The religion of transforming icons into iconic brands
Regent’s University London's Prof Jonathan A.J. Wilson, professor of brand strategy & culture, and Dr Lika Baghdasaryan, assistant professor of marketing and brand management, outline what an iconic brand looks like in the modern day. They explain why only some brands are capable of achieving this cult-like status.
From a design perspective, all brands are icons – in that they provide a recognisable illustrative representation of their application. Successful brands offer a focal point through which wider meanings can be built that will increase their character and value. However, beyond design and function, only some brands become iconic – in a manner that amplifies and elevates them towards being superheroic, or supernatural.
To understand better what makes a brand iconic, it’s worth exploring the etymology of the term icon, which originates via Latin from the Greek word eikon – where it has been used to describe devotional paintings of Christ and other figures holy to Christianity, who are venerated as sacred, revered, and idolised.
Therefore, by extension, when we talk about iconic brands, these are the select few that transcend conventional categorisations, in ways that elicit a sense of community, communion, and worship.
These are the brands, labels, and even design aspects and national identities, which behave like brands, making it into annals of popular culture, vocabulary, and offering a socio-economic emotional status beyond basic rationalisations.
Iconic brands tend to be either market leaders or those that have achieved cult status. Also, they change common perceptions and ways that we communicate. For example: doing a Google or a Wiki, calling all tablets an iPad, all portable cassette players a walkman, all video calls Zoom calls, hoovering your house, ordering a coke, having a status Rolex watch to signal you’ve made it – or even wearing Japanese indigo denim, red bottoms shoes, and saying ‘everything’s Gucci baby’ to tell someone that everything’s fine, or co-opting the slogan ‘be like Nike and just do it’, in order to motivate people to do anything.
In a world where the triple bottom line of people, planet, and profits are under greater scrutiny, we’re moving towards making higher demands for brand transparency accountability, collaboration, consumer involvement, and activism in the quest for truth, purpose, relevance, and authenticity.
Professor Douglas B. Holt’s 2004 book ‘How Brands Become Icons’ has become a classic – championing the importance of powerful symbolism, where iconic brands create ‘identity myths’ that soothe collective anxieties resulting from acute social change.
When interviewing Graham Staplehurst and Amandine Bavent from Kantar BrandZ, about the publication of their 2022 Top 100 Brand rankings, they said that the bar is being raised every year, as a brand valuation of over $20 billion USD was required this year compared with $18 billion the previous year.
They mention that in order to break into the Top 100, a higher purpose signalled through supporting social change, or via brand collaborations and diversifications have been instrumental.
They went onto say that Apple soon looks set to become the first brand to achieve a $1trillion dollar valuation. It is perhaps no coincidence that Apple leverages what Professors Russell Belk and Gülnur Tumbat in their 2005 paper called quasi-religious aspects of consumption, where the brand becomes a religion to its true believers, through a series of sustaining myths, which in Apple’s case they classified as the creation, messianic, satanic, and resurrection myths.
Louis Vuitton also entered the top 10 global rankings for the first time, making it the first luxury brand to do so, and the first European brand since 2010. Kantar BrandZ report that the luxury category saw 34% brand growth: with companies such as LVMH investing in their corporate reputation - through pandemic-related initiatives, sustainable transformation, and support for social movements like BLM.
Whilst not ranked as highly, Nike, which is in the Top 100, Ben & Jerry’s and Lush cosmetics, who are outside of the Top 100, have also been strong supporters of Black Lives Matter and antiracism, which have contributed towards their iconic statuses. Where other ice cream or cosmetic brands might debate whether public antiracism solidarity marketing messages might be read as being inappropriate, appropriation, tokenism, or blackwashing, these brands are able to elevate their meaning, value, and statuses beyond their product category, with authenticity.
The Marvel and Star Wars universes on the Disney+ platform again are examples of stories steeped in powerful religious mythology and a higher purpose. Recently Disney+ overtook Netflix in streaming subscribers which Staplehurst cited was evidence of a brand able to signal clearly in the minds of consumers something that is distinctive, different, and attractive. Marvel’s recent MS Marvel series tackled religion head on and continues to break MCU records.
So to conclude: only some brands can become iconic and when looking at the historical roots as to what has defined icons - they evoke imagery and stories which offer a gateway to belief, faith, and devotion towards something powerful.
The recommendation is that branding professionals should develop a deeper appreciation of what, where, how, and why people worship. Whether that’s branding a person, product, service, organisation, or even a country, the same principles apply – with the only difference being the level of complexity required.
The key lies in helping all stakeholders, from consumers to employees, achieve a higher purpose by brands being able to deliver value, but also fill a void by bringing greater meaning, emotion and promise. Religion, or in this case the religion of branding, is powerful because it extends the time horizon within which pleasure, satisfaction, gratitude, and forgiveness (if things go wrong) can be experienced.
Holt, D.B. (2004), How Brand Become Icons, Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.
Belk, R.W. & Tumbat, G. (2005), “The Cult of Macintosh”, Consumption, Markets and Culture, Vol.8, No.3, September, pp.205-217.
Wilson, J.A.J. (2020), “Understanding branding is demanding…”, Journal of Marketing Management, Vol.36 Iss.13-14. pp.1178-1189.