Detroit has General Motors, Ford and Chrysler – the “Big Three” auto makers whose histories, fortunes and misfortunes defined Motor City. But it’s also the headquarters of Quicken Loans, Little Caesars Pizza and Shinola, the watchmaking Texas carpetbagger jeered by locals for co-opting Detroit’s tenacious all-American image.
Akron gave birth to Goodyear, Goodrich, Firestone and General Tire, earning it the nickname “Rubber Capital of the World.” But it’s also the longtime home of a mishmash of market leaders: GOJO hand cleaner, Sterling Jewelers and Strickland’s Frozen Custard.
Pittsburgh has steel but also ketchup – did you know Heinz tops U.S. Steel in revenue for the region? Beer made Milwaukee famous, but health care and financial services are now its biggest industries. Seattle has Boeing, Microsoft and grunge bands.
Which brands define Phoenix and its civic identity? And what separates a company as an “ambassador brand” for the Valley of the Sun from the merely also-theres, or the mythology-appropriating pretenders? (Looking at you, University of Phoenix.)
For this list, we surveyed readers and corralled a diverse advisory board of local influencers. What we found is that Phoenix, while lacking the dominion over a single industry that gives a city nicknamed notoriety, plays home to a variety of brands that each say something about the unique quality of life in the Valley.
Perhaps it’s best our city’s progress is not tied to the ups and downs of a signature industry. When one crashes and burns, another rises.
The Brand PHX Panel
Businessman/former Phoenix mayor
Outlier Pick: Avnet. “When [the company] moved here, it put us on the radar with companies for future growth and
Newswoman/KTAR radio personality
Outlier Pick: Arizona Wilderness Brewing Co. “I love AZ Wilderness because AZ Wilderness loves Arizona. [It] uses locally sourced ingredients around the state and received global recognition.”
of Local First Arizona
Outlier Pick: Shamrock. “I went [there] on a field trip in third grade and had ice cream on a wooden spoon. It makes me think of my childhood. And their impact on Arizona’s economy is remarkable.”
Media fixer/CEO of Phoenix public
relations firm Awe Collective
Outlier Pick: Fairytale Brownies. “Don’t tell Mom, but Fairytale has her brownies beat by a long shot. What soulless human doesn’t love a great brownie? I’ll take mine crumbled over a malt, please.”
CEO of Upward Projects
Outlier Pick: Fender. “[They’re] just freaking cool… the household name in guitars. Plus, they put the Valley front and center with local outreach.”
Developer/owner of DWG Phoenix
Outlier Pick: Arizona Biltmore. “I think the definition of a brand is one that others claim as their own. There are neighborhoods miles away that include the Biltmore name in their marketing efforts.”
The Valley’s Top 10 Brands
Axon (formerly TASER International)
Why it made the list: Industry disruptor with vision and daring; household name; “Don’t Tase me, bro!”
Having worked itself into 98 percent of the nation’s police departments with the Taser electronic stun gun – it’s estimated that every three minutes, somewhere in the U.S., a law enforcement officer fires a Taser – the Scottsdale-based company rebranded in April and now draws a quarter of its business from body cameras and digital evidence solutions. But the stated mission of the company remains, boldly, “creating a bullet-less world” – a tricky tightrope as its customers, i.e. the nation’s police agencies, are procuring Axon body cams mostly to justify use of said bullets in contested shootings. “Axon has the best founder’s story,” says Kimber Lanning, referring to CEO Rick Smith’s decision to start the company with his brother Tom after losing two Chaparral High School friends in a road rage incident. “He wanted something better. He believed people shouldn’t lose their lives over parking lot brawls.” Former Mayor of Phoenix Skip Rimsza admires the company’s tech focus. “They’re innovative and they’re growing,” he says. “Axon is a total winner for the Valley.”
Arizona State University
Why it made the list: Half of us are alumni, so bias, probably; named the most innovative school in the country by U.S. News and World Report
Like the Valley itself, ASU was long saddled with a hedonistic, leisure-focused image – not the best face for an institute of higher learning. But under the direction of Michael Crow, who became president in 2002, ASU shed its party school image to become a leader in advanced sciences and innovation. “It has a reputation now as one of the most innovative universities in the country,” says KTAR personality/host Pamela Hughes, who, like many of our readers and advisory board members, attended the college and applauds its reinvention. “In academics, you gotta evolve or perish, and they’ve evolved.” Lauren Bailey marvels at how nimble her alma mater has become in its second century. “They don’t have to go through the typical grant procedures and jump through the typical hoops to launch programs and initiatives,” she says. Adds Rimsza: “Dr. Crow and his team have really changed the face of the Valley and the state – and added to our local talent pool.”
