GENEVA - Emerging economies have almost tripled their trademark applications over the past three decades, underscoring the growing store they place in branding, the World Intellectual Property Organization said Thursday.

In a report on the role of branding in the global economy, the UN agency said that middle-income nations’ trademark filings relative to gross domestic product increased by a factor of 2.6 between 1985 and 2011. In high-income economies, meanwhile, the factor of increase was 1.6. “A brand incarnates an enterprise’s reputation and image and so is one of an enterprise’s most valuable assets,” said WIPO director general Francis Gurry.

“As markets have become more distributed and virtual, the protection provided by trademarks for reputation and image has also become increasingly important.”

WIPO’s study found that branding investments correlate closely with the level of a country’s economic development.  But it said that firms from emerging giants now spend a greater slice of their resources on branding than those in some of today’s high-income countries, such as Spain, Portugal and South Korea, did when their economies were less-developed. That appears to have paid major dividends, WIPO said, pointing to data from the consultancy Brand Finance’s top 500 ranking. Big-name US players such as Apple, Google, Coca-Cola and IBM, still top the table, along with the likes of South Korea’s Samsung and Japan’s Toyota. But there were also 26 Chinese companies on the list, including China Mobile Ltd., the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, and online giant Baidu. The ranking also include six Indian firms, including the conglomerate Tata, and nine from Brazil, such as the banking sector’s Bradesco and Itau. All told, companies around the globe are spending an annual $466 billion on branding — which also includes advertising, communications and marketing — exceeding outlays for research, development and design, WIPO said.