10 Brands That Changed the World

From fast food to fast fashion, a glass telephone to plastic money, some brands don't merely influence our spending habits—they determine who we are. All are household names, not just on our shores but all over the globe. Here's how they made it.


1

Amazon

Contrary to legend, Jeff Bezos doesn’t do everything right.

When he quit his Wall Street job in 1994 to move to Seattle and start an online retail company, the first name he chose was Cadabra (as in abracadabra.) When someone confused it with “cadaver,” Bezos changed his mind, opting for Amazon.

The name is apt in many ways. While Bezos picked it so it would come first in a site search list (back then, they were alphabetical), he also liked it because it contained an “a” and a “z,” the thinking being that Amazon would one day sell everything, and all over the world at that.

Today, that is precisely what Amazon does. Need a lawn mower? An aspirin? A sweater for your dog? How about an e-book and an Amazon Kindle to read it on? With just a few clicks, any of these items is yours.

It’s not hard to guess what this formula hath wrought. Amid grumbles of Dickensian labor practices and driving mom-and-pop stores out of business, Amazon rules the global e-commerce kingdom. Its computers get some 35 orders a second, filled from warehouses in 18 states and 14 countries from Costa Rica to Luxembourg.

Amazon today does about $70 billion in sales. (When the site went down for 49 minutes earlier this year, it lost upwards of $6 million.)

Bezos once said that “brands are like quick-drying cement”—you have to stock and move them quickly. And that, Amazon has done better than anyone could have predicted.

2

Facebook

Contrary to what one might assume, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg wasn’t a computer science major at Harvard. Rather, he studied psychology.

Perhaps that’s only fitting. Facebook, the $113 billion social network he unleashed on the world nine years ago, has completely redefined how its 650 million active users socialize, date, shop and live.

As much of a social genius as he may be, the young Zuckerberg never really envisioned all that. Facebook, as everybody knows by now, was originally intended merely as a way for undergrads to meet one another (and maybe hook up) online. Facebook, of course, outgrew the Harvard campus pretty quickly. Six months after launch, it had already notched 1 million users.

Facebook, the company (with its 15 percent profit margin and $6.9 billion in revenue), has become as much of a powerhouse as Facebook, the social media site. Some 15 million companies now use the brand in their consumer marketing, as they chase the 155 million Americans now on the site. (Forty-eight percent of adults 18-34 check Facebook first thing every morning, and 1 million links get shared every 20 minutes.)

One in 13 humans is on Facebook, just 30 percent of them in the U.S. Facebook’s largest user base is in Europe and Asia—home to consumers U.S. brands are eager to reach.

Facebook seems to have all the answers. In fact, we got all these stats from the site.

3

Gap

Don Fisher couldn’t find a pair of jeans that fit. In 1969, the San Francisco house builder looked everywhere for Levi’s with a 34-inch waist and 31-inch inseam, visiting every department store in town. No dice—only even-length sizes were stocked. That’s when it hit him: What if someone offered all the styles, colors and sizes that Levi Strauss & Co. had to offer under one roof?

So, Fisher leased a storefront and called it The Gap (a riff on generation gap). Thrilled with the selection and the prices (jeans went for $7), the masses came. Fisher figured one day he might open 10 stores in San Francisco. Today, The Gap boasts 3,400 locations globally. (If all the Gap’s storefront windows were strung end-to-end, they’d run for 10 miles.)

But The Gap was no mere clothing chain—it pioneered the idea of specialty retail with its single-category focus, popular prices and broad selection. It marked a turning point in retailing, from when people shopped for clothes in department stores to today’s retail outposts dedicated to most every need.

Much has changed since the ’60s. The Gap now makes its brand of jeans, doesn’t sell cassette tapes, and is a horizontally integrated company whose products feature price points higher (Banana Republic) and lower (Old Navy) than its own. (The company boasts revenue of $16.2 billion.) Today, anyone with a few bucks (or pounds or rubles) in 90 countries can most likely find something to wear at The Gap—even jeans with a 31-inch inseam.

4

HBO

On a dreary winter day in 1972, a new channel called Home Box Office flickered to life on a fledgling cable system snaked below the sidewalks of lower Manhattan. HBO showed first-run films, but its microwave feed was poor and its presence local. Then, Time-Life (which had a 20 percent stake) decided to take a gamble on satellite transmission, beaming the “Thrilla in Manila” boxing match in which Ali and Frazier mauled each other for 14 rounds. That was on Oct. 1, 1975—and suddenly, everybody wanted HBO.