Why it made the list: No. 1 editors’ pick; altruistic mission and celebrity cachet have made it a household name
We wish Make-A-Wish could be the permanent ambassador brand for Phoenix. The unique wish-granting organization – it basically owns the category – grew out of a U.S. Customs agent’s desire to do something special for a friend’s 7-year-old son, who was dying of leukemia. Enlisting the help of Arizona Department of Public Safety officers, from motorcycle cops to helicopter pilots to the company that makes the officers’ uniforms, Tommy Austin helped young Chris Greicius realize his dream of becoming a police officer just five days before his passing. Today, Make-A-Wish has arranged personally tailored dream experiences for more than 285,000 children through 62 chapters in the U.S. and 38 affiliate offices around the world, with dozens of celebrity partners like singer Justin Bieber and actor/wrestler John Cena. Its purity of purpose – enlisting compassionate community members to give sick kids one best day ever – engages other cities to follow what they see as Phoenix’s example.
Sprouts Farmers Market
Why it made the list: Explosive growth and reach in the emergent healthy-foods sector; organic peanut butter and bulk bins of chocolate-covered raisins... you know you want them
“You don’t have to be wealthy to eat healthy,” Sprouts’ down-to-earth former CEO Doug Sanders liked to say. And indeed, the moderately priced natural and organic foods grocery chain has established itself as a kind of poor man’s – or, more accurately, middle-class vegetarian’s – Whole Foods. But this year, under current CEO Amin Maredia, Sprouts has become a favorite pick for savvy investors, with shares of Sprouts Farmers Market stock soaring above 25 percent in March. That was the month when preliminary talks of a possible merger between Sprouts and the U.S.’s second largest supermarket chain, Albertsons, began circulating in the press. Alas, Albertsons has since switched its focus to acquiring – you guessed it – Austin-based Whole Foods. But Sprouts has already shown itself to be adept at acquisition growth, having doubled its stores count by merging with Henry’s in 2011 and acquiring Sunflower Market’s 37 stores in 2012. Anticipating 12 percent or more annual new store growth each year over the next five years, Wall Street remains bullish on SFM’s future.
Why it made the list: Ruler of your “domain”; Danica Patrick; makeover into female-inclusive industry leader mirrors the city’s progressive trajectory
Under founding CEO Bob Parsons, the Scottsdale Airpark-based company became known for two things: ridiculously affordable Internet domain registration and web hosting services, and T&A-heavy Super Bowl commercials. Chauvinistic imagery aside, the company was always fairly progressive, with recent gubernatorial candidate Christine Jones serving as legal counsel and Barb Rechterman serving as Parsons’ right-hand (wo)man for more than 30 years. The trend accelerated in 2011 with the installation of CEO Blake Irving, who quickly ordered a reset, proclaiming, “The values inside the company didn’t square with the ads that were in the marketplace.” Today, GoDaddy has become an unlikely model for female inclusion, instituting a generous family leave policy that allows 12 weeks for maternity and six weeks for paternity leave as well as reduced-cost childcare, dependent care and adoption assistance programs. With former executive Elissa Murphy serving as one of the few female chief technology officers in the industry, the company created the GoDaddy Women in Technology network, which supports professional development and networking. What hasn’t changed is GoDaddy’s ludicrously low web-hosting prices. “I’m squatting on 100-plus domain names, thanks to GoDaddy,” says Ty Largo, CEO of Awe Collective. “It’s a problem. Please help.”
Why it made the list: Even when it’s not a U-Haul, you call it a “U-Haul”; every city should have a dysfunctional, Dallas-style family empire, and this one’s ours.
Today the U-Haul name is as synonymous with rental trucks as Band-Aid is to adhesive bandages and Q-tip is to cotton swabs. But back in 1945, when Ridgefield, Washington-based businessman Leonard “Sam” Shoen first began pitching his idea of creating a network of one-way moving truck rentals to gas station owners, it sparked a revolution that would impel Shoen – and eventually millions of others – to Phoenix. Shoen ultimately fathered 12 children via multiple marriages and U-Haul became as well-known locally for the bitter family feuds between the founder and his sons, culminating in never-resolved accusations over who may have been responsible for the 1990 murder-by-hire of Eva Shoen, the wife of oldest son Sam. The Shoen family currently owns about 55 percent of the publicly traded stock corporation that operates U-Haul, but the brand name remains shorthand for the DIY moving trucks that fueled much of Phoenix’s transplanted population growth.
