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How Do Brands Become Iconic?

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.  


Iconic brands lose this advantage, Yu says, when they become pacified, give up on their search for meaning or take away what made them iconic in search of something entirely new. Instead of brands looking for a part of their image or product that is loaded with meaning for consumers, they try to create entirely new meaning. Customers want to love these iconic brands, Yu says, but a brand’s quest for what’s new often makes customers fall out of love. A classic example is Coca-Cola’s 1985 introduction of New Coke, a formula that replaced the soda’s original recipe. Customers boycotted, protested and even formed a group against New Coke, the Old Cola Drinkers of America. Coca-Cola reintroduced the old formula as Coca-Cola Classic 78 days after the launch of New Coke. 

“Most people like to innovate shiny new ideas around shiny objects,” Yu says. Instead of chasing after shiny objects, Yu says iconic companies take the shiny new idea and apply it against their existing business, where they already have iconic franchises or strengths. “Brand marketers understand people love iconic brands and they want to stay in love with iconic brands, but some brands believe that all people want is newness.”

Yu and co-author Dave Birss, former creative director of OgilvyOne, researched what makes brands iconic and wrote the results in their book, Iconic Advantage. With this book, Yu says he wanted to give all brands the formula to become iconic by cultivating “noticing power, scaling power and staying power.” 

Marketing News spoke with Yu about what makes brands iconic, how they lose their iconic status and how lesser-known brands can be iconic, too. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

MN: One of the first stories you tell in Iconic Advantage is American Apparel’s fall from grace. The company lost its iconic status and eventually had to file for bankruptcy and close its retail stores. How do brands lose their iconic status?

SY: Sometimes brands understand what makes them iconic and what makes people love their brand. Sometimes, they get it wrong. Sometimes brands don’t even know what makes them iconic, they just assume they’re loved and everything they touch is great. They think that halo is going to carry to everything, and that’s not true. 

The first thing for brands to understand is what makes you stand out in a way that people love you. If you don’t understand that, then you’re likely going to denigrate, disrespect or not celebrate what people love. That’s the most surefire way of losing relevance.

You have to know what makes the brand special, and I think American Apparel lost track of that. 

A lot of brands lose track of what makes them special. They try to be something they’re not. Sometimes they know what makes them special, and they won’t budge. They’ll be like, “We’re going to protect it, and no one can touch this. You can’t play with this. This is the way we’re going to be until we die.” And guess what? They die. 

You have to know what makes you special, but infuse the right amount of newness without losing the familiarity of what makes you special. Your specialness should be encapsulated by the key point of difference. When most marketers build a brand pyramid, they talk about a key point of difference somewhere in the middle of the pyramid, with the brand’s promise to the consumer, their mission, at the very top of the pyramid. I have flipped the brand pyramid. 

In the book, I talk about the four rungs in this pyramid. Everything is building up to your key point of difference, your purpose, your values, what you believe in, your personality and your promise to your consumers. All of that has to include the idea of what makes you special and different. Why should people care about you versus the next brand? You build the pyramid to support what’s different, then create signatures. 

Think about it: If you left the room, what fragrance do you leave? What would people remember about you? What would be your signature? If the brand isn’t there, what do I remember about that brand? If that signature can be an embodiment of your key point of difference, you are kicking some butt. 

Image from Iconic Advantage​ 

MN: What’s a good example of a brand that has an iconic signature?

SY: Nike. You’ve got the Nike Air Max, and the signature element is the air bubble in the sole. That encapsulates their key point of difference with the Air Max line—buoyance of performance. Most trainers will lose 40% of their support in the lifetime of the shoes, but a pocket of air will never lose its bounce. They do everything they can to showcase that difference and celebrate it. 

The next thing you have to do to protect the brand is infuse that signature element with new innovation. When Nike launched Air Max in 1987, the air pocket was in the back of the shoe. Over the years, it covered the whole back of the shoe, then it went to the front and back, and pretty soon it was the entire shoe. Then they put “power pockets” of air in the right places on the shoe. Over 30 years, they kept innovating that pocket; it never remains static. They continue to tell the story of the shoe—how it is created, which new celebrities are wearing it, new categories the shoe is going into and how they are revolutionizing those categories, whether it be golf or tennis.

Nike kept evolving the story; story creates meaning, and people love meaning. If you look at the 30-year history of that shoe, they kept playing with the design to keep it current with the zeitgeist and fashion trends in the era. They protected the signature element while still infusing innovation and creating stories around that signature element, surrounding it with fresh design without violating the signature element. 

MN: It’s amazing how Nike can do that with both the Air Max and the Jordan brand. It seems like Nike is very good at keeping things fresh while playing on this old skeleton of the brand. 

SY: That’s exactly right. Old skeletons married with some fresh new meat.

MN: How many brands are good at making themselves and their products iconic?

SY: There are quite a few. I’ve found they’re agnostic of product, service or category. Some brands I consider to be the category, generically, like Kleenex, Clorox, Chapstick. Then there are other iconic brands inside the niche of that category: If you wanted the most natural lip balm infused with natural ingredients, you probably think of Burt’s Bees. With any category, there are also brands that own specific niches with their own distinctive relevance. Owning a niche within a category is an opportunity to become iconic. Iconic products are recognized for their distinctive relevance. The goal is to create timeless relevance because one of the key ingredients is time. The longer you can stay relevant, the more longevity you create that leads you to become more iconic. 

MN: You used the Roman Catholic Church as an example of an iconic brand. Perhaps this is a useful example for readers. Can you explain how the Catholic Church became iconic? 

SY: One thing the Catholic Church is good at is creating a signature element for all its beliefs and practices. It has been able to figure out its signature elements, but it also celebrates them with special holidays and special parts within the Bible that talk about those elements. 