By 1982, 9.8 million people had the channel, and 13.4 million by the following year. Granted, things haven’t always been easy for HBO. Competition from the VCR, then Showtime, then pay-per-view, then the Web has challenged the channel’s monthly-fee-based business plan. But HBO prevailed and redefined customer expectations of what television entertainment can be. After producing comedy specials and made-for-TV films in the ’80s, in 1998 it launched Sex and the City, a series so much smarter and sexier than anything else on the tube. With the debut of The Sopranos in 1999, the message was unmistakable: HBO was out to entertain the whole planet.

Today, with series like Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones and original films like the Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra, the channel whose tagline boasts “It’s not TV. It’s HBO” is a sure-fire cultural tsunami, with 27 prime-time Emmy wins and 114 million subscribers globally.

5

McDonald’s

Ray Kroc, a milkshake-maker salesman, knew a good thing when he saw it. And in 1952, it was a drive-in run by the McDonald brothers, famed around San Bernardino, Calif., for their tasty burgers and “Speedee Service.” So, Kroc bought them out for a then-princely $2.7 million. Today, the 34,000 McDonald’s stores worldwide make just north of that every hour. 

Even if you’ve never enjoyed a Quarter Pounder or an Egg McMuffin (highly unlikely), the world’s No. 1 burger chain has no doubt touched your life in some way. Standardized menus, self-service, the condiment station, franchising, publicly traded restaurant stock, even the idea of corporate culture itself (embodied by the creation of Hamburger University in 1961) were all brought to you by McDonald’s. Now employing 1.8 million people in 119 countries, McDonald’s has become so central to global trade that The Economist values foreign currencies against the dollar using the price of a Big Mac.

Then, there is the mighty cultural influence of the chain. Is it really true that Ronald McDonald is second only to Santa Claus in terms of recognition among kids? That would be a fact, as is that the first McDonald’s location in Russia (opened in Moscow in 1990) is credited with helping end the Cold War. Hong Kong couples are known for getting married at McDonald’s, which charges $260 for catering the nuptials.

All of it leaving little doubt that those Golden Arches hold up a good part of our world.

6

Starbucks

In case you missed it, the Harper’s Index tweeted out a jaw-dropping statistic about Starbucks this past summer: Of the 124 Starbucks locations in New York, 68 are within two blocks of one another.

Another stat that may come as a surprise: Starbucks Coffee Co., which started out with a single storefront in Seattle in 1971 and now boasts 11,000 U.S. locations, is actually a bigger presence overseas, with something on the order of 17,500 outposts in 61 countries. 

That’s a lot of coffee—to the tune of $13.29 billion in sales last year, in fact. But perhaps the neatest trick Starbucks pulled was raising coffee’s profile to the level where the average consumer is willing to pay several dollars (or pounds or pesos) for a cup of it. The 2012 introduction of the Costa Rica Finca Palmilera Reserve ($7 for the “tall,” or smallest, size) prompted Jimmy Kimmel to call the blend “a test to find out just how stupid we are.”

And yet, we continue to pony up. Not only does the average Starbucks customer patronize the chain six times per month, the top 20 percent pay 16 visits a month, speaking the Starbucks vulgate of “trenta,” “Frappuccino” and “half-caf” like their native tongue.

But before blaming Starbucks with mauling the language, consider that the chain has also led the way in progressive practices, adopting ethical sourcing standards and offering health benefits to its employees—a perk that costs the corporation $300 million per year. That’s something to savor.

 

7

iPhone

The moment is etched irrevocably in every tech lover’s memory. On Jan. 9, 2007, Apple founder Steve Jobs, live onstage at San Francisco’s Moscone Center, called a nearby Starbucks and ordered 4,000 lattes to go. The audience went wild because it saw history in the making. It was the first public call placed on an iPhone.

Nobody has counted how many calls have been placed on the iPhone since, but Apple has sold more than 380 million of the devices. In fact, the iPhone has become such a beloved (and for many, indispensible) gadget that it’s hard to believe it’s only been around six years. 