Why it made the list: For four generations of Phoenicians, Harkins = movies; aggressive out-of-state expansion
“Growing up a few blocks from the original Cine Capri, it is hard not to recognize the lasting impact of the Harkins brand,” says Buzz Gosnell, owner of DWG Phoenix and a third-generation Valley real estate developer. Long-time residents share Gosnell’s deep affection for the original Cine Capri theater on 24th Street and Camelback Road – any Phoenician old enough to have seen Star Wars in the late ‘70s undoubtedly watched it on the theater’s gold curtain-draped, 70-foot curved screen, where it played for more than a year. Dan Harkins, eldest son of founder Dwight “Red” Harkins, didn’t acquire the Cine Capri until 1988, but he shared the fans’ love of the iconic auditorium. Following the original’s roundly protested demolition in 1998, Harkins, who didn’t own the land, did his best to re-create it at the chain’s Scottsdale 101 and Tempe Marketplace cineplexes – not to mention complexes in California, Oklahoma City, Denver and Southlake, Texas (Harkins now operates 33 theaters throughout five western U.S. states). He’s done the same following the closure of the chain’s art film outlet, Camelview 5, in 2015, restoring pieces of his dad’s last theater, including canopies resembling the original’s iconic mushroom-like structures, inside Scottsdale’s nearby Fashion Square mall. In Phoenix, we’re lucky our theaters are run by such a cinephile.
Why it made the list: The rare strictly local restaurant brand with a strong national profile; shoutouts on Monday Night Football and The Oprah Winfrey Show; the man himself
“[It] put Phoenix on the culinary map across the country,” Bailey says, noting that founder and owner Chris Bianco was the first pizza maker to win a regional chef award from the James Beard Foundation, in 2003. Bronx-born Bianco, who suffered with asthma as a child, settled here in 1985 for the same reason many Easterners did: his health. In short order his pizzeria in Downtown’s Heritage Square became legendary. Even as Bianco stepped away from the pizza oven – that asthma again – his thirst for mentorship and impeccable artisanal vision continues to delight customers, particularly at Tratto near the other Pizzeria Bianco location in Town & Country mall. His restaurants enjoy a high profile nationally, despite having no locations outside the state, and this year he’s been recruited to lead the culinary offerings at October’s hotly anticipated Lost Lake Festival in Central Phoenix. “People geek out when they meet actors and athletes,” Hughes says. “I was a giddy school girl when I met Bianco.”
Phoenix Children’s Hospital
Why it made the list: No. 1 readers’ pick; can out-fundraise the Clintons; research leader on a sacred mission
Residents have strong personal connections to PCH – the trailblazing center has, after all, saved the lives of many of our own kids, or we know somebody whose child was treated there. Not surprisingly, the hospital ranked highest in our readers’ survey. “Fundamentally, I think it’s amazing,” says Bailey, whose own hearing-impaired son has been treated at PCH. “It’s cutting-edge for children’s health care, and they get high marks nationally for employee satisfaction, patient care and research.” To be sure, PCH consistently ranks high in U.S. News & World Report’s influential Best Children’s Hospital lists. And it’s the one charity the cashier at Walgreens can always talk customers into contributing to: The hospital’s foundation pulls in more than $40 million a year in donations. “As a parent, knowing there’s such a world-class institution in our own backyard gives me peace of mind,” Hughes says.
Founded: 1898; based in Arizona since 1988
Why it made the list: Popular panel and reader selection; a resurgent underdog in America’s biggest sports league
With a talented roster and the most well-liked head coach in franchise history in Bruce Arians, the Cardinals have gone from NFL jokes to annual Super Bowl picks. It’s the classic underdog-makes-good story, which resonates with Valley fans. After three straight seasons of winning at least 10 games (following only one 10-win season since moving from St. Louis), the Cardinals are on a roll – and that’s changing the mood in the stands. Fans joke that they’re at “peak bandwagon” now, with the bleachers regularly filled with what one commentator on the sports website Deadspin called “the drunken crowd at a Kenny Chesney concert, but somehow with even less football knowledge.” Even so, there’s a joy in the stands that hasn’t been felt since the franchise moved here – even when the team loses – and that’s transforming the notoriously fickle allegiance Valley sports fans are traditionally known for. “What Michael Bidwill has done for hometown pride is unmatched,” Lanning says. “It’s impressive.” Adds Hughes, “They were a punching bag for a few years, but now have a strong and loyal fan base – not just people buying jerseys, but buying into the tradition.”
