The evolution of iconic brands

Read the first of the Iconic Brands series in which Head of Brand and Innovation, Natalie Hughes, will be analysing the brands that that are iconic, are struggling to stay iconic and are new to being iconic. Natalie will delve into their strategies to explore what being an iconic brand means today.

The evolution of iconic brands

Plenty has been written in marketing circles about what makes a brand iconic. It is a specific package of things, consistently joined together so that over time the brand becomes imprinted in people’s minds. Renowned icons such as Coca-Cola, Lego, Nike and McDonalds have a legacy of these shared attributes:

  • A brilliantly simple, timeless and static brand identity
  • Distinctive brand assets
  • Cultural roots expressed in relevant, contemporary ways
  • A single-minded and superior product benefit, consistently delivered over time
  • A deep understanding of the powerful, universal human need they address
  • A role in people’s lives and in society that challenges the norms and transcends product benefits
  • Brand-building and marketing that propels the brand into the realms of myth and legend

These brands moved from being familiar and popular to becoming part of the cultural lexicon. They have been the heroes in their own story (quite literally when you think of the movies inspired by Lego, Apple and McDonalds) but what does ‘iconic’ mean these days and who are the icons of the future? 

In the past, reaching iconic status required uniformity – a relentlessly consistent, tangible and multi-faceted experience which imprinted in people’s hearts, minds and memories. When the megabrands of today are the likes of Google, Netflix and Amazon, which are so diverse and fluid in what they deliver, it raises questions about whether they are icons or whether they are simply rewriting the rules.

​At their heart, iconic brands create desire

At their heart, iconic brands create desire – a yearning or craving that means no substitute will do. Being desirable translates as being ‘attractive, useful or necessary’ and as society and technology have evolved, so too have the ways in which desire manifests. When I look back at the origins and the social and cultural context of the traditional icons, being attractive was arguably more at the fore and great design was the vital ingredient. This was in an era when great design largely meant logos, packaging, product and characters. The Coke bottle, the shape of the Mini, the Nike swoosh, the Lego brick, Ronald McDonald – these are all brilliantly simple, instantly recognisable and they had a cultural currency all of their own that was extremely attractive to their target audience. 

When you think about the likes of Amazon, Google and Netflix, great design is more about the customer experience and I’m not sure that being ‘attractive’ is the point. I believe we are moving into an age when ‘iconic’ means ‘useful or necessary’. I don’t have any special love for the Amazon logo but I increasingly can’t live without the benefits of Amazon Prime. Being able to order even the most obscure items late at night for free (well, okay, for a monthly fee but it also means I get to watch Sneaky Pete and Vikings) and have them delivered the next day has gotten me out of more than one scrape and it has now radically altered my shopping behaviour. Amazon has very simply inspired me to shop more often. So I may never want to wear an Amazon branded t-shirt but the brand has changed my behaviour in fundamental ways. When it comes down to it, I suspect Jeff Bezos cares more about being indispensable than being iconic.

Nike is a brand that straddles the old world and the new. It is a brand that always had passion, purpose and product quality at its heart. While the ‘swoosh’ is design genius, what is more impressive is how Nike created jogging culture. It is a brand that transcends footwear and clothing and has transformed the athletic experience. However, as our upcoming GREAT[NESS] report will demonstrate, people are increasingly judging brands by how they behave, not just what they say, and Nike has found itself in hot water lately with news of its toxic internal culture.

Contrast this with the likes of Coke, struggling in a category that is under huge pressure. People may well continue to enjoy it but it’s not the ‘hero’ it once was. It has yet to define a positive role it plays in people’s lives today and instead has to rely on tapping into memories of the product experience. Its lack of ability in recent years to connect its cultural roots with the key trends playing out today suggests it is doomed to live out its days in a shrinking category with fewer people drinking it less often.

So what has changed from that original set of attributes? Surprisingly little. The basic tenets of what makes a brand iconic largely remain the same, with some small but important shifts.

  • Static design is a thing of the past. Google was the first to prove that even with the hallowed logo, you could change things up while still being recognisable.
  • Customer experience trumps pure ‘product’ (although delivering single-minded and superior product benefits is still vital in today’s ultra-competitive landscape)
  • Brand-building and marketing is more about making the people who use the brand the hero, not the brand itself
  • What you do and how you behave are becoming as important (if not more so) as how you look and what you say. Today’s consumers need to feel reassured about their buying decisions and are becoming more intolerant of bad decisions and behaviour

When you’re thinking about the positive role you play in people’s lives, don’t think about ‘purpose’ as a wrapper or a tactic

Within these evolving rules, there are also a few watch-outs for those who feel they have something to learn from iconic brands

  • When you’re thinking about the positive role you play in people’s lives, don’t think about ‘purpose’ as a wrapper or a tactic. You have to genuinely care about making people’s lives better and you have to dig deep to understand how you can credibly do it. This won’t come about through clever concepts or wordsmithing
  • It is not enough to look for insight into people’s needs in your category. You need to think about how you credibly connect with and deliver universal human needs and you need to understand how culture is shaping those needs
  • Delivering emotional benefits alone will not win the day. Underpinning them has to be a passionate commitment to creating outstanding products and services that people truly value
  • Foresight is an essential capability that needs to be invested in properly or risk being forever behind the curve

Ultimately, the icons of the future will be the ones who value ‘usefulness’ over ‘attractiveness’ and who understand that true purpose comes before profit but you have to live up to it. 

Over the course of this series I’ll dig deeper into what it takes to become iconic – and stay iconic.