DBrands_become_icons_1id you know that

  • Consistency can be deadly for a brand.
  • Radical changes in the cultural landscape provide huge opportunities to develop iconic brands.
  • Following trends can never build iconic brands.
  • Paying attention to the majority of your customers can destroy a brand’s value

Douglas Holt tackles all of these issues and more in his engaging, rigorously-researched and potentially game-changing book, 2004’s “How Brands Become Icons: The Principles of Cultural Branding”.  That is, it’s a book that completely reframes the discussion about the approach to building brands that many organizations currently employ.

From the title, you may have already guessed that this is not a book for every brand.  Not every brand will ever achieve iconic status.  Just so the reader’s not confused, Holt uses as examples brands such as Apple; Coca-Cola; Corona; Harley-Davidson; Mountain Dew; Nike; and Volkswagen, to name a few

A key point of differentiation between the mindshare and emotional branding models that have been so prevalent, is that the building of iconic brands (cultural branding) happens with brands that people use for self-expression.  More importantly—and this is key—Holt’s research shows that iconic brands speak to cultural anxieties and contradictions that are in the air at a particular historical moment.  He uses as examples VW in the ‘50s; Easy Rider in the in the 60s; Coke in the 70s; Harley-Davidson in the 80’s; and Corona in the 90s, to name a few.

Cultural branding is difficult because it acknowledges that brands change over time, that their essence is not timeless.  A lot of brand stewards want to believe this.  It’s the case for utilitarian brands—think soap or detergent—because the simplifying the brand essence makes the purchase decision easier.  However, iconic brands mean different things over time.  This happens because times change.  When new contradictions arise in society, they have to be addressed.  If your brand still speaks to an anxiety of a few years ago, it loses its value as a vehicle for self-expression.

It’s also difficult because brand managers are rarely students of mass culture and haven’t paid much attention to the tools and lenses of sociology, anthropology, history, film criticism, etc.  Rather, they come from financial backgrounds.  For companies who wish to undertake cultural branding, it will require them to rethink their entire approach to recruitment.  The New York Times noted in March of this year and Business Week ran a piece last week indicating that the new training grounds for the next generation of leaders might be Cinema Studies programs and design schools, respectively.  Holt says that companies will need to build their own teams of “cultural activists” and not outsource this work to agencies.

With all the talk from the advertising and marketing industries about preparing to face 21st century challenges, this book should be required reading.  Wise up and grab your copy here or wherever you shop for business books.

Posted by Rob Fields