The Top Brands in Food Service, Hotels, Retail and More
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Top restaurant overall
Secret sauce: In-N-Out Burger rarely advertises or talks to the press. It took nearly 30 years for the brand, founded in 1948, to add milkshakes to its simple menu and 44 years to expand outside of California (it is still found in just five Western states). And most of its best items are on a "hidden menu" known only to die-hard fans. It sounds like the formula for brand sabotage, but that exclusivity has created a cult-like fanaticism fueled by regional pride, nostalgia and damn good burgers and fries. And people on the outside are desperate to join in the fun--when In-N-Out opened its first Texas locations in 2011, customers camped out overnight and endured a 2-mile-long drive-thru line.
The alternative: Before Panera, it wasn't easy to get a quick meal without excess salt, sugar and fat. Panera found its groove by filling that niche, supplying soup, light sandwiches and salads to the burger-averse. Now the fast-food alternative stays on top by keeping tabs on consumer tastes and adjusting its menu to new generations of health-conscious consumers with the addition of items like egg whites and lettuce wraps.
Cracker Barrel Old Country Store
Be the brand: If the rocking chairs didn't clue you in, then maybe the exclusive album by Vince Gill and Paul Franklin will get through. Cracker Barrel is country--and it's not afraid to flaunt it. From its Southern-inspired menu to its retail shop, the Barrel gives loyal customers a comforting slice of down-home life.
The Cheesecake Factory
Variety unbound: There are more than 250 items on the Bible-size menu at The Cheesecake Factory, the 169-unit casual-dining chain. But the menu's not the only thing that's huge: so are the portions and the carb counts. In an era of calorie counting, the Factory stands out--and draws crowds--through its commitment to excess. It's a quintessential American splurge that has become synonymous with celebrating all things over-the-top.
Experience everywhere: Yes, Starbucks is about coffee, but at its core it's also about place. Its powerful customer loyalty comes from the guarantee that the Starbucks experience--and a custom double soy caramel macchiato--is available no matter what city you're in, or even what street you find yourself on. In short, Starbucks is a brand that has transcended marketing and integrated itself into millions of customers' routines.
Quality above all: There's one thing that makes Chick-fil-A a true standout: Its classic pressure-cooked chicken sandwich is really good, especially when measured against offerings from other fast-food outlets. That quality has led to strong brand loyalty for the more than 1,700-unit franchise. And though controversies over the company's championing of religious and conservative viewpoints have caused some backlash in recent years, those same actions actually led to a boost in customer loyalty in some parts of the U.S.
Chipotle Mexican Grill
Humane interest: In the restaurant industry, you don't call the shots until you're the alpha dog. Witness McDonald's: The way it handles its beef and chicken affects the entire industry and the food chain as a whole. But Chipotle has chosen to ignore the lead of McDonald's and other giants that source cheap ingredients, sticking to its "food with integrity" mantra since its founding in 1993. That means using humanely raised, antibiotic-free meat, organic and locally sourced produce and hormone-free dairy products whenever possible.
Now that Chipotle, with nearly 1,600 locations, is one of the big guys, its policies are beginning to influence other chains. That commitment, plus delicious, custom-made burritos, has created a truly ravenous fan base.
Rita's Italian Ice
Savvy nostalgia: "Ice, custard, happiness." A formula for success doesn't get much simpler, and honoring that philosophy has made the more than 600-unit Rita's Italian Ice franchise a beloved institution. Up to a quarter of the chain's customers visit at least once a week, drawn by cheerful customer service, innovative offerings (Swedish Fish-flavored ice!) and the simple convenience of walk-up stands.
Maggiano's Little Italy
The grocernaut: Dining out is expensive, but it's a necessary evil for many busy professionals. That's one reason Maggiano's, with almost 50 units across the U.S., came up with the idea of giving anyone who orders one of its classic pastas a complimentary second serving to take home. It was also among the first brands to sell freshly prepared to-go products. This combination of restaurant and prepared-food grocer--plus the fact that Maggiano's is often ranked as having the best casual-dining fare in the country--is creating one of the next great restaurant brands.
