Building a Brand into an Icon - Part 1

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Posted Feb 27, 2012
Susan Gunelius

What Is an Iconic Brand?

Building a brand into a cultural icon isn't easy, but the rewards are immeasurable. Iconic brands like Apple and Harley Davidson have a level of brand equity that will sustain the brand's life beyond any macro- and micro-environmental effect. In my new series, Building a Brand into an Icon, you'll learn how iconic brands evolve so you can set your brand up for icon potential.

volkswagen beetle iconic brand

Identity Brands vs. Iconic Brands

The first thing you need to understand if you want to build an iconic brand is the difference between identity brands and iconic brands. There are many identity brands but far fewer iconic brands. The same could be said of celebrities. There are many celebrities but few have reached icon status.

In simplest terms, an identity brand is one that an individual believes represents a lifestyle, personality, emotion, value, or desire that he identifies with directly. For example, Volvo is an identity brand that people who value safety and prefer conservative lifestyles identify with.

Iconic brands take the concept of identity brands a step further by representing a sub-culture of society. Iconic brands often fill a void in consumers' lives and are typically found in high-involvement categories where consumers are very emotionally invested. Harley Davidson is a perfect example of an iconic brand that a sub-culture of society identifies with and who are highly emotionally invested in the lifestyle the brand represents.

Iconic Brand Evolution

Iconic brands can evolve organically as consumers experience them and identify with them. However, iconic brands can also evolve with the help of effective marketing that changes consumer perceptions and heightens emotional involvement.

For example, Harley Davidson is a brand that evolved into an icon organically over time in response to consumers' interactions with the brand. Effective marketing supported that organic evolution. On the other hand, Apple successfully created a perception of high-emotional involvement in the technology category through brilliant marketing. Today, Apple is an iconic brand that an entire sub-culture of society is highly loyal to. Apple created a perceived void and filled it.

Of course, consumers are always in control. If marketing messages don't resonate with consumers and change their perceptions of a brand successfully, then the brand won't evolve into an icon. Nike is an iconic brand, but no matter how hard Reebok tries, it's still just an identity brand.

According to WPP, iconic brands have distinct advantages over brands that haven't reached icon status yet, which translate into tangible results. The company found that iconic brands have higher top-of-mind consumer awareness than other brands (58% for iconic brands vs. 36% for non-iconic brands). That's a significant difference which directly affects sales. Is there any doubt that Facebook's status as an iconic brand gives it a significant edge over competitor social networks? Not sure? Just ask MySpace.


The same could be said of Google. When a brand name becomes the generic term for an entire category, it's reached a level of iconic status that is incredibly powerful. Don't believe me? Ask Yahoo!

Iconic status can also give brands a chance at a second life. The Volkswagen Beetle is a great example. While Volkswagen struggled to keep the Beetle relevant, the brand's iconic status allowed it to live on. Ultimately, Volkswagen was able to leverage the Beetle's iconic status to re-launch it in a highly successful rebranding effort.

There is so much equity in iconic brands that they're highly resilient and adaptable -- as long as the company behind them understands the need for flexibility as consumers, the world, and the market evolves.

Next up in the Building a Brand into an Icon series, you'll learn how to develop an iconic brand. Stay tuned to the AYTM blog so you don't miss it!

Images: Flickr, Flickr

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