The term icon should probably only be used in a religious context. The Oxford Languages dictionary’s first definition of an ‘icon’ is, “a painting of Jesus Christ or another holy figure, typically in a traditional style on wood, venerated and used as an aid to devotion in the Byzantine and other Eastern Churches.”      

Its second and third definitions refer to visual assets and symbols of belief in a more general sense. Of course, in our world of business, marketing and branding, and its sensationalist copywriting, the term has become common language to mean things that people recognise and are familiar with universally, ubiquitously. The notion of belief in the icon is, at first at least, secondary.

Iconicity is earned. It’s not self-professed, or if it is, it’s probably not the general consensus. WWE wrestlers and hip-hop MCs aside, people and brands won’t tell you ‘I’m iconic’, in the same way that they don’t tell you ‘I’m brave’, or ‘I’m funny.’ If you hear that from someone you’re probably likely to ask them to turn around so you can hear them better.

Attitudinal iconicity

Because of the earnt power of visual brand assets, one’s immediate association with brand iconicity tends to be visual identity. The Nike swoosh. The Coca-Cola bottle shape, red and typeface. The partly bitten into Apple marque. The Shell pecten. The McDonald’s golden arches. The Walt Disney signature. The visual identity of these brands is of course strong – unique, salient, recognisable and memorable. But the reason these brands are so recognisable, and so ingrained in our memories is because of what they have done, and what they have said or communicated, for many, many years. Not because of how they look.

These brands are not just iconic visually, but also through their positioning. They have attitudinal iconicity

Clients often ask to create a brand as iconic as the Nike swoosh. What they conveniently forget is the pushing of the consistent message ‘Just Do It’ together with the swoosh over many years. The swoosh, supported by its cavalry of marketing communications is a symbol reflective of Nike’s mission, ‘to bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete* in the world’ (* if you have a body, you are an athlete.) That message has been consistently and single-mindedly applied and pushed across all touchpoints since the late 1980s. What if Nike had changed the swoosh and the ‘Just Do It’ line to other equities? Would the brand have achieved its current status? Probably not. Carolyn Davidson is credited with the creation of the iconic marque, for which she was commissioned $35 in 1971, but it’s Wieden+Kennedy’s advertising over decades that has ingrained Nike’s message to us.

Coca-Cola has been visible through globally televised sports events since 1950 and a part of our Christmases in the West globally since the mid 90s, through its Coca-Cola truck with Santa and the Always Coca-Cola jingle. These global icons are often intrinsically linked to time. We grow up with them as children, then as adolescents, then as adults. And if we continue to engage with them, or at least see them, or see others in our social circle engage with them, the relationship with the brand continues, at least subconsciously. 

The new breed of iconic brands

Patagonia, Tony’s Chocolonely, Oatly, and Ben & Jerry’s all have strong visual identities, but what has led them to become four of the most culturally relevant brands in the present day is not how they look, but the actions they take, the things they communicate, and the way they communicate them. These examples are social purpose natives, born with an inherent sense of cause in their DNA. Others such as Unilever’s Dove have started out with a more functional purpose (hand soap to keep you clean), and have been able to smoothly and smartly transition into actionable social purpose strategies.

Budweiser had also made the transition to a certain extent, although as Bud Light proves, it’s not always smooth sailing.

Straddling both lanes

Certain brands are able to leverage both a historic nostalgia and cross-generational awareness and trust, plus a strong attitudinal iconicity. Apple is a great example of a brand that now has enough years to achieve the former, but it was Steve Jobs’ 1985 profession which established the attitudinal iconicity, and the belief in the brand, and wanting to belong to its tribe amongst the people.

“Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes … the ones who see things differently – they’re not fond of rules, and they have no respect for the status quo… You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things… They push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the people who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.” – Steve Jobs

Can new/young brands be global icons too?

Often the association with icons is made with an intrinsic link to time. Brands which we have grown up with that are still alive and kicking today give us that belief in the brand. A followership that has been passed on from one generation to the next. 

But what about brand new brands? And brands born in the 21st century? Can they be icons too?

Yes they can. Spotify, Uber and WhatsApp are three great disruptors of the past twenty years. They did not exist in 2003. They are disruptors because they came in to serve a customer need by taking out all of the obstacles that had been put in place by the incumbent players. These brands have achieved that belief from their consumers by thinking of their needs ahead of the company’s need to make more money in the traditional or easiest possible way. A brand is a promise, delivered and not broken. The delivered promise creates that belief in the hearts and minds of people.

