Transform Magazine: The Religion of Turning Icons into Iconic Brands – 2022
Professor Jonathan AJ Wilson of Regent’s University London, Professor of Brand Strategy and Culture, and Dr Lika Baghdasaryan, Assistant Professor of Marketing and Brand Management, describe what an iconic brand looks like these days. They explain why only certain brands are able to achieve this cult status.
From a design perspective, all marks are icons – in that they provide a recognizable illustrative representation of their application. Successful brands provide a focal point through which larger meanings can be constructed that will increase their character and value. However, beyond design and function, only certain brands become iconic – in a way that amplifies them and elevates them to superheroic or supernatural status.
To better understand what makes a brand iconic, it is worth exploring the etymology of the term icon, which originates from the Latin of the Greek word eikon- where it has been used to describe devotional paintings of Christ and other holy figures in Christianity, who are venerated as sacred, revered and idolized.
Thus, by extension, when we speak of iconic brands are the privileged few who transcend conventional categorisations, in ways that engender a sense of community, communion and worship.
It is brands, labels, even design aspects and national identities, which behave like brands, make them an annals of popular culture, vocabulary, and offer socio-economic affective status beyond the rationalizations of base.
Iconic brands tend to be either market leaders or those that have achieved cult status. Moreover, they change common perceptions and the ways we communicate. For example: do a Google or a Wiki, call all tablets an iPad, all portable cassette players a Walkman, all video calls Zoom calls, vacuum your home, order a Coke, have a Rolex status watch to signal that you are successful – or even wear Japanese indigo denim, red stocking shoes and say “everything is Gucci baby” to tell someone that everything is fine, or co-opt the slogan “be like Nike and do- the”, in order to motivate people to do anything.
In a world where the triple bottom line of people, planet and profit comes under greater scrutiny, we are moving towards higher demands for brand transparency, accountability, collaboration, consumers and activism in the quest for truth, purpose, relevance, and authenticity.
Professor Douglas B. Holt’s 2004 book “How Brands Become Icons” has become a classic – championing the importance of powerful symbolism, where iconic brands create “identity myths” that assuage collective anxieties stemming from an acute social change.
In an interview with Graham Staplehurst and Amandine Bavent of Kantar BrandZ, about the release of their 2022 Top 100 Brands ranking, they said the bar is raised every year as a brand valuation of over 20 billion dollars was required this year compared to 18 billion dollars. Last year.
They mention that to enter the Top 100, a higher goal signaled by support for social change, or via collaborations and brand diversifications was decisive.
They went on to say that Apple is expected to soon become the first brand to hit a $1 trillion valuation. It is perhaps no coincidence that Apple is tapping into what professors Russell Belk and Gülnur Tumbat in their 2005 article called the quasi-religious aspects of consumption, where the brand becomes a religion for its true believers, through a series of myths which, in the case of Apple, they classified as the creation, messianic, satanic and resurrection myths.
Louis Vuitton also entered the top 10 in the global rankings for the first time, making it the first luxury brand to do so and the top European brand since 2010. Kantar BrandZ reports that the luxury category saw 34% brand growth: with companies such as LVMH investing in their corporate reputation – through pandemic-related initiatives, sustainable transformation and support to social movements like BLM.
Although not as highly ranked, Nike, which is in the Top 100, Ben & Jerry’s and Lush Cosmetics, which is not in the Top 100, have also been strong supporters of Black Lives Matter and the anti-racism, which contributed to their emblematic status. Where other ice cream or cosmetics brands might debate whether public anti-racist solidarity marketing messages could be construed as inappropriate, appropriation, symbolism or blackwashing, these brands are able to elevate their meaning, value and status beyond their product category, with authenticity.
The Marvel and Star Wars universes on the Disney+ platform are again examples of stories steeped in powerful religious mythology and higher purpose. Recently, Disney+ overtook Netflix in terms of streaming subscribers, which Staplehurst cited as evidence of a brand capable of clearly signaling something distinctive, different and appealing in the minds of consumers. Marvel’s recent MS Marvel series tackled religion head-on and continues to break MCU records.
So, to conclude: only certain brands can become iconic and, looking at the historical roots of what has defined icons, they evoke images and stories that provide a gateway to belief, faith and devotion to something powerful.
The recommendation is that branding professionals should develop a deeper appreciation of what, where, how and why people love. Whether marking a person, a product, a service, an organization or even a country, the same principles apply, the only difference being the level of complexity required.
The key is to help all stakeholders, from consumers to employees, achieve greater purpose by enabling brands to deliver value, but also fill a void by bringing more meaning, emotion and promise. Religion, or in this case the religion of branding, is powerful because it extends the time horizon in which pleasure, satisfaction, gratitude, and forgiveness (if things go wrong) can be experienced.
Holt, DB (2004), How brands become icons, Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.
Belk, RW & Tumbat, G. (2005), “The Cult of the Macintosh”, Consumption, Markets and Culture, Vol.8, n°3, September, pp.205-217.
Wilson, JAJ (2020), “Understanding branding is demanding…”, Marketing Management Review, Vol.36 Iss.13-14. pp.1178-1189.