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America’s Most Profitable Products

Thomas C. Frohlich and Alexander E.M. Hess
MILWAUKEE, WI - AUGUST 29: Motorcycle enthusiasts begin to arrive for Harley Davidson's 110th anniversary celebration on August 29, 2013 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. More than 100,000 people are expected for the four-day celebration which features concerts, a parade, street parties and other events. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Successful companies frequently depend on just one product for a large share of their sales. That’s true for some of the most iconic brands, including Coca-Cola, Marlboro, Jack Daniels, and Apple. In many cases, these products not only represent an outsized share of their company’s revenue, but they also have tremendous profit margins that serve as the foundation of the company’s profitability.

Nearly all the most profitable products are market leaders in their industry and are mass produced in incredible quantities. As a result, the company can apply significant pressure on suppliers to lower costs, while still selling to customers at the highest possible price.

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For instance, Apple sold more than 150 million iPhones in its latest full fiscal year, up 20% from the year before, when the company sold 125 million iPhones. Very few smartphone or consumer electronics devices can match that volume, which gives Apple notable leverage in negotiations for components and with carriers. Today, most Americans own a smartphone, and a huge number of these are iPhones.

The most profitable products tend to rely on the power of their brand, which can command a premium price and sell extraordinary numbers of units. In fact, some of these products, including Coca-Cola, Harley-Davidson and Jack Daniels, are also among the world’s most valuable brands, according to brand consultancy group Interbrand.

One major factor that helps to shape product profitability is exceptional management. On one hand, businesses that spend too much on areas such as research and development or marketing can cut deeply into a product’s margins. Of course, controlling expenses is a balancing act. A product that is not well-built or marketed is one that will fizzle away.

Clearly, the ability to develop or market a product well can be a huge source of popularity as well. Apple’s iPhone is hugely popular because it is, by most accounts, one of the most well-built and user-friendly smartphones made by a consumer electronics company. Coca-Cola and Marlboro likely owe much of their popularity to their world-famous advertising.

Product profitability is among the most difficult financial measurements to gauge from the financial information released by public companies. As a result, finding credible and reliable information on a product's profitability is also quite difficult. Public companies tend to guard data on product profits, and rightly so. This information is equivalent to a trade secret that corporations do not want their competitors to have, even if the figures can be estimated.

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Based on data from by Capital IQ, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed the S&P 500 companies that produce consumer products. We only considered corporations that have a single product that is considered to be the company’s flagship brand, or represents the largest single contributor to revenue. To account for the opaque nature of product profitability, 24/7 Wall St. only considered products of publicly traded companies that disclosed significant details about their operations. We excluded companies with an operating margin of less than 15%, as well as companies that did not break out revenue by division or product. In order to estimate product operating margin, in the cases when the product’s margin or revenue was not provided, we used the company or division’s operating margin as a proxy. If it was clear that the brand power of the product and high volume of sales allow the company to sell the product at a premium, we awarded the product a higher operating margin. Market share values listed are for the U.S. exclusively, and come from various industry sources. Variations of existing, well-established products, such as the iPhone 5c, Jack Daniels Honey and Diet Coke, were counted as part of the parent brand.

These are America’s most profitable products.

7. Harley-Davidson Motorcycles (HOG)
> Operating margin: 17%
> Product revenue: $4.1 million
> Market share: 54.9%
> Industry: Motorcycles

The 100-plus year old Harley-Davidson company has built a dedicated community of motorcycle enthusiasts. The approximately 1 million worldwide members Harley Owners Group, which the company introduced in 1983, promotes sales, events, rallies, and bike trips. Perhaps as a result, Harley-Davidson is among the world’s 100 most valuable brands, according to Interbrand’s 2013 report. The distinctive culture associated with Harley-Davidson is widespread beyond the U.S. Last year, China held its fifth annual Harley-Davidson National Rally, drawing thousands of riders. Nearly 168,000, or 55%, of new motorcycles registrations in the U.S. last year were Harley-Davidsons, according to the company. Revenue at the company's motorcycle and related products segment rose 6.4% last year from $4.9 billion to $5.3 billion. In addition to selling motorcycles, the company also services vehicles and provides financing, which help bring its company-wide operating margin up to nearly 20%.