As befits a tech brand, iPhone’s history is a blur. Consider that just 74 days after unveiling this “revolutionary and magical product,” Apple had already sold 1 million of them. The iPhone 4 sold 1.7 million units within three days of its 2010 debut. And while unit sales of Samsung’s Galaxy surpassed the iPhone in 2011 (the year of Jobs’ death), it was only lapping a product that was already a legend: Apple sold 72 million phones globally that year—before the appearance of the iPhone 5, 9 million of which sold in three days.

The iPhone not only gave us the Dick Tracy moment of putting a computerized phone in our hands, but it also effortlessly morphed from gadget to unimpeachable status symbol. So many got stolen on the New York subways that cops coined a new term: “Apple picking.” As Time magazine put it, it’s “the phone that has changed phones forever.”

8

Visa

In 1958—the year Elvis ruled the charts and transatlantic jet service began—Bank of America issued the first credit card. The BankAmericard, as it was known, had a $300 spending limit, only worked in California and was made of paper. But customers loved buying on credit. A lot. By 1974, the card went global. Two years later, the marketing department decided to change the card’s name to something that suggested universal acceptance, no matter the culture, country or language: Visa.

Which is only fitting, since Visa almost single-handedly changed the way the world buys stuff—with a quick swipe, and without a thought to that 17 percent interest rate. Today, there are 278 million Visa cards in circulation in the U.S. and 522 million worldwide, leaving MasterCard and American Express in the dust.

Over the years, Visa didn’t stop with credit cards, either. Debit cards, prepaid cards, mobile payments and e-wallets all bear Visa’s imprimatur, arguably the most recognizable brand in the financial services world.

Funny thing, since Visa isn’t actually a bank and doesn’t even issue the cards—14,700 partner financial institutions do. In the brand’s own parlance, Visa is “a global payments technology company”—meaning that its computerized network, VisaNet, processes up to 30,000 payments per second, amounting to some $6.7 trillion per year.

Who would have thought a little paper card would have taught us all how to buy everything with plastic?

9

Viagra

Laugh all you want, you twenty-somethings, but sooner or later it could happen to you. More than 18 million men over 20 will experience erectile dysfunction—that’s about one in 10 men.

Before 1998, there wasn’t much of a remedy. That’s when an unexpected glitch in a medical trial changed everything. Pfizer scientists struggled with a new drug, a sildenafil citrate compound known as UK-92480 intended to treat hypertension and angina. It didn’t. Instead, male volunteers for the trial group reported they were experiencing unusually sustained erections. Pfizer executives (and more than a few dudes out there) must have heard music from heaven.

While it took nine more years to get FDA approval for Viagra, the development heralded the arrival of one of the most successful drugs in history—filling Pfizer’s coffers, and fulfilling men and women the world over. More than 40 million prescriptions later, the drug rings up $2 billion per year. Pfizer even has a fast-acting chewable version (called Viagra Jet) for developing nations.

Viagra impacted global trade in ways Pfizer never intended. The little blue pill is also the most counterfeited drug in the world, with shipments of “generic Viagra” from China often found to contain enough boric acid, chalk and drywall compound to scare you stiff. Still, Viagra has woven itself into the cultural fabric the way that no pharma brand ever has. Bob Dole pitched it, Michael Douglas praised it— and Rush Limbaugh needed it.

10

Walmart

You probably know the story by now. In 1962, Sam Walton opened a discount store in downtown Rogers, Ark., promising, simply, “The lowest prices—anytime, anywhere!”

And he delivered. In no time, Walmart would become a self-perpetuating retail machine. The more people came to shop, the more Walmart grew (51 stores by 1972, and 276 by 1980). The more the chain expanded and the more sales it made, the better its volume discounting got. While foes decry the fact that Walmart taught Americans that 10 bucks was a reasonable price for a pair of jeans, there’s no arguing how much people like cheap prices. This very week, in fact, 245 million people will visit Walmart, many of its stores featuring food departments whose size rivals a small regional airport terminal. (Walmart is now the largest grocer in the U.S.)

But it was the decision in 1991 to expand beyond these shores that gave Walmart its outsized influence. With 4,135 locations in the U.S. and 6,288 globally, international is the fastest growing part of its business, according to Walmart. With a foothold in more than 26 countries, the retailer isn’t just where the planet shops—it’s also where it works, as Walmart employs some 800,000 people.

There is no more powerful global retail force today than Walmart. The writer Jarod Kintz puts it best: “Like Alexander the Great and Caesar, I’m out to conquer the world. But first I have to stop at Walmart and pick up some supplies.”