A strong brand means big business. That's why, like a moth to the flame, I'm drawn to Interbrand's annual rankings of the most profitable brand names in the world.

But it's not always the biggest, baddest brands that represent the best investing opportunities. Here's why.

The top three


Brand Value 2009 (billions)

Market Cap (billions)

Brand-to-Cap Ratio

Brand Value in 2001 (billions)
















As you can see, the top echelons of Interbrand's ratings change very slowly. Over the last eight years, IBM and Microsoft have played a game of leapfrog. Otherwise, the top five look remarkably similar to last year's rundown or the 2007 list. Coke's total dominance of Interbrand's global rankings is darn impressive. The stratospheric brand-to-cap value ratio shows how important the Coke name is for the company's endless quest to sell flavored sugar-water in all corners of the world.

Again, over this eight-year period there's not a lot of growth to speak of here. For that, we have to look further down the list -- where we'll find another long-running streak or two. Hold that thought.

And of course, there are plenty of losers on this list. In fact, this is the first time in 10 years that the total value of Interbrand's brand-value findings fell, compared to the previous year. The financial meltdown of 2008 explains a lot of that -- several household names in banking, financial services, and automobile manufacturing suffered significantly. The Citigroup (NYSE:C) brand is now worth about half of what it was in 2008.

Which brands should I invest in, then?
Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) remains Interbrand's fastest-growing global brand, breaking into the top 10 for the first time. Big G grabbed the seventh slot on 25% growth from last year. Amazon.com (NASDAQ:AMZN) is hot on Big G's heels with 22% brand-value growth, reflecting consumers' acceptance of the whole concept of saving money by shopping online. Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) isn't far behind, either, cracking the top 20 thanks to 12% growth.

And I'd be a bad Swede if I didn't stop to marvel at Hennes & Mauritz and IKEA, both of which grew their brand values by 10% or more. H&M might have been listed on the Nasdaq or NYSE if not for the odious SarbOx requirements, but IKEA will probably never, ever go public. Still, it's cool to see my homeland grabbing global attention with both hands.

This is no mere popularity contest. Interbrand builds its rankings on the future earnings power of each brand. So when I see Google shooting up the rankings year after year, I take that as validation of my thesis that the Google growth story has only just begun. Check back in another five years, and maybe Coke will have made way for a marketing genius at the top of the list.

Google is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers pick. Apple and Amazon.com are Stock Advisor recommendations. Coca-Cola and Microsoft are Inside Value picks. Coca-Cola is also an Income Investor selection. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days.

Fool contributor Anders Bylund owns shares in Coke, Google, and Hennes & Mauritz, but he holds no other position in any of the companies discussed here. You can check out Anders' holdings or a concise bio if you like, and The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.