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How Do Brands Become Iconic?

Hal Conick

​Brands must nurture what makes them iconic instead of what makes them appear new and shiny, according to Soon Yu, author of Iconic Advantage

Humans will attach meaning to anything. Three years ago, Soon Yu saw an up-close example through the eyes of his five-year-old son.

Yu took his family on vacation to Lake Como in Lombardy, Italy. Within days, his son lost a hand puppet he had owned since birth, one shaped like a white lamb. The trip stalled. Amid his son’s sobs and tears, Yu found a replacement lamb on Alibaba for less than $2, but he didn’t buy it; it wouldn’t have been the same—“He knew where he bit the ear off,” Yu says. Instead, Yu and his family backtracked across train cars and rebooked Italian hotels to find the lost lamb. After $1,000 and two days of searching, they found the lamb, now loaded with even more meaning. “And that was well worth it,” Yu says. “Now we have a story we can t​alk about as a family.”

This kind of attached meaning doesn’t stop at childhood, says Yu, who formerly served as the global vice president of innovation at VF Corporation, parent company of brands such as Timberland and The North Face. Adults also attach meaning to brands, and as they form more memories and emotional connections with a brand, a brand’s signature elements become loaded with meaning—think of a Coca-Cola bottle’s shade of red, the lime in the mouth of a Corona bottle or the oval-shaped headlights of a Mercedes Benz. These elements give brands an “iconic advantage,” Yu says, which is distinctive, relevant to audiences and easily recognized.  

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Hal Conick

Hal Conick is a staff writer for the AMA’s magazines and e-newsletters. He can be reached at hconick@ama.org or on Twitter at @HalConick.