Fresh on demand: There probably isn't another brand that symbolizes freshness like Jamba Juice. Its 850-plus bright yellow stores and mounds of fruit evoke health and vibrancy. Recently, the smoothie chain has extended its brand by putting 1,800 kiosks in schools and Target stores, and will launch another 1,000 this year.
Morton's The Steakhouse
Service, refined: Great steak will keep diners coming back, but exceptional customer service will secure them as lifetime patrons. That's something Morton's, with more than 70 locations worldwide, understands to its marrow. The company will do almost anything to keep customers happy: The staff even met a regular customer at the airport with a porterhouse when he jokingly tweeted at them that he was hungry.
Top Hotel Overall
The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company
These days puttin' on the Ritz is a grand affair. Every employee is authorized to spend up to $2,000 of hotel resources to solve any guest problem. And the venerable Ritz has realized that its brand can extend beyond the exquisitely decorated lobby:Longevity in luxury: "We are ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen." Yes, it would have been a great line in Downton Abbey, but that quote is actually the motto of the Ritz-Carlton, which runs 85 hotels in 32 countries and whose origins date back to 1927.
The company has developed fractional residence properties and is expanding into resorts and boutique hotels through its Ritz-Carlton Reserve brand.
The local touch: Details are what make boutique hotels, and The James--with locations in Chicago, Miami and New York--is a master at subtly pointing out what makes it different. By partnering with local institutions, like Miami's Museum of Contemporary Art and the New World Symphony, the hotel bridges the gap between international luxury and local flavor.
Like home, guaranteed: Hampton isn't out to nickel-and-dime customers. There's free internet access in every room. There's a free hot breakfast. Power outlets are placed in spots where you can actually use them. If you are unhappy for any reason, your room fee is refunded, no questions asked. And oh, yeah: It's all at a cheaper price than many hotels that provide far fewer amenities. For those reasons, business travelers flocked to Hampton during the recession--and thousands of them have never looked back.
Top liquor overall
Beyond the worm: If you've noticed over the past two decades that your margaritas are going down a little smoother, you can say "gracias" to Patrón. The tequila company, founded in 1989, almost single-handedly elevated American "te-kill-ya" culture with its ultra-premium, 100 percent blue-agave spirit, produced in Jalisco, Mexico. Once tastemakers got a whiff of the good stuff, cheap tequila was finished, and hundreds of high-class brands have followed Patrón's lead.
The distiller has remained on top for more than a decade by innovating, introducing varieties such as coffee, cocoa and citrus. But it's the emphasis on quality--and the company's ability to tell that story--that makes Patrón a brand standard. Just take a look at 2012's "60 Hands" mini-documentary, which shows that it really does take a village to make a good bottle of tequila.
Top Retailer Overall
Help yourself: After perhaps Brie and the Statue of Liberty, the best gift the French have given the U.S. may be Sephora, the cosmetics and perfume mega-boutique that carries more than 100 high-quality brands. In 16 years, the chain, which has more than 300 stores in the U.S. and 1,780 more in 29 countries, has completely disrupted the way cosmetics are sold. Not only does the store let customers flit from brand to brand and sample them all, but the knowledgeable sales staff will also instruct on makeup tricks and techniques. And with the launch of Marc Jacobs Beauty, the company is expanding its in-house product development into the high-profile luxury arena. Sephora has also become a social media ninja, mining Pinterest to gather marketing data, nurturing a fun Facebook culture and using its app and free gifts to maintain customer loyalty.
Priceless attire: It doesn't seem to matter to Maxxinistas just how T.J.Maxx's off-price model works. (FYI, the retailer's savvy buyers find deals on overproduced designs or oversize orders by other department stores.) What devotees care about are the name brands at 20 to 60 percent off department-store prices. In the past few years, marketing campaigns have focused on promoting the chain's offerings of current women's trends, elevating T.J. to the throne of thrifty fashion.
Life, digitized: After years of watching Apple create entire technology segments--desktop computers in the 1980s, then digital music players, smartphones, tablets--it's easy to forget why so many people were drawn to the company in the first place. In a consumer tech industry that was fractured into software and hardware developers, many of which did not work well together, Apple integrated the two, making beautifully designed products that employ no-hassle, proprietary operations and fit perfectly into people's lives and pockets. It is that promise that still drives the Apple love and fanaticism.
