Five things Iconic brands have in common.

by John Furgurson on December 6, 2009

Simon Edwards, Brand Manager at 3M, recently started a lively online discussion around this question: “What are the common attributes of iconic brands?

He opened it up on Brand 3.0 — a Linkedin Group that includes 4,363 branding consultants, practitioners, creative directors, gurus and wannabes. It was an intelligent, worthwhile discussion that hit all the hot buttons of the branding world.

But we were preaching to the choir.

So in an effort to reach a few business people who aren’t completely “inside the bottle,”  I’d like to cover the high points of the discussion and add a few examples…

•  “An iconic brand plays a valued role in a consumer’s life. It delivers a feeling that the consumer just can’t get from any other brand. That feeling may be security, safety, familiarity, excitement, satisfaction, indulgence or many others.” – Andy Wright

Here’s an example: I’m a loyal Audi owner. Over the holiday weekend I had to drive the Q7 two and half hours on a narrow, icy, highway that’s sketchy even on a clear, summer night.  I felt all those things… security, safety, familiarity, excitement, satisfaction, indulgence.  The trip wasn’t exactly fun, but it reinforced all my beliefs about the brand. It played a vital role in that little part of my life.

I couldn’t have felt safer in any other vehicle, short of a semi truck.

“The 5 criteria of iconic brands are:  relevancy, competitiveness, authenticity, clarity of promise, consistency of communication. The hard work is the proactive management of the brand (including product development) to ensure the five criteria are delivered.” – Ed Burghard

I particularly like Ed’s point here about proactive, ongoing brand management.

Many people seem to think of branding as a one-time event. — do it and it’s done. But that’s not it at all.  You won’t stay competitive long enough to become iconic if you’re not constantly minding your brand. It’s a never-ending effort that should be intertwined into your day-to-day business.

“One element that has not been discussed is success. No brand can reach iconic status without being successful in achieving it’s purpose. Part is creating these wonderful brand connections – authentically, emotionally, as an experience. Part is communicating with clarity and consistency. Part is delivering on the promise. But a vital component is to have delivered results and exceeded expectations… yes?’    – Ed Holme

Patagonia is a brand with a very clear sense of purpose and a compelling story to tell. When that story is told over time, it establishes that intangible, emotional  connection that inspires people and fuels success. What is the purpose of your business, beyond making a profit?

• “I would like to add ‘Leadership’ to the list of attributes already mentioned. ?It’s not about market share, though; iconic brands play by their own rules. These brands tend to break the preconceived notion of function, service, style or culture, catching the competition off guard and finding unprecedented loyalty”… – Stephen Abbott

This was a contribution that really stood out. I believe leadership is a highly overlooked component of branding. If you don’t take a genuine leadership position in some aspect of  your business, your brand will eventually flounder. (Can you say GM?)

You don’t have to be the market leader to have an iconic brand. Look at Apple. The iconic leader in the computing world only has 9.6% market share in computers. What’s more,  an iconic brand does not guarantee business success. Farrells Ice Cream parlors were iconic in this part of the country, and they went belly up.  Was Saturn iconic?  Certainly for a few years in  automotive circles. What about Oldsmobile and Plymoth? Many icons of industry have fallen in the past year.

To build on the ideas related to story telling…  Iconic brands often align with an archetypal character and story which is instantly recognizable, psychologically stimulating and meaningful. Coke embodies the Innocent archetype as expressed through their advertising from polar bears to Santa Claus or the classic ‘I’d like to teach the world to sing’ campaign.” – Brenton Schmidt

Executives at Coke shattered that innocence when they changed the beloved formula to “New Coke.”  Probably the single biggest branding screw up of the last 50 years. One woman, who hadn’t had a Coke in 25 years, called to complain that they were “messing with her childhood.”  Now that’s brand loyalty!

“Some underlying attributes  tend to be focus, clarity and authenticity. However, all iconic brands tend to connect customers with an overreaching philosophy that fosters emotional connection between the customer and the brand.

Examples of brands and the emotions they foster:

– Nike = Performance. “I feel like I can run faster or jump higher when I wear my Nikes.”

– Target = Affordable Design. “At Wal-Mart, I get the best price. At Target, I get style and price.”

– Apple = CounterCulture. “I want style, simplicity and usability. My Mac says to the world that I’m different and unique. In short, I hate Windows and everything it represents.”

– Jason Milicki

I’m writing this blog on a MacBook Pro, and I’d add the word Contrarian.  Proudly contrarian, even. (My kids helped make sushi for Thanksgiving, and my son dubbed it a “Contrarian Turkey Dinner.” I think I’m handing it down.)

Finally, here’s one parting thought on iconic brands, from yours truly:

You don’t have to be  a multinational company, or even the biggest player in your niche, to become a successful icon in your own right. Gerry Lopez is an icon in the world of surfing, yet unknown to the general public and to Wall Street.

If you want to build an iconic brand — even a small one — start with passion, purpose and focus. Then work your ass off.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1day1brand December 8, 2009 at 5:46 am

Thanks for this great post. I appreciate the all round sense you’ve collected that there is no one dogma, no “this is the only way to do it”.

— Axle

JD Morley December 10, 2009 at 12:55 am

Nice post. I especially like the part about Branding being an on-going effort, and needing constant minding. A good point.

Nigel Lamb December 15, 2009 at 4:28 pm

I missed the discussion on Brand 3.0 (LinkedIn), so thanks for the summary above. I’m off to see if I can find out more.

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