Let’s take a simple one: the cross. Jesus was crucified on the cross, so it has become symbolic of  sacrifice. You take the bread and the wine, and they symbolize his body and his blood, so when you take communion, it is all about your communion with Jesus and how you are literally sharing his blood and his body. The church is able to take these elements and infuse them into a story that creates meaning. Then the church gets recognition by putting symbols everywhere. If you go to a Catholic church, how many times will you see the cross? The Catholic Church is amazing about a couple things: one, creating signature elements, two, keeping those elements and celebrating them in a way that is timelessly relevant. 

MN: How can a brand that is starting fresh build something that has potential to be iconic? 

SY: I have a really good friend who was a partner at Kleiner Perkins, one of the most iconic venture capital firms in Silicon Valley. He says that iconic advantage is actually more important for startups than it is for Fortune 500 companies. His argument is that a Fortune 500 company already has iconic status, whereas startups need to create it, and the sooner they can do that, the better. 

Most startups are generally in a two- to four-horse race, meaning there’s usually a competitor, or two or three, out there that is trying to do the same thing they are. The way they try to beat each other is by getting out faster, scaling up bigger or having better technology. Those are the three ways Uber and Lyft think of how to beat the competition. My argument is that it isn’t always the biggest, fastest or best mousetrap that gets the mice, it’s the one with the stinkiest cheese. What they need to figure out is how to create stinky cheese. 

Humans have an incredible nose for stories, meaning and relevance. How do you become more relevant? Give me a story about why your new technology is more relevant to my life and relevant to what I care about, then I’ll be more likely to remember you and associate with you in the future. For startups, it’s critically important to find meaning. You need to think about what story you are going to create for consumers around your key point of difference and what signature elements are embodied in that story. Anytime anybody sees or experiences that signature element, they’re reminded of the story behind you and your brand. Young girl selling little green boxes, what do you think of?

MN: Girl Scouts, definitely.

SY: Exactly. The Girl Scouts’ signature element is not just cookies, but the selling of the Girl Scout cookies. Their main mission is to inspire and empower girls, yet they are having a real issue encouraging girls to get involved with STEM, science technology engineering and math. They thought, how might we take our signature element, which embodies our key point of difference about empowering young women, and use it in STEM? Two years ago, they created something called Digital Cookies​, a tool that allows young girls to create their own e-commerce engine. Girl Scouts are able to learn about web design—they can customize a website with their own pictures, they can change the information architecture, flow and how the basket looks. They can also learn about e-commerce, inventory management and how to deal with credit cards and financial transactions. They are learning all of that by taking their signature element and bringing it into the 21st century. 

MN: How much of the iconic advantage is shown through the design of the product and how much through the story? Is there an ideal ratio?

SY: I don’t know if there’s a ratio, but there’s a framework for creating timeless relevance. Four things brands can do to stay relevant are protect the signature element to create familiarity, evolve the story of your heritage to create meaning or stay relevant, innovate the benefit to create excitement and reimagine design to keep it fresh and exciting. 

The only one you really have to do is protect your signature element. You could do any of the last three in varying orders or different mixes, as long as you’re trying to do one or two of those as you protect your signature element. These are the levers you can pull to protect your signature element. 

Image from Iconic Advantage​ 

MN: Is creating a signature element easy to do? Some people may not think there’s anything that truly distinguishes their brand. Will the iconic advantage work with every brand, or is there something inherently special about becoming iconic? 

SY: The iconic advantage can work for big or small brands. If you don’t have a distinctive quality, it doesn’t mean you can’t survive or compete, it just might be harder for you to stick around. The more you have something that’s distinctive, the more likely you’re going to stick around. 

It works for pizza parlors in San Francisco. This pizza parlor called Goat Hill Pizza wanted to stand out, so their signature element is sourdough pizza crust. It’s incredible that they figured out how to do it; it tastes amazing. They are signature in San Francisco, and that’s all they wanted. They could have just been any other pizza joint, but they’re the only ones with sourdough crust. That makes it extremely relevant, distinctive and iconic in the city. 

Or think of Amazon. They sell products, but Amazon is really a service. Amazon was born out of the idea of having the world’s biggest bookstore while selling books as cheaply as possible. But now they own the idea of 1-Click shopping. They’ve decided that they’re going to own that iconic benefit, so they’ve been religious about it, so religious that they’re willing to put the existing business out of business in order to own this iconic benefit. They went from 1-Click shopping of books to 1-Click shopping of music and movies to a physical Dash Button where you can order beer or tissue. They even went to 1-Click for your groceries. You can just tell Alexa what you want, and you don’t even need to click anything physical. With IoT and predictive analytics, we’re going to have chips implanted in our brains and they’re going to know we want a Coke before we do. What Amazon is really trying to own is this idea of no patience required. In the next 20 years, my son won’t even know that Amazon once was a website, he’ll think of Amazon as the place that instantaneously knows what he wants before he even knows he wants it.

MN: How should marketers think about making their products and services iconic? Most of what you talk about goes beyond marketing to the heart of the company. How can a marketing department let the rest of the company see what needs to happen to make an iconic product?

SY: Most people build brands around the idea of delivering a promise. That is not enough if you want to become iconic. Iconic brands tend to make a lot more money than the noniconic brands. The key difference is how you develop your DNA. Your DNA should answer the question, what is your point of difference? Then, your iconic advantage is all about calibrating that key point of difference and keeping it fresh. We all have to agree that our main goal is that we are going to be distinctly different from everybody else. We’re not just going to be bigger, we’re not going to be smarter, we’re going to be different in a relevant way.

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