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6. Enfamil
> Operating margin: 24%
> Product revenue: $2.0 billion
> Market share: 40.0%
> Industry: Packaged foods and meats

Enfamil is one of the best-selling infant formula brands in the world. While it trailed Abbott Laboratories' Similac brand in market share, the company claims to be the number one formula brand recommended by pediatricians. Its stellar brand has clearly helped Mead Johnson stay profitable in every year for the last 10 years. The company reported net sales of $4.2 billion in its most recent fiscal year, with Enfamil sales accounting for a large portion of the sales. Although a declining U.S. birth rate has raised some concerns about growth, the company continues to expand its presence in emerging markets and makes more than half of its revenues in Asia.

5. Coca-Cola (KO)
> Operating margin: 24%
> Product revenue: $13.7 billion
> Market share: 42.4%
> Industry: Soft drinks

Coca-Cola’s total revenue dropped 2.4% last year, as consumers’ preferences continued to shift towards less sugary, healthier drinks. Even with these developments, however, Coca-Cola remains the dominant player in the soda market. The 128-year-old company controlled 36% of the U.S. market in 1977, and 42% last year. Coca-Cola distributes more than 500 different beverage brands around the globe. In all, the company and its numerous bottlers sold a total of 28.2 billion unit cases of Coke and other beverages in 2013, up 2% from the year before. As of 2013, Coca-Cola trailed only Google and Apple on Interbrand’s list of the world’s 100 most valuable brands.

4. Jack Daniels Tennessee Whiskey
> Operating margin: 25%
> Product revenue: $2.0 billion
> Market share: 2.4% (U.S.; largest American whiskey)
> Industry: Alcohol

Jack Daniels is the top-selling American whiskey, and one of the largest spirits brands, in the world. It is also Brown-Forman Corporations’ principal product, and its biggest driver of growth. Although branding for Jack Daniels has often invoked the company's Southern heritage, the drink is popular worldwide, having benefited from rising whiskey demand overseas. According to Advertising Age, an increasingly large proportion of Jack Daniels revenue comes from international sales due to a recent bourbon boom. Jack Daniels is sold in a number of different variations, including Tennessee Whiskey, Single Barrel, Ready-to-Drinks, Tennessee Honey, and Winter Jack. The company reported net sales of $3.9 billion in fiscal 2014. Jack Daniels' popularity domestically and abroad is largely the driver behind the company's continued growth, according to Brown-Forman.

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3. Monster
> Operating margin: 26%
> Product revenue: $2.1 billion
> Market share: 34.6%
> Industry: Soft drinks

Like several other energy drink brands, Monster has come under some scrutiny for its brightly colored labels and flashy advertising, because such tactics tend to attract a young audience. One can of Monster has roughly five times the caffeine found in a can of Coke. Monster does not children or pregnant women consume its products. Despite bad press, Monster Beverage Corporation’s revenue has steadily increased in recent years. Sales rose more than 9% last year.

2. Marlboro
> Operating margin: 32%
> Product revenue: $18.7 billion
> Market share: 40.3%
> Industry: Tobacco

Despite a massive decline in American smoking habits since the 1960s, Marlboro cigarettes are still among America’s most profitable products. Altria Group, Marlboro’s parent company, shipped roughly 130 billion packs of cigarettes last year, including 111 billion packs of Marlboros, down slightly from the year before. The Marlboro brand, however, still dominates U.S. tobacco markets, controlling more than two-fifths of the tobacco market in America. The brand has been the top-selling cigarette nationwide for the past 35 years. While smoking is on the decline, the Marlboro brand can be found on a variety of smokeless tobacco products as well, including snus. Altria Group shipped 787.5 million units of smokeless tobacco products last year, up slightly from 2012.

1. iPhone
> Operating margin: 41%
> Product revenue: $91.3 billion
> Market share: 45.0%
> Industry: Computer hardware

A majority of Americans now own smartphones, according to Pew Research Center. Last year, 45% of all smartphones sold were iPhones. The iPhone is one of the world’s most profitable products and a primary driver in Apples’ (AAPL) financial success. The company’s fiscal 2013 sales increased by $14.4 billion, or 9%, from the year before. Much of the growth was due to strong iPhone 5 sales, as well as the successful introductions of iPhone 5S and lower-cost 5c. Net sales of the iPhone totaled $91.3 billion last year, up 16% from 2012, when sales increased by more than 70% from the year before. Interbrand named Apple the world’s most valuable brand last year.

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