How Brands Become Icons


What does it mean to be an icon?

For starters, it means more than just being popular, preferred, or even beloved. For an individual, institution, brand, or even fictional character to obtain icon status they must be seen, glorified even, as representative of an ideal that is much larger than itself. In other words, the person, product, or object must become a powerful embodiment of, or solution to, a prevailing cultural belief, desire, change, or tension.

In 2004 Douglas Holt answered this question by boldly shunning traditional branding methods in favor of a framework he created and coined as "cultural branding." In his book he declares that "the reduction of the brand to a handful of abstract concepts will never lead to the building of an iconic brand". Instead, he argues, brands must  "attend to historical changes"  and make "the appropriate adjustments to better align" with "important tensions" in society.

Holt's survey of thousands of advertisements, overlaid onto significant historical events in the U.S., reveals that persuasion tactics, segmentation exercises, and other conventional branding and creative techniques alone don't make icons.  His research shows that a brand becomes an icon when it "adjusts to historical exigencies, not by its consistency in the face of historical change." Though Holt tends to hone in on societal tensions in his book he does speak broadly to the importance of brands capturing the essence of major cultural themes, both negative and positive.

Over ten years later, what's particularly interesting about Holt's framework is the extent to which it has not been adopted by many of the most significant brands of our time. Headline after headline predict and proclaim the doom and demise of once powerful and longstanding brands who now struggle to adapt and stay culturally relevant. While many young and emerging brands seem to obtain a cult-like following overnight as a result of their sensitivity, and willingness, to change.

What can we take from Holt's research and subsequent framework?

It is easy to summarize the mood of a particular period in hindsight. It is not hard to critically assess players within a particular industry from a historical perspective. What's difficult is recognizing change unfolding right before your eyes and having the agility to make the in-the-moment shifts necessary to appropriately respond to that change.

Holt provides us with an explanation for the way in which icons earn their position in society. First he describes who his framework is most apt to work for:

Cultural branding applies particularly to categories in which people tend to value products as a means of self-expression, such as clothing, home decor, beauty, leisure, entertainment, automotive, food, and beverage. Marketers usually refer to these categories as lifestyle, image, badge, or ego-expressive products.

Then he breaks down what must be accomplished:

Icons come to represent a particular kind of story—an identity myth—that their consumers use to address identity desires and anxieties. Icons have extraordinary value because they carry a heavy symbolic load for their most enthusiastic consumers. Icons perform the particular myth society especially needs at a given historical moment, and they perform it charismatically. 

Holt is sure to tell us how to accomplish it:

Cultural knowledge examines the role of major social categories of class, gender, and ethnicity in identity construction rather than obscuring these categories by sorting people into “psychographic” groups. Cultural knowledge views the brand as a historical actor in society. Cultural knowledge views people holistically, seeking to understand what gives their lives meaning, rather than as customers of category benefits. Cultural knowledge seeks to understand the identity value of mass culture texts, rather than treating mass culture simply as trends and entertainment.

And finally he explains why it works:

We experience our identities—our self-understanding and aspirations—as intensely personal quests. But when scholars examine consumer identities in the aggregate, they find that desires and anxieties linked to identity are widely shared across a large fraction of a nation’s citizens. These similarities result because people are constructing their identities in response to the same historical changes that influence the entire nation.

A synopsis of "How Brands Become Icons: The Principles of Cultural Branding" by Douglas Holt.