Explainer: How 15 of the world's top brands got started

  • Image: Coca-Cola bottles on an assembly line at a Coca-Cola bottling plant.
    AFP - Getty Images

    The world’s top brands were started by normal people with extraordinary determination. But, as you’ll see, everything started as nothing.

    The rankings and brand values were determined by Interbrand, the world’s premier brand ranking organization.

  • NIke

    Image: Nike logo on factory store door

    Brand value: $13.7 billion

    Founders: Philip H. Knight and William “Bill” J. Bowerman

    Founded: 1964 (as Blue Ribbon Sports), Eugene, Oregon, United States

    How it started: After wrapping up business school in 1962, Philip Knight decided to spend his time travelling across Japan. There, he got in touch with a Japanese athletic shoemaker, Onitsuka Tiger Co. As a former track athlete at the University of Oregon, Philip agreed to import their shoes to the United States on a small scale. To satisfy the Japanese company’s requests, he quickly filed a company, Blue Ribbon Sports.

    At the end of 1943, he took an order of 200 shoes from Onitsuka Tiger. He stored the inventory in his father’s basement and peddled the shoes out of the back of his car at track meets.

    In 1964, Philip partnered with his former track coach, Bill Bowerman. That year, BRS sold 1,300 shoes to gross $8,000. In 1965, sales reached $20,000. The following year, they rented retail space so their few employees didn’t have to keep selling the shoes out of their cars.

    By 1971, the relationship between BRS and Onitsuka Tiger was nearing an end. Philip and Bill were preparing to launch their own line of footwear. By the end of the year, the relationship split, BRS started using a swoosh for a logo, and they called themselves “Nike” after the Greek goddess of victory.

  • Amercian Express

    Image: American Express card
    AFP/Getty Images

    Brand value: $13.9 billion

    Founders: Henry Wells, William Fargo, and John Warren Butterfield

    Founded: 1850, Albany, New York, United States

    How it started: Henry Wells began working as an expressman for an east coast express company in 1839. Express companies transported money and valuables because they were more reliable than the United States Postal Service. Henry repeatedly proposed expanding business westward to his boss, but the company continually said no. So he set out on his own.

    After years of slim margins and slow growth, Henry teamed up with his competitors, William Fargo and John Warren Butterfield, to form the American Express Company in 1850. They expanded rapidly by acquiring small companies in the Midwest and negotiating contracts with the first railways.

    In 1851, they reached an agreement with their biggest rival, Adams and Company, to stay out of each others’ territory. American Express was to expand north and west while Adams and Co. was free to grow south and east.

    Within a year, Henry and William feared Adams and Co. would gain a monopoly on the California gold fields. So they proposed an expansion plan into California and American Express’s Board of Directors said no. Unnerved, Henry and William launched another venture to provide banking and express services in California. They called it, “Wells Fargo & Company.”

  • H&M

    Image: Grand opening of an H&M store
    Getty Images

    Brand value: $16.1 billion

    Founder: Erling Perrson

    Founded: 1947, Västerås, Sweden

    How it started: Erling Perrson got the idea for Hennes & Mauritz (H&M) following a post-World War II trip to the United States. He had been impressed by the efficient, high-volume stores. In his home country of Sweden, he revolutionized women’s clothing retailers in Europe by starting Hennes (Swedish for “hers”).
    21 years later Erling acquired Mauritz Widforss, a hunting store, and its inventory of men’s clothing. So he started selling men’s apparel as well and renamed his company to H&M. Today they have 2,000 stores spread across 37 countries.

  • Samsung

    Image: A Smart TV made by Samsung

    Brand value: $19.5 billion

    Founder: Lee Byung-chul

    Founded: 1938, South Korea

    How it started: Samsung started as a grocery store when Lee Byung-chul opened Samsung Sanghoe in 1938. The business prospered and he moved the headquarters to Seoul in 1947. However, when the Korean War broke out, he was forced to leave. So he started a sugar refinery and a woolen mill under the parent company, Samsung.

    In the 1960s, the South Korean President Park Chung-hee implemented policies to protect conglomerates (Samsung included) from competition. Park banned foreign companies from selling electronics in South Korea until 1979, when he was assassinated. This gave Samsung 18 years to fine-tune their products and become one of the biggest electronics providers in the world.

