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It’s Not Easy Being Iconic

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By: Laurie Bredenfoerder 

This article is based on remarks made at The Market Research Event, October 22 and 23, 2017, by  Soon Yu, former Global Vice President of Innovation at VF Corp and author of the forthcoming book, Iconic Advantage; Jennifer Lauer and Kalil Vicioso of Hall & Partners; and Barb Murrer of Levi Strauss & Co.

How often do you think about what it takes to become, and stay, an iconic brand?  Probably – not much. And that makes sense, because iconic brands like Coke and Nike are as much a part of your environment as the air and the sky…. they’re just…there.


Recently I’ve had a chance to hear in detail the process by which a brand becomes – and stays – iconic. Bottom line: it’s not quick, and it’s not easy, and it takes a lot of creative thinking.

First, the brand must stand up to the test of time. It has to make a cultural impact. Think Harley Davidson: “Easy Rider.” Or, Levi’s: The company estimates that 96 percent of Americans own a pair of jeans. An iconic brand has timeless relevance; it has to be meaningful across generations.

People attach meaning to products.  Author Soon Yu asks, “Are you ‘Birk’ or are you “Burch’?”  Both are sandals, but the situations in which you’d choose to wear one over the other are related to each product’s image or ethos and the occasion for which they will be worn.

An iconic band means something particular – and possibly personal - to its users, beyond the limits of the physical “thing.”  Users will stick with the iconic brand over time, even after it has ceased being “trendy.”  An iconic brand is dependable.  A Rolex watch isn’t just a timepiece; it transcends style.

An iconic brand provides its user with an experience.  Apple has designed its packaging so that that unboxing a newly purchased product is like uncovering a jewel.

The iconic brand has distinctive assets that make it instantly recognizable: Think: the silhouette of the Coke bottle, the Nike Swoosh.

The iconic brand is authentic – a leader, not a follower. It may even have disrupted its category the way that McDonald’s re-defined fast food. It is original and real.

An iconic brand provides an experience to the user that extends beyond seeing, thinking, even feeling – all the way to believing.

Iconic brands speak with a consistent voice: Sir Richard Branson’s many “Virgin” ventures all project the same irreverent tone of voice as the original Virgin Records store, where his empire cut its teeth.

But being iconic isn’t easy.  For one thing, it is generally expected that iconic brands will serve as an influential voice in the cultural discourse, but they need to stand for causes that are consistent with their corporate ethos. For this reason, Cheerios can re-define “family,” both in terms of composition and color, but Pepsi chose to pull a television commercial featuring Kendall Jenner that positioned its flagship brand as a cultural unifier.  But when asked how her company researched the causes it chooses to support, Barb Murrer of Levi Strauss & Co. said, “You don’t need to research it. Just read the newspaper; you know what’s happening out there.”


Another challenge is that staying iconic means being at once comfortably familiar, while also innovative and of-the-moment.  An iconic brand must thoughtfully identify the essential aspects of its heritage while innovating around them to create delight.  For instance, when BMW re-launched the Mini-Cooper, it identified that the front of the original model looked childlike and playful and eager to learn. All of that was retained, but the car’s power was updated and made accessible to a greater portion of the population. BMW marketed the Mini as a toy: “fun” and “playful” were infused into the scaling of the product.

So, being iconic may not happen quickly, or without effort, and it takes a lot of subtle and thoughtful innovation to keep it that way. But, in return, like the presidents carved into Mt. Rushmore, these brands become an integral part of the American conversation, well beyond their physical form or use.  Iconic? Indeed!

LaurieAbout the Author: Laurie Bredenfoerder, MBA, PRC is a veteran independent qualitative market research consultant based in Cincinnati, Ohio.  She holds a B.S. in Journalism from Bowling Green State University, an MBA from Xavier University, and a Professional Researcher Certification from the Insights Association.  Laurie is a board member of the Insights Association’s Great Lakes Chapter, a national committee chairperson for the Qualitative Research Consultants Association, a wife, and a proud mother of a wonderful son. Reach her by email:

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