What is the world's most valuable brand? If you said Apple, you would have been right until recently. According to a brand research firm, the world's most valuable brand is now Google.

The research firm, Millward Brown, said Wednesday that Google is in first place in the 2014 BrandZ Top 100 Most Valuable Global Brand ranking. Apple had occupied that position for the last three years, but has now dropped to second place with a 20 percent decline in brand value. Third place is held by IBM, bearing a brand value of $108 billion. All 100 brands have a combined total of about $2.9 trillion, which is a 49 percent increase over the valuation in 2008, when the global financial crisis began.

The others in the Top 10, in order, are Microsoft, McDonald's, Coca-Cola, Visa, AT&T, Marlboro and Amazon. The top four are all in technology, representing 29 percent of the list's total value, and then the bottom six are one each in fast food, soft drinks, credit cards, telecom, tobacco and retail. New brands in the Top 100 include Twitter at 71 and LinkedIn at 78.

'Hugely Innovative'

The study, now in its ninth year, was commissioned by UK-based marketing Relevant Products/Services agency WPP, which owns Millward Brown. Some observers have noted that WPP agencies, such as Ogilvy & Mather, have worked with Google. The research firm said the listing is the only brand-related one that employs the views of potential and current buyers of a brand, and financial data Relevant Products/Services, to come up with the brand's value.

Millward Brown calculates that Google's brand is worth $159 billion, an increase of 40 percent compared with last year, while Apple's brand is priced at $148 billion. More than 70 percent of the brands in the Top 100 were on the list as far back as 2008.

Nick Cooper, managing director at the research firm, said in a statement that Google "has been hugely innovative in the last year with Google Glass, investments in artificial intelligence Relevant Products/Services and a multitude of partnerships that sees its Android operating system become embedded in other goods such as cars."

More than 'Just Tools'

He added that this activity "sends a very strong signal to consumers about what Google is about," which has coincided with a slowdown in innovation at Apple because of a falloff in dramatic new product launches.

The research firm notes that successful brands are often more than "just tools," but are a part of people's lives and that some, like Google, Nike or the Chinese Internet company Tencent, are crossing categories to acquire more "mind-space."

Successful brands also convey some lifestyle value, Millward Brown said, such as Pampers or Dove. Apparel-based brands in the Top 100 are up nearly 30 percent over last year, while Cars have jumped 17 percent and Retail are up 16 percent.

Strong brands are more than just easy names to remember. The BrandZ Top 100 brands' stock portfolio has grown by about 81 percent over the last nine years, while the S&P 500 index has grown by only 45 percent.

Half the Top 100 brands were based in North America. Outside that region, brands from China are most represented, with 11 on the Top 100 list, while Russia has two brands.