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  • Marlboro

    Image: Marlboros

    Brand value: $20 billion

    Founder: Philip Morris

    Founded: 1902, New York, New York, United States

    How it started: In 1902, a British cigarette manufacturer, Philip Morris, moved to New York to sell his cigarettes. In 1924, he started what would become one of the world’s foremost case studies in marketing.
    At this time, all cigarettes were pretty much the same. Philip introduced the Marlboro as a woman’s cigarette with the tagline “Mild as May” and a printed red band around the filter to hide unsightly lipstick stains.

    A study released in the 1950s linked smoking to lung cancer, so the brand did a 180 to position it as the man’s cigarette. Safer, filtered cigarettes were viewed as womanly and men didn’t want to be seen smoking them until Marlboro changed the smoking culture with this marketing campaign.

    Disclaimer: I will never smoke a cigarette and I officially recommend that you do the same. Marlboro is included here because it’s a monstrous brand and you can learn from their story.

  • Louis Vuitton

    Image: Louis Vuitton store in Paris
    Getty Images

    Brand value: $21.9 billion

    Founder: Louis Vuitton

    Founded: 1854, Paris, France

    How it started: At the age of 14, little Louis decided to move to Paris from his hometown, Jura. He made the 249-mile journey by foot, picking up odd jobs along the way.

    Once he got to Paris, he became an apprentice Layetier (trunk-maker) for prominent households. Because of his well established reputation, Napoleon III appointed Louis as the Layetier to his wife, Empress Eugénie de Montijo. Through this experience, he gained advanced knowledge of what people wanted in quality luggage.

    In 1854 (age 43), Louis opened his first luggage store in Paris. He aimed to serve wealthy, travelling Parisians and created one of the most luxurious brands in the world in the process.

  • Cisco

    Image: Cisco logo

    Brand value: $23.2 billion

    Founders: Leonard Bosack and Sandra Lerner

    Founded: 1984, San Francisco, California, United States

    How it started: At Stanford, Leonard was the manager of the computer science laboratory and his wife, Sandy, oversaw the computers at the graduate school of business. Wanting to communicate with his wife, Leonard devised a way to connect the two local area networks over 500 yards across campus.

    In 1984, they mortgaged their house, ran up credit cards, deferred their salaries, and had their friends working for them so they could start a company to sell this internetworking technology. They came up with the name “Cisco” (shortened from San Francisco) while driving across the Golden Gate Bridge (which became the inspiration for their logo).

    In 1986, Cisco was the first company to commercially provide a multi-protocol router. A year later, Cisco was selling $250,000 worth of routers per month.

  • Gillette

    Image: Gillette Good News razors rest on a shelf of a grocery store

    Brand value: $23.3 Billion

    Founder: King Camp Gillette

    Founded: 1901, United States

    How it started: In 1895, while working as a traveling salesman for a cork company, King noticed that bottle caps were used once and thrown away. Then the bottling companies had to buy more bottle caps. This made him recognize the value in using this business model to create recurring revenue.
    He also noticed that every man on the planet had to sharpen their razors daily. King envisioned an inexpensive, double-edged blade that could be clamped over a handle, used until it was dull, and then discarded.

    Over the next six years, King perfected his safety razor despite pessimistic scientists and toolmakers telling him that it was impossible. In 1901, he created the American Safety Razor Company (renamed Gillette Safety Razor Company in 1902) to raise $5,000 (equivalent to about $150,000 today) so he could begin manufacturing his invention.

    The company began selling the safety razor in 1903 and sold 51 razor sets (at $5) and 168 blades (at 20 for $1) for a first-year revenue of $263. The following year, they received their patent and sold 90,884 razors and 123,648 blades.

  • Mercedes-Benz

    Image: The Mercedes-Benz SLS is on display at the L.A. Auto show in Los Angeles

    Brand value: $25.2 billion

    Founders: Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler

    Founded: 1871, Germany

    How it started: In January of 1886, Karl Benz unveiled the world’s first automobile, a motorized tricycle dubbed the Benz Patent Motor Car. A few months later, Gottlieb Daimler rolled out a four-wheeled vehicle powered by his Daimler engine. Although they were only 60 miles apart, the two were unaware of each other’s early work.

    40 years after the first two vehicles were invented, the companies merged to form Daimler-Benz AG. The Mercedes-Benz brand was born.

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  • Toyota

    Image: 2010 Toyota Camry sedans

    Brand value: $26.2 billion

    Founder: Kiichiro Toyoda

    Founded: 1937, Japan

    How it started: In 1924, Sakichi Toyoda invented the Toyoda Model G Automatic Loom to efficiently manufacture textiles. The Japanese government encouraged Toyoda Automatic Loom Works (Sakichi’s company) to develop automobiles a few years later. So Kiichiro, Sakichi’s son, traveled to Europe and the US to investigate automobile production.

