We are surrounded by icons, we navigate our lives by their light. In his book How Brands Become Icons, Douglas Holt writes: “The crux of iconicity is that the person or the thing is widely regarded as the most compelling symbol of a set of ideas or values that society deems important.”
James Dean or Harley-Davidson motorcycles represented 1950s American rebellion against crushing mores of convention. Budweiser became the beer that championed overlooked ordinary men. VW Golf created iconicity around independent womanhood in the 1980s. And when a brand becomes an icon, it becomes mythical.
Holt explains: “When a brand creates a myth, consumers come to perceive the myth as embodied in the product. So they buy the product to consume the myth and to forge a relationship with the brand.”
This is one way to be creative about a brand. Consider how it can become an icon. What pressure in society can it represent an escape from? How can it represent the spirit that the zeitgeist needs?
Should you put the product on a pedestal? Sometimes elevating a simple, everyday product with the most gorgeous of advertising is enough. Hovis’ representation of nostalgia took a humble loaf from a commodity product to a taste of homecoming.
Telling the unvarnished truth can transform brand salience. Pot Noodle worships at the altar of truth. In a series of campaigns, it has represented youthful overturning of restrictive adult family meals. It has a wilful perversity that is celebrated with advertising designed to annoy controlling authority figures that think they know better.
Planner Andy Davies wrote in an IPA submission in 2003: “With a personality other youth brands would kill for – bold, irreverent, subversive, it is an icon for young people.”
Be consistent. Some brands deliver ruthlessly in terms of eternal iconicity. Celebration is nothing without Moët. It’s not the same celebrating with a cup of tea. It never has been, and it never will be. True eternal icons resist fundamental change. New York is an iconic city, it never changes but it continually reinvents.
There are some media choices that elevate brand icons. Cinema is a medium that was invented to build movie star icons, and creative work shown in a cinema can deliver more desirability than the same work shown in a social feed.
Naïve media people may wonder at the premiums that glossy magazines demand for front section advertising, if they don’t understand the associations that make that environment worth it. While TV retains its role as a channel for iconic advertising, who doesn’t adore seeing their brand on an outstanding billboard, literally your name in lights?
Match your brand with another icon. Partnerships and influencer campaigns can deliver brilliant associations in this respect. So, too, can the right kind of stunt. My 1990s campaign for Converse Allstars revolved around projecting the advertising onto the edgiest clubs of the edgiest cities around Europe.
Acknowledge the brand icon fans. Every icon needs acolytes and it’s essential to consider them in the marketing of an icon, too, without losing control.
Controlling context is also crucial. Be careful about what the brand is near. Even the most spot-on sponsorship associations might be next to ads that lower the tone or lose the association completely. Great icons are careful about the company that they keep.
Above all, be respectful. You can create icons, but icons can also fall. Think about how the brand can be iconic as a means to inject real creativity, but respect the icon that you create.
Sue Unerman is chief transformation officer at MediaCom