How to Create an Iconic Brand

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Branding and marketing company Millward Brown's article "What Makes an Iconic Brand?" offers insight into the greats- Coca-Cola, Nike, McDonald's, Lego, Mercedes, Levi's, Marlboro, Microsoft, Apple, Google- and what made them great.

To see more of the world's top brands, see WPP's BrandZ list.


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?

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.

But what makes a brand truly iconic?

Iconic brands possess three important features that separate them from other big, well-known brands:

1.    They have strong cultural roots that tap into society’s values, sometimes even inspiring a shift in those values.

2. They possess physical or symbolic features that make them instantly recognizable.

3. They have a compelling story and manage to remain true to their original values while reinter- preting them in light of contemporary culture.

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