But what about brand new brands? If I launch a new brand, can it become an icon in the first year? Yes, is the answer. If it has the right associations. But these associations tend to be connected to time, awareness, trust and belief. If Beyoncé or Rihanna were to launch a new brand, it could become iconic by having that endorsement from stardom. Similarly, a new brand that finds an altogether new way of doing things that makes the old way obsolete in its category (like Spotify, Uber and WhatsApp did in their respective categories), can also become an icon – of course with the right positioning, voice, look and feel and connecting on the right touch points, taking the right actions, and saying the right things. Rapid awareness building is key, and this is about investing in not only communications but the right channels to market and partnerships.

Really truly globally

What is iconic in one part of the world (for example WeChat in China), may not gain iconic status elsewhere. But true global icons are able to transcend culture and geography and gain universal status. The London Underground serves only one city, yet it has become a global icon in the world of transport; something about it feels timeless and universal.

Like companies and products, people can also become iconic brands

The visual aesthetic is important to product/service brand icons in the same way that it’s also important in personal branding (human beings). The logo, the colour palette, the entire look and feel, is present in the personal brand, whether we see it that consciously or not.

Barack Obama has his nice blue shirts, his smart haircut, his watch. He looks smart. But that’s not as important in his personal brand as his voice. The things he says and the way he delivers them. His ‘Yes we can’ is Nike’s ‘Just Do It.’ His speeches are written as well as any brand or advertising narrative. Behind the (dare I say it) iconic smile is a very rich story, which reflects an even richer/deeper story around American history and immigration.

David Attenborough is no longer as handsome as he once was. But at 97 years old, his personal brand is stronger than ever. His voice. His actions. The things he has said and the things he has shown us, all increasingly relevant to the world we are living in and its situation (I refer not only to the climate emergency, but to being present as individuals). The fact that he is still working so hard at the age of 97 is proof of the promise delivered. 

And when things go wrong, the power of the icon manifests itself. Tiger Woods slipped up badly in 2010. But the classic story of the hero goes, you have it made, you make a big mistake, encounter adversity and you have to claw your way back to the top. Woods’ Masters victory in 2019 was greeted with complete euphoria by fans globally. It seemed so improbable, given his wrongdoings, but he had very clearly been forgiven, and that is testament to the strength of his personal brand. The people believed in Tiger.

Timeless identity, not on-trend identity

A brand’s visual identity comes to encapsulate all a brand stands for over time. The best visual identities are a true reflection of the brand strategy, translated into design. They are also timeless. There is an art to this, rather than a science. Designers can create marques and identity systems that are on-trend with all the ‘right’ typefaces and in-fashion fonts. They’re relevant for the present day. I can’t tell you how many visual identities there are out there that are using the Circular typeface. Airbnb, Deliveroo, and now Spotify. But the timeless identities are striking. You know it when you see it. They are boldly simple, and bold in their simplicity. 

A recipe for the secret sauce to iconicity

So what are the common ingredients to iconic brand status?

Iconic brands, whether young or old, product, service or people are:

  • Committed to purpose, they are steadfast in their beliefs. They fight for a cause, and they walk the walk (actions aligned with purpose). There is a (insert brand name here) way of doing things. This includes partnerships and associations as one brand reflects another. Tell me who you go with, and I’ll choose whether or not to go with you.
  • A strong back story, be it about the founder, a disruptive invention, provenance, or their role in socio-cultural history.
  • Meaning in everything they communicate. 
  • They have a strong, timeless visual identity. Bold in their simplicity. They are striking. Not just copying the latest design trends. They are universally appealing (they transcend culture and generations).
  • Many have sonic associations that stick in our minds – whether voice, sounds, jingles, songs, music
  • A consistent brand experience across all touch points, digital and physical.

Iconicity can also be graded in terms of:

  • Attitudinal iconicity (tone and manner).
  • Behavioural iconicity (actions taken).
  • Visual/aesthetic iconicity (this is just one facet of iconicity, albeit an important one).
  • Experiential iconicity (sonic, motion, tactile, aroma, non visual).

 How iconic is your brand? Does it measure up? 

This article was written with input from Zayn Khan, Joe Hale and Kheireddine Sidhoum.

Cover image source: Dragon Rouge