The Genius of Iconic Brands

by Lou Killeffer

Today it seems everything is legendary, seminal, or worse, iconic. We’re increasingly willing to lavish praise, and there’s no more extreme example of our largesse than the brand arena. A result no doubt of our communal sympathy for self-promotion and the creeping force of grade inflation.

I’d venture there are far fewer “iconic” brands than some might suspect. When everything’s iconic, nothing is. But even our constant widening of the lens doesn’t dispute the very select superstars who are.

I believe the truly iconic brands, like iconic figures in the arts, sciences, and society at large, are the direct result of innovative genius.

Iconic brands are built entirely from within and when declared, they’re discovered and embraced. The larger, more absolute, and universal the community they attract, the more iconic they become.

In my view, iconic brands exemplify business genius; the uncommon union of understanding, creativity, and effort in forming new combinations – doing things differently.

Like every brand, iconic brands are created less by design than by result. In fact, they’re the profound response to what a company expresses. Like the stature of recognized icons in culture and society they’re our reply to the standout expression of genius. Perhaps the truest, most encompassing expression of excellence in business. 

Iconic Brands Are…

1. Singular and rare as by definition they’re few and far between. In fact,   their status is the crowning aspect of their difference. No one else even comes close.

2. They’re indisputably authentic, which is another way of saying they’re real, the consistent product of their experience and heritage.

3. They exude the courage and conviction of the truly self-aware.They know full well who they are – and who they aren’t – and they’re abundantly clear and vigilant about it. They’ve taken Dr. Seuss (with an assist from Bernard Baruch) to heart: “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”

4. They’re instantly recognizable, both visually and emotionally. By that I mean in both style and substance. They’re graphic identity is unique to them, simplicity itself, and vividly striking. But who they are, what they believe – and how they deliver on their promise – is quite equally noticeable and distinct.

5. This is true at least in part because iconic brands are emotionally rich; the result
of wave after wave of exchanges that comprise a unique storyline. In this way, the brand and its community are invested in each other, far beyond the mere transaction of goods and services. Together they share an aspirational belief system, based on the vision of the brand, and a series of ongoing experiences in a mutually reciprocal relationship. 

6. Iconic brands are synonymous with innovation. The succession of catalytic products and services that attract and engage consumers, expand and evolve the brand, and propel the narrative forward. Without them, the story simply stops. The business may well continue in some other form or fashion but the brand stumbles badly; likely losing its place to someone else. The classic case of course is Sony.

7. Iconic brands simplify things. Their ethos is str
clear and uncomplicated. Their solutions are elegantly useful and easy to understand. This often places them in the vangard of removing pain points. Let’s face it, simple is the new sexy. 

 8. They’re widely admired as both a business and a social phenomenon. Uninformed people outside their category know who they are and look up to them. They’re mythical with a continuing narrative that owns a unique role in the culture well beyond their category, beyond commerce itself.

9. Finally, iconic brands are leaders, plain and simple, that have created, continue to define, and consequently dominate their categories.

Getting There

While every brand can’t become iconic, most still have a great deal of room to grow.

If you want to play tennis well, even if you don’t have a thimbleful of her talent, you’d do well to follow Venus Williams’ example. So, why not set some aggressive goals, adopt the necessary disciplines, model the behaviors that you can, and embrace it as the journey it is – while working on your backhand…

Here are a few milestones that may help confirm you and your brand are on the iconic path, your practice, making perfect:

1. You’re no longer just one of several entrants but a real player in a dynamic category. (As important as every category is, garden hoses, for example, may not be such a sector, although the originally mundane blue jean category demonstrably is. So, there’s always hope!) 

 2. You’ve a consumer franchise that’s actively engaged. Whether B2B or B2C, your users and your prospects are participating and involved. There’s a dynamic quality to your marketplace. For some reason, typically self-interest, people care. 

3. Both your product performance and its overall integrity are extraordinary through time and consistent innovation. One after the other; no half measure or false steps. Not just good, or good enough, but great. Among, if not the, very best available.

4. As a result, you’re creating and extending a record of marketplace success. You know it, your consumers know it, your prospects are willing to listen – and yes, your competitors know it too.

 5. All of which traces to an enduring brand platform and business strategy that work well together in creating new value.

Are your business strategy and brand truly optimized? Is there still some unrealized potential? Picture the future ideal on your own terms, and you just might find some helpful hints here: How to Build a Dynamic Brand.

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Lou Killeffer  is Editor-at-Large for Innovation Excellence, and Principal with Five Mile River Marketing. A versatile marketing strategist, Lou’s passion for communications and innovation has made him a trusted advisor to some of the world’s most enduring businesses and brands, from AT&T to UPS, where he helps enterprises embrace change, look ahead, and focus on sustaining success.

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