Brands, national identity and the ultimate liberal bias.

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.



The told and re-told Coca-Cola story is seen anew in this branding paradigm in which cultural relevancy is it, the money. Being in tune with pains and tensions, hopes and dreams of the real-time consumer and providing her with a useful identity myth is what makes some – and others not – iconic. Thanks to YouTube, following history of marketing has never been so easy.

It is the favorite emotional brand story world over, the kind of gigantic success and endurance that is almost unrepeatable. Sort of like the Beatles – by default, no one could ever be that big again. The emotional bond that Coke developed before, during and after World War II and the space it has occupied in the imaginations of millions is the value that usually gets the Atlanta company the honor of being the owner of the world’s most valuable trademark. It turns out the old school brand building could have not accomplished this and that something quite different was at work. And that things today aren’t quite the way they used to be.

From the beginning, innovative advertising and public relations were key. Shrewed managers made sure that the company…

shipped Coke to the troops on the front lines and celebrated the war effort in a blizzard of print ads. The media reported that GIs were writing home from the battlefront, pining for Coke. This idea was picked up in Robert Scott’s wartime best-seller God Is My Co-Pilot, in which he describes how shooting down his first “Jap” was motivated by thoughts of “America, Democracy, and Coca-Colas.” Troops would treat the scarce bottles of Coke with religious zeal, drinking in a ritual confirmation of their national pride.


As a result, by war’s end, Coke came to represent American myths exemplified in the war effort: a country willing to sacrifice its sons and daughters to save the world for democracy, a country with a unique industrious spirit able to outpace the Axis powers in building war machinery, and a country with the tenacious ingenuity to out-science the enemy in the race to the atomic age. Downing a Coke, consumers could imbibe in collective feelings of national solidarity emanating from America’s ethos as dramatized in World War II.

In the postwar years, Coca Cola built on this huge leverage, came to in a way own a whole decade – the Fifties – and financed its way into the indisputable leader of global branding for the new, re-born world. This coincided with the changes Americans were going through. With the backdrop of Cold War and containment, Americans’ general expectations included the stability of lifelong employment offered by pumped-up economy and large companies as well as government-subsidized new living space – the one between a rural, small-town America and its crowded urban version. The suburban family was born and Coke was there to help.

In Coke ads, smiley all-American cola-quaffing girls exuded equal dashes of modesty and sex appeal, filling the drink’s “pause that refreshes” with unquestioned patriotic good cheer about the new American way of life. Americans could experience a moment of national solidarity simply by sharing a spare moment sipping a Coke.

By the late 1960s, however, Coke’s apple-pie celebrations of the American commonweal were wearing thin. Civil rights protests, a youth culture disenchanted with companies and middle-class life, and a very unpopular war in Vietnam were all tearing the country apart. Coke’s suburban- nuclear myth had become naive, antiquated. Attempts to reconnect with consumers by means of a smorgasbord of tried-and-true Americana imagery failed.

When cultural disruptions hit, iconic brands must reinvent their myth or they fade in relevance. This is exactly what makes cultural different from emotional branding. This is what makes brands iconic.

Not without struggle, Coke’s brand keepers and ad agencies hit on a resonant revision of the Coke myth. “Hilltop,” shot on an Italian hillside, began with two fresh- faced and short-haired girls singing, “I’d like to buy the world a home, and furnish it with love. . . .”

It will be seen in retrospect as a game changer. It is then even more amusing to note that it almost failed to reach the States after disappointing tests in Europe. In the U.S. the response was overwhelming (it goes to show how different the Sixties felt across the pond). The requests were so over the the top that a music single, without explicit reference to Coca Cola, was released and reached the charts. In 1971, in an successful attempt to turn around declining sales, Coke’s first reinvention project began like this:

Coke had dramatically reinterpreted the product’s refreshment benefit – the ‘pause that refreshes’ – to perform a new myth of American solidarity. Coke drew on mass-media images of the hippie counterculture and the peace movement to address the conflicts of the era with a symbolic cure: a humanistic plea for understanding and tolerance. Through a folk song sung as a hymn, a song that longed for friendship and understanding across races and nationalities, the brand delivered a utopian sermon enjoining John Lennon’s call for love to conquer all the world’s problems. The brand’s myth told consumers that an act as simple as sharing a Coke could heal seemingly intractable social divides. Now Coke was construed as an elixir of universal harmony. Sipping a Coke with a friend or stranger was a symbolic act of healing racial, political, and gender divides.

