As the world becomes more virtual and trust becomes more tenuous, "brands are more important than they have ever been," says J'Amy Owens, president of the Retail Group Inc., a Seattle-based strategic retailconsulting firm she cofounded 12 years ago. Strong brands forge loyalty in a skeptical, disbelieving world. Here are some of Owens's favorite brands, along with what she sees as the qualities they represent to the buyer:

Owens regards Gap Inc. as the most successful retailer in America because it sells inclusion, offering customers a sense of belonging. "The Gap is selling us not a T-shirt but membership in a club," she says. "You are in on the joke." The product mix helps. "Helen Keller could walk out of the Gap looking good," says Owens.

The Gap, she says, has similarly turned one of its holdings, Banana Republic, into "the department store for Generation Y." Meanwhile, its discount outlet, Old Navy, "has figured out how to sell value in a way that is not demeaning or belittling," unlike discounters that baldly sell in downscale, bargain-basement settings.

Starbucks, says Owens, is a prime example of a trusted brand with a clear channel to a very loyal customer base. That trust has little to do with the company's ability to sell good coffee and a lot to do with its ability to tweak the status quo. "Starbucks has altered the social order by giving the ordinary person back 20 minutes in his day," says Owens. Because time spent there is your own, the retailer becomes an ally instead of an enemy. Owens believes Starbucks will become a "portal" brand, giving it the authority "to sell us everything from coffee beans to sofas."

Higher Purpose
Owens says the Body Shop is successful because it "sells social relevancy and purpose," which turns the brand into a "transcendent icon." She believes that a big driver in retail today is what she calls "higher-purpose action," in which there is a direct and tangible link between the product and a socially beneficial end. "A brand like the Body Shop has a consciousness. It sells us hope, not a product."

"What's conveyed inside a well-planned store is that there's an order to the realm," says Owens. "That's what makes me feel at ease and gives me permission to shop." Owens says Crate and Barrel is a pioneer in selling retail order and "clarity." "I get the sense that everything has been preselected for me. I have a style safety net under me; I can't go wrong. It's pure psychology in action."

Owens calls red-hot apparel maker FUBU a "customer-created brand." Started by four friends from Queens, FUBU stands for "For You, By You." That, says Owens, is tantamount to a call to action. "Instead of handing money over to some rich white guy like Tommy Hilfiger, you are giving it to kids just like you. You are committing an act of social relevance," she says.