Millward Brown's POV, September 2007

What Makes an Iconic Brand?

Brands are an accepted part of our daily lives. But some brands seem to transcend their product or service categories to become part of the popular culture. What distinguishes these iconic brands from the rest of the pack, and what can marketers learn from them?


What makes an iconic brand?

In today's world, brands are everywhere, a familiar part of daily life for most people. But a few brands, such as Coca-Cola, Nike, and McDonald's, have set themselves apart. These brands have come to represent something more than a product or service. They are embedded in our culture and our consciousness. They are icons.

Iconic brands inspire an enduring form of affection that any marketer would want for his brand. But iconic status, which has traditionally been built over decades, is enjoyed by relatively few brands. What can we learn from these brand icons that might be useful to all brand marketers today?

Icons: You Know Them When You See Them

Iconic brands are instantly recognizable: the shape of a VW Beetle is unique, Lego bricks are familiar from childhood, and the McDonald's arches are readily identifiable in any landscape. A brand with such powerful visual cues has an intrinsic advantage over others, not least because it ensures that marketing communication is linked to the right brand. When large replica pints of ice-cold Guinness were added to shelf displays in the U.K., the familiar image of dark beer with a white, creamy head reminded people of the brand and helped to increase sales by 27 percent.

Using the WPP BrandZTM database, we compared the properties of iconic brands with those of other brands that are merely large and popular. Our analysis found that brands considered iconic enjoyed far higher top-of-mind awareness: 58 percent versus 36 percent. This suggests that iconic brands are strongly associated with their specific categories. To borrow a phrase from cognitive neuroscience, it seems iconic brands are "super-familiar." A brand that is super-familiar will beat out other brands for access to the brain's mental workspace; thus it is more likely to be considered for purchase*. Critically, however, recent findings in neuroscience suggest that the strongest mental representations of brands are those that are well balanced across physical cues, functional benefits and emotions evoked.

Rooted in Culture

In his book How Brands Become Icons, Oxford University Professor Douglas Holt proposes these three principles.
  1. Iconic brands address acute contradictions in society. By tapping into a collective desire or anxiety, iconic brands develop a status that transcends functional benefits. They challenge people, either directly or subtly, to reconsider accepted thinking and behavior. The famous Coca-Cola ad from 1971, "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing," voiced a desire to overcome the deep divisions in American society created by the Vietnam War.
  2. Iconic brands develop identity myths that address these desires and anxieties. By creating imaginary worlds, they offer escape from everyday reality. The Marlboro man represents the values of the Western frontier: strong, independent and capable.
  3. Over time, the brand comes to embody the myth. It becomes a shorthand symbol that represents far more than just a brand of soft drink, cigarette, or car. While there are now many expensive watches to choose from, Rolex still symbolizes success and status around the world.
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