Innovations like iCloud help people keep their data, photos and music synced among various devices and show that the company is still focused on its prime directive: designing products that make users' lives better.
Tiffany & Co.
Still serving breakfast: At 177 years old, Tiffany is the great, great grandmama of American jewelry stores, but age hasn't kept it from holding its spot at the top of the style pyramid. The iconic blue box is still the gold (and silver, and platinum) standard symbol of upscale jewelry--aided, no doubt, by the 1961 Audrey Hepburn film classic Breakfast at Tiffany's, one of the greatest product placements of all time. And while the company stuck strictly to gems and precious metals for nearly two centuries, in the past few years it has been licensing its good name to luxury goods that are purchased more frequently than serious baubles, such as sunglasses.
Customized for customers: If you don't live down South, chances are you've never shopped at one of the 1,080 Publix supermarkets that dot Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, South Carolina and, most recently, North Carolina. However, if you do live below the Mason-Dixon line, you probably swear by the place. Why? Because in the age of bad service, Publix is bucking the trend with employees who will fetch a bag of cookies or head of lettuce at the drop of a hat and who strive to make sure that lines never get too long. Everyone is friendly, the stores are spotless, and house brands save shoppers real money. Publix's more than 165,000 employees own a portion of the company, which has been ranked among the best retailers to work for by multiple publications. (Publix is the largest employee-owned grocery chain in the U.S.) And if that isn't convincing enough, blow an afternoon watching the sappy commercials on YouTube. They might just inspire a trip to Florida.
Great expectations: When Target expanded farther across the U.S. in the 1980s and '90s, most people saw it as Wal-Mart with weird shopping carts and an extra dollar added to every price tag. But that impression didn't last long, mainly because the company fought to live up to the tagline it has used since 1994: "Expect more. Pay less." Target's youth-focused marketing, emphasis on affordable style and exclusive collections by well-known clothing designers (which have had the effect of elevating the perceived value of its commodity offerings, too) have made it the go-to store for young women. With the addition of fresh groceries at many of its nearly 2,000 locations, Target has upped its one-stop-shop appeal, bringing its flair to food with unique organic and private-label brands. The only thing that might compromise the brand's rise? The credit card hacking scandal that broke in late 2013.
Flying, revived: Airlines suck. It doesn't matter how many uplifting commercials they run or bonus miles they shove at customers, the experience of shooting through space in a filthy, cramped, overbooked and often late sky bus is a necessary evil. Or that's what Americans thought until Richard Branson launched Virgin America in 2007. The airline aims to make flying tolerable--even pleasant--again, not to mention more affordable. So far, consumers think it's doing a bang-up job on both fronts. Each comfy leather seat, even in the main cabin, is equipped with an entertainment system with satellite TV and on-demand movies and games. Snacks and drinks can be ordered via the console, and soothing LED mood lights give the cabin a modern glow. And while these amenities keep travelers happy, the airline's social media presence gets them excited--every employee is empowered to keep operations transparent and to be responsive via Twitter and Facebook, where customers are encouraged to share their Virgin stories.
Green beauty: The beauty industry is based on selling dreams, but Aveda focuses on results. That's why year after year, customers flock to Aveda salons and cosmetic stores for safe products with "naturally derived" ingredients that get the job done. Salon stylists are trained to help consumers accentuate their beauty, not ape popular styles. By doing the heavy lifting and actively committing to environmental responsibility--through earth-friendly product packaging and financial support of nonprofits and indigenous growing communities--Aveda has created millions of fabulous-looking devotees.
Loud and clear: Verizon has made its name by hammering home one message: It's good at what it does. And what it does is provide reliable phone and data coverage; it was the first nationwide 3G wireless broadband network and first tier-one provider to roll out a large-scale 4G LTE network. When Apple finally unlocked the iPhone from AT&T, Verizon stepped in, getting raves for its service and creating loyal fans in the fickle cell phone world.
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