    After returning, Kiichiro established an Automobile Department within Toyoda Automatic Loom Works and produced its first Type A Engine in 1934. A year later, they were selling their first Model A1 passenger car and G1 truck.

    Toyota Motor Company split off from Toyoda Automatic Loom Works in 1937 but the Toyota Group still makes textiles and sewing machines that are sold worldwide.

  • Disney

    Image: Mickey
    Getty Images

    Brand value: $28.7 billion

    Founders: Walt and Roy Disney

    Founded: 1923, Los Angeles, California, United States

    How it started: At age 22 in 1923, Walt Disney moved to California to try to sell a short film about a little girl in cartoon land, Alice’s Wonderland. Within a few months he found a distributor that contracted to release the series of Alice Comedies.

    After modest success with the Alice series, Walt decided to move to an all cartoon series with a character named Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Within a year, the distributor hired all of Walt’s designers to create the cartoon without Walt since the distributor owned the rights to Oswald.

    In 1928, Walt was forced to come up with a new character with the help of Ub Iwerks. Mortimer Mouse was born but Walt’s wife preferred “Mickey.” Steamboat Willie, featuring Mickey Mouse, was the first fully synchronized sound cartoon (voiced by Walt Disney). It was an immediate sensation around the world and Mickey Mouse is now the mascot for the world’s premier entertainment company.

  • Nokia

    Image: Nokia phone

    Brand value: $29.5 billion

    Founder: Fredrik Idestam

    Founded: 1865, Tampere, Finland

    How it started: In 1865, Nokia started by making paper — one of the original communications technologies. Fredrik Idestam built a wood pulp mill on the banks of the Tammerkoski River. An engineer by trade, Fredrik developed a new, cheaper paper manufacturing process that revolutionized the paper industry. His big break was winning a bronze medal for this invention at the Paris World Exposition in 1867.

    After a century of mergers and acquisitions, Nokia got into mobile communication in the early 1980s.

  • McDonald's

    Image: Big Mac
    AFP - Getty Images

    Brand value: $33.6 billion

    Founders: Richard and Maurice McDonald (restaurant), Ray Kroc (corporation)

    Founded: 1940, San Bernardino, California, United States

    How it started: Brothers, Richard “Dick” and Maurice “Mac” McDonald opened McDonald’s Bar-B-Que as a typical drive-in with a large menu in 1940. Eight years later, they shut it down to simplify the menu to nine items (hamburger, cheeseburger, soft drinks, milk, coffee, potato chips, and pie) so they could implement their “Speedee Service System”.

    In 1954, a salesman named Ray Kroc visited the restaurant to sell them his Multimixer. A year later, Ray opened his own McDonald’s franchise. He later purchased the entire company and aggressively expanded to over 500 stores in eight years. Now there are more than 32,000 McDonald’s restaurants.

    Ray Kroc and Walt Disney became friends in the 1920s while training to become ambulance drivers for WWI. Soon after Ray became owner of McDonald’s, he sent Walt a letter asking to open a McDonald’s in Disneyland. Walt agreed on the stipulation that fries would be raised from 10 cents to 15 cents allowing Disney to take the additional profit. Kroc refused to gouge his customers leaving Disneyland McDonald’s-less.

  • General Electric

    Image: GE logo

    Band value: $42.8 billion

    Founder: Thomas Edison

    Founded: 1892, Shenectady, New York, United States

    How it started: In 1876, Thomas Edison opened up a laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey (now Edison, NJ) where he earned the nickname, “The Wizard of Menlo Park”. There he proceeded to invent the incandescent light bulb, the phonograph, a stock ticker, the motion picture camera, a mechanical vote counter, an alkaline storage battery, and over 1,000 other inventions. To sell his inventions he established a company in 1890 and called it the Edison General Electric company.

    ( is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal. The latter is a division of GE.)

  • Coca-Cola

    Image: Coke
    AFP - Getty Images

    Brand value: $70.5 billion

    Founder: Dr. John Stith Pemberton

    Founded: 1886, Atlanta, Georgia, United States

    How it started: As a pharmacist, John Pemberton concocted a syrup and carried a jug of it down the street to a local pharmacy. The clerk thought it was excellent and put it on sale for five cents a glass. John advertised in The Atlanta Journal and placed hand-painted, oilcloth signs reading “Coca-Cola” on store awnings. He proceeded to sell nine drinks per day his first year. Today they sell 1.6 billion servings every day.

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