The late, great Wally Olins used to say that you would only know the value of a brand when it is sold, and was never a believer in brand valuation. 

Many brands that are sold/acquired from one business by another are absorbed into the new company’s brand (or one of the brands within its portfolio), demonstrating that the equity of the acquired brand was not strong enough to warrant its continued existence. Such a decision is usually made on the basis of gut feel and entrepreneurship by the brand owner, and in some cases, has upset consumers/people.

Whatever you might think of the concept of brand valuation and measurement tools related to the topic, one sure fire way of recognising value in a brand is a mob of angry people in the street or on social media demanding that their favourite brand be brought back.

Picture this– the New (brand) World Order

Imagine a world without Starbucks, McDonald’s, Ferrari, the NBA and Disney. Would that be a world people would want to live in? I’m sure there will be some arguments against each, owing to personal preferences and anti-big-corporation sentiment, but for the most part, these brands would be missed. 

Imagine a large city’s central streets without a McDonald’s (local independent businesses suffering and healthy eating aside). Would we be happy with Burger King and Five Guys? We might, as adults, but our kids might not be. There’d be no more Happy Meal with a toy and our kids would be disappointed, crying all the way home.

Imagine a child’s life without Disney. Yes, Warner Brothers and Nickelodeon would fill some of the void, but how many little girls dream of becoming Disney princesses when they grow up?

Imagine an Irish pub without Guinness. Would we be happy with Murphy’s or Caffrey’s? The Murphy’s Six Nations doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. 

Imagine Formula 1 without Ferrari. Would it still mean the same to McLaren or Red Bull to win the title without the red cars in the mix? 

The Me Too brands have always tried to allow us to get a step closer to the real lovemark – the iconic brand we all want to be associated with. Epiphone is not quite Gibson, and Tully’s Coffee is not quite Starbucks. 

Sometimes, on our travels for example to foreign and strange places, the mere presence of a global icon on a street can reassure us we are in a more familiar, safe place, and brighten up our day.

Common qualities of an indispensable brand

Ultimately the brands we would miss if they were not there are those which are dear to us as individuals and groups, that we enjoy ourselves and share with others. They are those which offer an escape from our daily churn, they are the things that make us feel a part of society and help affirm our personal statuses.

They are iconic, and therefore, irreplaceable, in their possessing:

  • An iconic, unmistakable visual language (often made up of multiple valuable visual equities that can be used alone or in combination). Those equities are individual and very often do not follow the standard category codes.
  • A clear purpose and idea in the consumer’s minds of what the brand stands for –  its promise that it genuinely delivers through its product or service. They tend to offer a reassurance of quality, trust and in some cases excitement. It depends on the industry – as music and commercial aviation naturally offer quite different experiences as categories. I wouldn’t necessarily want a Boeing 737 or a bank clerk to excite me, but I’d expect that at a sporting event or music festival.
  • Memorable, differentiated experiences across all touchpoints (physical and digital) that surprise and delight consumers. Brand symbols (signature initiatives I mean, rather than visual equities), are what really drives brand affinity, preference and relevance. The coffee chain that writes your name on the cup. The diner that gives you baseball cards with your breakfast. The mint with the hole. The chocolate egg with the toy inside. The secret sauce in the burger. The ice cream or heart-shaped chocolates on board the plane. The personalised snacks in the hotel guest’s room.

These brands are not afraid to zag while others zig, and pave their own way, rather than following the crowd. They can do this through positioning, identity and experience, across all activation touchpoints and tell stories through communications.

Disruptors, not irreplaceables

Over the last ten to fifteen years, we have seen disruptive brands come in and shake up industries by taking out all of the obstacles that had previously been put in place in order to make money or take advantage of consumers/people. WhatsApp removed the obstacle of having to pay money to send messages on our mobile phones to others. Uber removed the obstacle of having to wait around city centres hoping for a taxi, and having to pay the driver in cash. Spotify removed the obstacle of having to pay royalties to individual artists through album downloads or CDs – not to mention Amazon. 

