What Makes a Brand an Icon?

The Nike swoosh. 

The McDonald’s golden arches.

The Apple apple.

All are familiar, iconic brands with powerful visuals. However, becoming an iconic brand is about more than a recognizable logo.

What makes a brand an icon? It’s a commitment to exceptional products and services that are in demand.

A recently published book, Iconic Advantage: Don’t Chase the New, Innovate the Old, argues that brands that are able to add flexibility and adaptability to their strategy are more likely to become icons.

Steady business leadership over years and decades has helped most of the iconic brands of today get where they are. But what keeps those brands in business and has seen others falter is an inability to anticipate and adapt as market conditions and changing consumer demands and expectations merit.

As author Soon Yu explained recently:

“I thought a lot of companies lucked into it or they just rode the right wave — that they were really good at shifting their strategies to fit whatever the prevailing winds were. What I learned was, no. It’s deliberate. And there are actually principles and best practices on how to create timeless relevance.”

Yu studied 50 brands and identified the following key characteristics among enduring brands:

  • Noticing Power. Brands need to be unique, with something that differentiates it from the competition. Better ingredients, durability, or excellent service may be the hallmark that sets a brand apart.
  • Multidimensional Appeal. Yu argues that great demands appeal to customers on emotional and mental levels. The product or service has to fulfill a need but also be appealing to users on some level.
  • Continual Innovation. Companies that stagnate are not going to last. Consider the reports in the technology news about recently departed Toys R Us or Blockbuster, examples of brands that were once iconic but could not respond to changing technologies and consumer preferences. Taxi cabs are under a similar threat today from Uber, Lyft, and other ride-hailing apps. Older companies cannot rest on their laurels. Instead, they need a continuous commitment to infusing even the most proven offerings with something new … as long as the change is sought-after and continues to add value.
  • Brand Ambassadors. Today, technology and the way we interact makes each of us a potential agent for good or bad for brands. You want people to speak passionately and authentically about the brand, allowing customers to spread the word via social media and other vehicles to share what they love about what you do.

Nike has become an iconic brand in large part due to the quality of its footwear and regular innovations.

This last approach is in keeping with a shift away from marketing based on inadequacy. Consider the advertising that in the past focused on curing body odor or making your laundry look brighter than it is today.

That focus on customer insecurity and anxiety has shifted. Customers have the power to tout what they love about your product or service and are more than happy to do so. Empowerment matters and is also at the root of making brands iconic.

In place of inadequacy marketing has emerged empowerment marketing, which allows these iconic brands to continue to deliver positive messaging about the impact of their offerings on people and society at large.

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