What really makes an iconic brand?

by Nigel Hollis | November 13, 2017

What really makes an iconic brand?

A while back I came across a presentation given by Douglas Holt, the man who wrote the book on iconic brands. In the presentation Holt makes a distinction between “better mousetraps” and “cultural innovators” and seems to imply the latter are somehow better. However, a quick look at BrandZ finds better mousetraps are far more valuable.

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Researching my own presentation on iconic brands I found Holt’s presentation titled “How to Build an Iconic Brand” on Slideshare. After defining an iconic brand as a powerful cultural symbol he lists Google, Facebook and Apple as iconic simply because they provide much “Better Mousetraps.” He then lists Nike, Starbucks, Coca-Cola, Dove, Jack Daniel’s, Ben & Jerry’s, Levis and, of course, Marlboro as cultural innovators. Holt then concentrates his attention on the cultural innovators demonstrating how they champion an ideology to become part of the cultural landscape.

I find the distinction between cultural innovators and technological innovators to be a bit misleading. After all, I think most of us would agree that Google, Facebook and Apple are iconic brands. And they are successful because they address a very real societal tension. Google addresses the need to sift through vast quantities of content to find something relevant. Facebook addresses the need to connect with friends and family separated by geography. Apple addresses the need for technology to be simple and intuitive to use.

I would argue that the “Better Moustraps” are probably more powerful cultural symbols than most of the other brands Holt defines as cultural innovators. Furthermore, if we look at the BrandZ Top 100 Most Valuable Brands data the better mousetraps are worth more than all Holt’s cultural innovators combined. Instead of championing an ideology the better mousetraps have change the world and created new ways to meet people’s modern day needs. For other iconic brands that have succeeded in a similar fashion look no further than Amazon, WeChat or Tencent.

In his presentation Holt states,

“Iconic brands don’t tell people what they stand for. Rather, they create myths—they act in compelling ways to dramatize their ideology. They tell stories with implicit ideological meaning (myths) that make an emotional connection with the audience.”

Creating stories is a powerful way for many established brands to make a difference in a well-established category but if actions speak louder than words meaningful innovation which addresses unrecognized or unmet needs will always be more powerful. Maybe Holt should simply have said act in compelling ways? And as to myths, look no further than the belief that Apple is simple and easy to use. I wonder how long that myth will last? Please share your thoughts. 

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  1. Ted Stickles, November 13, 2017
    Love Douglas Holt's presentation on "How to Build an Iconic Brand" - Very thoughtful piece he put together! Always important to remember that a brand is a set of emotion-laden, distinctive, relevant associations in customer’s minds. 

    Keep up the great work, Nigel!

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