These brands are all relevant to today’s world and people’s situations, needs and requirements. But are they irreplaceable? Probably not. In the case of WhatsApp and Uber, in many western countries they have the critical mass to succeed at the moment. But new brands or revitalised brands can come in with a great brand experience, coupled with a clear idea of what they stand for and strong visual icons, and with the right marketing strategy, can topple these current disruptive incumbents. 

Ghost brands

Nostalgia plays a big role for brands that can be considered irreplaceable. Brands we have grown up with, or even those that our parents have grown up with and talked to us about through our childhood years and youth are embedded into our psyche. It’s human nature to warm to memories we associate with happy, protected times before we had to fend for ourselves. 

But nobody is protesting that they can no longer play Sonic The Hedgehog on Dreamcast. 

What is interesting is the number of people I have seen in the present day wearing PanAm and Atari branded T shirts. The Strokes’ 60s-80s retro revival movement of the early 2000s seems to be a trend that is here to stay and lives on. 

The 2002 film Catch Me If You Can helped put the PanAm brand back on the map because of Leonardo DiCaprio’s entertaining portrayal of charismatic conman Frank Abagnale. Nowadays a huge variety of PanAm branded fashion and merchandise is available online.  

The ghost brands such as PanAm hold value as they are exclusive in their lack of availability in the real world and elusive in their presence in the daily grind. Their nostalgic nod suggests that the wearer is in the know, and word of mouth helps generate further buzz. Spot a celebrity wearing it, and it amplifies the trend further.

The greatest comeback since Lazarus 

Mars’ revival of the Marathon brand, which was rebranded to Snickers in 1990, is a great example of the popularity and buzz generated by a nostalgia-driven limited edition.

NBA teams have always fascinated me with their attempt to maintain an element of their origin when the ‘franchises’ transition from one city to another. There is no lake in Los Angeles, yet the LA Lakers no longer sounds unnatural. I still feel that Memphis Grizzlies feels a little strange though. The Seattle (Super)Sonics left the Emerald City in 2011 in favour of Oklahoma, but the brand is still so iconic, and the home city fans so proud, that the brand lives on in the cult world (90s Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp Sonics jerseys are being sold in stores in Covent Garden in London). 

Sports brands have a particularly strong affinity with their loyalists of course, due to the nature of fandom and the lifetime journey people embark upon with those types of brands. 

Converse All Stars, or Chucks, have been around since the 1920s, and although they enjoyed a market monopoly as a basketball shoe in the 20s through to 60s, the brand lost a huge amount of market share before being revived in the 1990s by the likes of Kurt Cobain. Sometimes it’s the endorsement of the celebrity who decides to zag when others zig that helps revive a brand, and that individuality, wherever it comes from, can change the fate of a brand overnight.

Safety in death

Heritage and authenticity have a place too of course. Coco Chanel is dead. This is a good thing for the Chanel brand. Why? Because she cannot do a Zuck and mess up the brand’s reputation. Founder leaders who remain heavily involved in a brand’s growth post launch always pose an exponential threat to the security of the brand. 

This spans outside of the business world too. Nirvana are not at risk of potentially releasing a bad album anytime soon.

Fictional brands are irreplaceable too

Iconic brands don’t even need to be real. The Simpsons wouldn’t be the same without Duff beer, and Pollos Hermanos chicken became a cult icon itself from within another iconic brand (Breaking Bad). In my town there is even a Heisenburg café. How long will it be until we see one of these brands go from fictional to real, under multi-million licensing agreements?

With or without you

Ultimately, as the saying goes, you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. And many of the world’s most iconic brands are unlikely to be replaced anytime soon. We won’t know the backlash of a brand we once loved that’s taken away from us until it’s gone, but we do know how consumers feel at the thought of the threat of the brand being taken away. 

I couldn’t live without my Nurofen/Starbucks/Netflix/(insert brand here). 

With so many new brands being introduced to the world on a daily basis, some successful and some that do not make it, heritage brands have an opportunity to leverage their nostalgia factor, and reinvent themselves through the creation and/or nurturing of iconic assets through identity, positioning and experience in order to cement themselves as irreplaceable brands in the minds of the people.

Cover image source: Dragon Rouge