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10 Most Improved Brands of 2013

Rick Newman

The great vampire squid has trimmed its tentacles.

Investment bank Goldman Sachs (GS) tops the list of mid-year “buzz improvers,” according to market-research firm YouGov BrandIndex. That doesn’t mean Goldman is beloved, exactly. But it does indicate the firm’s reputation has improved since a famous 2010 Rolling Stone article declared Goldman was “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.” Such was the nation’s impression of Wall Street back then, just two years after the financial meltdown that kicked off a wrenching recession.

Of the 10 most improved brands on YouGov’s list, in fact, four are Wall Street banks. That comes as overall trust in institutions such as banks, big business and government seems to have bottomed out at record-low levels and begun to tick upward, according to polls conducted by Gallup. Three of the other six brands on the list follow a similar pattern, since they’re recovering from reputational damage caused by business difficulties. The remaining three are just on a roll. Here are the 10 brands with the most improved buzz scores through the first half of 2013, out of more than 1,100 U.S. brands YouGov tracks:

1. Goldman Sachs.
Improvement: 12.4 points; overall buzz score: -12.8

Though Goldman's reputation has improved significantly compared with a year ago, the firm still has a negative buzz score, which means more people have a negative impression of the firm that a positive one. Ford, which ranks No. 1 among U.S. brands, has a buzz score of 31, which is nearly 44 points higher than Goldman’s. Still, Goldman has been on kind of a goodwill tour, with CEO Lloyd Blankfein making routine media appearances to talk up the firm and Goldman even linking its lavish bonuses to behavior that protects the firm’s reputation.

2. Bank of America (BAC).
Improvement: 9.2 points; overall buzz score: -15.9

This bank made one of the worst deals in corporate history in 2008 which it acquired mortgage lender Countrywide Financial, which has since been snarled in lawsuits over bad loans and other controversies stemming from the recent housing bust. Consumers, however, seem to be gradually forgetting the mortgage scandal and the $25 billion federal bailout BofA received, leading to its improved buzz score. Still, BofA still has the lowest buzz score among the top 10 improvers.

3. JPMorgan Chase (JPM).
Improvement: 8.3 points; overall buzz score: -5.6

At this time last year, CEO Jamie Dimon was trying to explain the mushrooming “London Whale” trading loss, which ended up amounting to more than $6 billion. Dimon has since apologized for the costly flub, which seems to be fading in importance as JPMorgan continues to rack up healthy profits.

4. American Airlines (AAMRQ).
Improvement: 8.1 points; overall buzz score: 2.7

Declaring bankruptcy — which American did in November of 2011 —usually wrecks your reputation, as American discovered. But a restructuring plan predicated on a pending merger with U.S. Airways ought to put the airline on firmer ground, and flight operations are normal, which has soothed fliers.

5. Blackberry (BBRY).
Improvement: 7.3 points; overall buzz score: 5.3

The troubled smartphone maker finally has a new flagship product, the Blackberry 10, which has deflected some criticism of its outdated lineup. But Blackberry is still struggling — with a stock price that's down 20% this year — and could ultimately end up bought out by a competitor.

6. Samsung Galaxy.
Improvement: 6.7 points; overall buzz score: 10.9

Unlike most of the other buzz improvers, the Galaxy story is mostly a good one, with consumers gaining new awareness of the Galaxy lineup as more models emerge, and critics praising its many features. The Galaxy's overall buzz score is second-highest among improvers.

7. Morgan Stanley (MS).
Improvement: 6.6 points; overall buzz score: -3.3)

This investment bank’s buzz score is negative, but it’s still the highest among the four banks that rank as most improved. It helps that Morgan Stanley managed to avoid the desperate losses that nearly sank other Wall Street banks and has generally stayed out of the headlines.

8. Kodak (EKDKQ).
Improvement: 12.4 points; overall buzz score: -12.8

People who hadn’t heard much about Kodak in a while suddenly noticed a big burst of negative publicity after the film company declared bankruptcy in January of 2012. Kodak now hopes to emerge from bankruptcy later this year as a smaller and leaner company.

9. Bing.
Improvement: 5.6 points; overall buzz score: 12.7

There’s no troubling backstory here. Microsoft’s (MSFT) search engine has been gradually gaining adherents, and its market share recently exceeded 17 percent for the first time. Of the 10 improvers, Bing’s overall buzz score is the highest.

10. Starbucks (SBUX) DoubleShot.
Improvement: 5.5 points; overall buzz score: -2.4

YouGov considers this lineup of highly caffeinated canned coffee drinks to be its own brand, and its reputation is improving as Starbucks penetrates retail chains that sell beverages singly or by the case. The negative overall buzz score probably comes from the bad rap energy drinks have been getting from health officials, which may make the drink itself more buzzy than its reputation.

Rick Newman’s latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.