November 14, 2009 at 8:34 am Leave a comment


When people argue that virtues of private enterprise extend to things like social integration and conflict resolution, they might now add to their arsenal a curious new/old argument: brands. In particular, iconic brands. What are they? PopMatters:

Simply put…the brands that attain the status of icons in consumer society operate at the cultural level. And more than merely reflecting people and the times in which they live, iconic brands offer myths that help resolve the contradictions of society; they’re channels for expressing desire and relieving anxiety.

[T]hose brands that offer solutions to the crises of American society gain market share. And when those brands are out of sync, they sink regardless of how much money is spent promoting them. Iconic brands create … “myth markets,” the opportunities for which arise when national ideology conflicts with social reality.

That is according to Oxford Business School’s Douglas Holt who, in business school brand analysis, has come to own the category of cultural branding. He lays out a pattern in which those brands that become iconic actually do it by defying basic branding principles.

Taking a look at some of Holt’s examples helps in contemplating how certain brands that address certain social contradictions of large/national audiences – if they know how – provide a kind of vital national service usually not recognized. But to get there and see the merits, back to proper beginnings. The words “myth” and “mythology,” one should note, found throughout this long post are stripped of negative connotations and are borrowed lingo from today’s marketing practice, which by now in turn borrows heavily from social anthropology.


There is something in modern marketing science called mind-share – a godmother of post-war marketing in which a product must work hard on communicating a single distinctive benefit to consumers. Smoke filled rooms of Mad Men come easily to mind as a visual birthplace of mind-share techniques. It started with 1950s’ hard-sell advocates and eventually elevated itself into trade magazines and psychology journals. Holt:

Their argument was simple: For a brand to succeed in a society whose volume of mass communication far exceeds what consumers can manage, the brand must own a simple, focused position in the prospect’s mind, usually a benefit associated with the product category. Since the 1970s, this provocative image-of brands contesting for scarce mental real estate in consumers’ minds-has been the most influential idea in branding. Academics and consultants have taught an entire generation of marketers that all brands work according to these principles. …

Mind share is familiar to anyone who has read famous stories about how Proctor & Gamble used dentists’ recommendations to convince Americans that Crest has distinctive cavity-fighting ingredients, or how Unilever built Dove soap into a premium mainstay by telling consumers time and again that Dove is gentle on sensitive skin because each bar contains one quarter cleansing cream. Many successful and durable brands have been built by the compulsive reiteration of the distinctive benefit (cavity fighting, gentleness) supported with rational arguments (dentists’ recommendation, one-quarter cleansing cream) and emotional appeals.

Some variation of mind share is today found in virtually every strategy document used for the world’s most prominent brands. The terminology sometimes changes – other popular terms that reference virtually identical ideas include brand essence, DNA, brand identity, genetic code, and brand soul – but the idea has remained remarkably consistent since the 1970s.

mind share

So how is an iconic brand different?

Arguably, it takes up tensions and contradictions in society and helps deal with them. What this means is that brands conventionally cited as icons (Starbucks, Nike, Harley Davidson, Snapple, Google) reach the stratosphere by unconventionally discarding marketing ideology in which you own mental real estate and create specific emotional experiences.

Conventional models assume that managing a brand is the art of insisting on consistency in the face of organizational and competitive pressures that push for zigging and zagging. Brand management is about stewardship: finding the brand’s true essence and maintaining this compass point, come hell or high water.

But this attitude of consistency does not really explain how a brand becomes an icon.

Of the iconic brands that I’ve studied with histories extending more than a decade, all have had to make significant shifts to remain iconic. These revisions of the brand’s myth are necessary because, for a myth to generate identity value, it must directly engage the challenging social issues of the day.

It’s impossible to build an iconic brand with traditional, MBA prescribed, mind-share principles, claims Holt. It works on utility and low-involvement products but not on iconic brands built on identity:

Mind-share assumes that brands exist outside of history, as transcendental entities. Managing a mind-share brand thus requires…staying above the fray of changes in culture and society. Iconic brands apply precisely the opposite philosophy: The brand is a historical entity whose desirability comes from myths that address the most important social tensions of the nation. For identity brands, success depends on how well the brand’s myth adjusts to historical exigencies, not by its consistency in the face of historical change.

Continue reading Love, Peace, and Iconic Brands


Entry filed under: collective branding, marca equatorial, traditional knowledge. Tags: , , , , .

Two Moments in Identity Update: 1994 NATIONAL BRANDS: THE ETHNICITY FACTOR

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These pages are all about the murky crossroads of advocacy, markets, marketing, and intellectual property,

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