This won’t be the last time that a reinvention is necessary. Fast forward ten years and into the Eighties; Coca Cola comes to relieve Americans of a new built up contradiction – racial strife. The ghetto becomes America’s most acute problem and media reaches a point of obsession with gangs and “welfare mothers.” Holt nicely sets up the backdrop:

By the late 1970s, America’s Vietnam wounds were beginning to heal and youth culture was no longer as threatening. But racial strife had continued to increase. Highly segregated African American neighborhoods had formed in Northern industrial cities when sharecroppers migrated in masses to take unskilled production jobs after they lost their agricultural jobs to the cotton gin. In the 1970s, as American industries shed jobs, the African American workers were the first to go. Factories began an exodus from these cities to the suburbs, to the nonunion South, and overseas, leaving behind black urban ghettos that were increasingly jobless, isolated from the rest of society, lacking families, and lacking public investments. It was not surprising, then, that these ghettos became increasingly violent in the 1970s as a new underground economy dominated by gangs and drugs formed.

For this social nausea, Coca Cola offers a new and updated mythological remedy. It pairs up the most feared defender in all of American football at the time, Joe Green – the man who crushes quarterbacks – with a skinny, little white kid with a simple proposition:

Drinking a Coke now provided a magical salve that symbolically healed the racial divide in American society. The confrontation in the dark tunnel conjured up the growing nightmare of the ghetto in the collective imagination of the majority white population: the physically intimidating black man who threatened an innocent white child. But we soon learned Greene’s meanness was just an affectation, that he was actually a sweet guy who could show real affection for the small white kid. The ad offered a story of racial healing for a country that couldn’t contain its racial conflict. In this way, Coke again helped the nation momentarily forget its real problems that were then devastating its cities.

But it is questionable whether the company has remained capable of being such a chill pill and authentic enough to alleviate contradictions in Americans’ lives today.

Today Coke exists as a nostalgic brand, harking back to the day when the drink enjoyed its peak iconic stature. Coke now stands for 1950s Americana. Not surprisingly, then, one of Coke’s few recent bright spots occurred when it brought back its classic bottle design and redesigned its plastic bottles to mimic the glass, encouraging customers to indulge in the Coke myth of old.



Now consider a multiethnic context. In big and diverse markets, hotbeds of cultural and economic creation – culture continents like India, Brasil, United States, Ethiopia, South Africa, or Indonesia, where many brands are born with a few escaping into iconic maturity – there seems to be a bit of a built-in bias. Something yours truly awkwardly calls the Ultimate Liberal Bias (which only makes sense this side of the Atlantic). In considering the Coke example to understand what it is, consider also what is missed when this – a whole layer of additional brand support structure built over time – is not there for national identities built on cooperation and tolerance, when the together-we-are-one identity is solely in the hands of political managers.

Bottom line considerations, return margins and sales increases, this is what is at the core of the presumed bias. Even though brands can do very well by carving out all sorts of niche markets and identities, a big, national market will have a certain space and stomach for those who want to build brand myths that cast the widest identity net possible. And those who – consciously or not, “organically” or “artifically” – take on cultural tensions in that given market and stay culturally relevant might end up propping up the very identity of that same national market space.

In other words, they might actually become an inseparable part of a national identity. It is not something any product can do; stars do have to align. It goes without saying that skill and capacity have to be there all along. No longterm brand – your average airline, pressure cooker, or the iconic Coke, Lucky Strike, or Mac – can be built on fluff alone. Whatever myth is offered to channel a contradiction between the preached ideal and reigning reality, sooner or later some substance has to be there to back it up. Those few suited for iconic heights can stay relevant with times and in time become something much bigger, something widely regarded as the most compelling symbol of a set of ideas or values that a society deems important. If you are in sales, this is a very good thing.

There are many ways to look at cultural branding, but the assumed tendency to include and work towards the highest common denominator seems to be used widely. One wouldn’t think this is for sentimental reasons or teenage knee-jerk cosmopolitanism. If wide spread use as a telling indicator is any good, then the prevalence of the Kumbaya attitude should mean that cold metrics of sales justify it. It should be no coincidence that the Olympics as an undertaking sits so well with the images of global citizenship embraced by big global brands.




In multiethnic and multiracial societies, especially in ones where no one group can have a direct claim at the national brand – is America Irish, German, Mexican or Nigerian; is Ethiopia Amharic, Tigreyan, or Oromo; is South Africa Zulu or Afrikaan – these additional pillars of common identity might be useful in helping overcome frictions that inevitably arise in nationalities of diversity.

Here is a brief hint at a scenario without this brand support structure but with some signs of what was possible or what’s to come.

The brand Balkans is intimately associated with some powerful downers:

balkan misery

My advance apologies to those not familiar with basic timing of events and issues. Basics here. Interesting things have been written on the breakdown of the Yugoslav national identity. Bora Zivkovic, via Andrew Sullivan, contemplates here on the group cohesion provided by the asthetics of the day and usefullness of the self-fed mantra of Yugoslav exceptionalism.

Political managers did create and tap into some powerful myths that made up the identity of a united, Socialist Yugoslavia and what it meant to be a Yugoslav and other things at the same time.