These longtime Valley institutions remain formidable, despite having to split more of the pie.
• With a daily circulation topping 300,000, the Gannett property is still the Valley’s mass-media juggernaut of record. It was a 2014 Pulitzer Prize finalist for its Yarnell Hill fire coverage.
Peter Piper Pizza
• “Does anyone really grow up and stop wanting to chug pitchers of root beer, toss trick throws on the skee ball machine and cash in strips of tickets for all of the bouncy balls?” Largo asks. “Not me, at least.”
• The Scottsdale-based chain pioneered the upscale-Asian dining concept for a generation of delighted palates. It now has up to 204 locations worldwide and is currently owned by a New York investment firm.
Not strictly Phoenician… but great for our cred nonetheless.
• Technically based in Minnesota, the nonprofit’s Scottsdale campus may be its most visible imprint – particularly after the debut of its new medical school this year.
• A major Valley employer for decades, the Chicago-based electronics firm headquartered its main R&D unit in Phoenix.
• The microchip manufacturer is based in Santa Clara, Calif., but operates its main manufacturing facility in Chandler.
• The personal care and cleaning product giant – maker of Dial soap and Right Guard – will soon be relocating from Scottsdale to Connecticut.
Food & Beverage Upstarts
True Food Kitchen
• Fox Restaurant Concepts’ flagship restaurant recently opened locations in Florida and Virginia. Could be the P.F. Chang’s of healthy chains.
• Acquired by ABInBev in 2016, the seminal Tempe craft brewer is poised to place Kiltlifter in every big-box grocery store in America.
• Rumor has it the Phoenix-based sippery is looking to expand its out-of-state presence beyond its single location in Denver. Hold on to your bruschetta.
These prominent Valley brands just missed the cut.
Cold Stone Creamery
• Now with stores on five continents – yes, you can order a Gotta Have It-size cake batter/strawberry medley in Nairobi, Kenya – the Scottsdale-based dessert giant is arguably one of the three best-known retail ice cream brands in the world. Cons: No love from our panel, or readers. (Guess they tried the sugar-free sweet cream.)
• According to Mental Floss, the Phoenix-based hotel and motel operator is the best-known Arizona brand in the U.S., with more than 4,000 locations worldwide. But limited local engagement kept them off our list. Our advice to CEO David Kong: underwrite a sports venue. “Best Western Stadium” has a nice ring.
• The Phoenix electronics firm currently ranks No. 108 on the Fortune 500 list, with annual revenues of $26.2 billion. But “Av-what?” is what you’re likely to hear if you ask the average man on the street about them.
• The mining giant enhanced its visibility by becoming the marquee tenant in Downtown Phoenix’s tallest skyscraper, and holds the distinction of being the largest copper producer in the world. The firm is also heavily engaged in local charity outreach. Cons: Kinda old school.
• Headquartered in Phoenix, the motor shipping carrier is the field laborer of Arizona corporate brands: hard-working, anonymous, ubiquitous. Already the largest common carrier in the U.S. with 16,000 trucks, the firm will merge with Phoenix’s Knight Transportation this year.
Talk to Us in 10 Years
Within a decade, these New Economy trailblazers could replace one of the other brands on our Top 10 list.
Based in Tempe, the world’s second-largest maker of photovoltaic modules ranked first on Forbes’ list of America’s 25 fastest-growing technology companies in 2011.
“In terms of global reach in a relatively short amount of time? No one beats them,” Lanning says of the Chandler e-marketing firm. “We use their database management systems and love ‘em.”
If Downtown’s resident genomics research lab achieves its stated goal of unraveling Alzheimer’s, it would be discussed in the same conversation as Jonas Salk.
Tuft & Needle
The Phoenix online-mattress maestros broke $100 million in revenue in 2016. Mattress Firm trembles.
After a fierce shootout last year in Chino Valley between members of the Hells Angels and rival bikers the Vagos, it seems a turf battle is brewing. Could Phoenix be a future battleground?It was a peaceful Saturday morning like any other for Terrance...
According to U.S. News & World Report, Arizona State University is leading the nation in innovation – ahead of Stanford, MIT and every other U.S. institution of higher learning. Not bad for a former No. 1 “party school.”