"A large swathe of the population says, the way things were is not what we want. We want a different paradigm for this industry."

(Reporting By Nick Zieminski in New York; Editing by John Stoll and Richard Chang)

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