While it lacked a robust market economy with all sorts of iconic brands smoothing out frictions in a slowly emerging democracy, it still produced solid brand identities. Actually, quite an impressive consumer culture.


One of the strongest is not a soft drink, or a technology company, or a clothing line but – understandably and fittingly – a band.

Bijelo dugme lived a couple of lives in the span of its recording existence, 1974 through 1990, the final year of the Yugoslav federation. It came to represent many things; one of them was a pretty nifty association and ownership, to the extent a musical act can, of Yugoslavism and all things cool about Yugoslavia: diversity, Balkans as crossroads, living with the world, rebellious/courageous/tough nature of its people, desire for cultural fusion, good/funny/loser/cynic attitude, and a rainbow variety of patriotism.

It comes easy to wonder about hypotheticals: had there been a big counterweight of iconic, Yugoslav superbrands working with a lot thicker web of interdependent stakeholders vested in the mother brand and fighting to keep their margins, how harder would it have been for ethnic tensions to pass the point of no return (and the failure of the political system to solve economic problems that were becoming ethnic in overtones).

Of course, there is a lot to chew when contemplating this. It seems to support what some of the better chronicles of the saga have hinted at, in particular the unrivaled Vesna Pusic, today Croatia’s head of foreign affairs in waiting, in her seminal 1992 analysis, Rulers and Managers:

vesna pusic

Vesna knjiga







But to see how iconic mythology effectively cuts through all the fog, consider what happens for a brief moment in 2005, barely ten years after violent conflicts in Bosnia and Croatia have ended, with no clear winners and inter-ethnic tensions far from being settled or reasonably managed.


Croatia:                                   Serbia:

The biggest joint venture to hit southeastern Europe had Coca Cola Europe, Bijelo Dugme, German media conglomerate RTL and a myriad of telecommunications, advertising and productions companies do what governments of Western Europe and the U.S. have tried for last 15 years. For short three weeks, the space of Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia became one unified mad-money making market that justified a massive investment for an even more massive payoff.

The brief reunion had only three concerts in three capitals. Despite uncertainty and mixed expectations the circus hit each region and caused a frenzy local and foreign investment euro loves the most. Each show was preceded by a week of coordinated bombardment of media specials and most creative brand extensions. Cell phone companies made out; local media cartels made out, as did Coca Cola, as did the Germans, as did the circus CEO, the admired and hated band leader.

This all goes to show the endurance of quality myths and their attraction to profits. Or that in any kind of national market there will be space for some brands to establish widest, most inclusive buyins into a shared identity. They manage to do that by either building on top of some common denominator or by creating one from scratch that cuts through divisions, real or perceived.

In the face of differing attitudes of Serbs, Croats and Bosnians towards their past union and shared federation, the basket of brands and myths that came to make up the concoction of Bijelo Dugme’s 2005 blitz – the band, the symbols of the old state, commercial leftism and Che t-shirt solidarity – was mixed well and timely with now a real and deep realization that turns taken in the last two decades turned out to be decidedly the worst possible.

This is of course to be filed under what-could-have-been-stories. The bias for big solidarity-based brands is strong even in the most dysfunctional of ethnic relations. But this is also completely independent of political notions. Had there been a chance, enduring private mythology would have come along. Yugoslavism could have been a distinctly market-grown identity. Today, in short bleeps of time, the commercial space of former Yugoslavia reveals appetite for big brands, the kinds that due to political and market fragmentation can’t happen.

Now, they had their Cokes also, private sector (close enough) iconology to smooth things over when they get rough, and that’s where the tragedy of missed opportunities lies. Not enough, not enough time. But hints of national brands propping up national identity were everywhere. It’s proper to end the Balkan part of this story here: a late 1980s ad of Radenska, Slovenian premier brand of mineral water, Tri srca, which occupies valuable real estate in the minds of all post-Yugoslav consumers. Even without understanding particular cultural hints, visual or musical, the approach will be clear to you:


As one scopes for iconic brands across continents, it is especially interesting to pay attention to those being built in developing countries (either homegrown or as mutated, adapted versions of Western brands). Here is an example why.

Much has been underreported – often the basic story – in Ethiopia’s proposition to license its coffee trademarks for its three herritage coffees (Harar, Sidamo and Yirgacheffe) to Starbucks and other coffee companies in a dispute that came to resolution in 2007. The story involved Ethiopia filing for trademark ownership for these three coffees in export markets like the U.S., EU, and Japan and then extending a free license to all importers, middlemen and retailers. Coincidentally, Douglas Holt, see above, provided strong opinions on Starbucks and Ethiopia at the time. Further background is here and here.

While the basic story has been reported sloppily, some subtler things have gone completely unnoticed – what Ethiopians are actually trying to do. From the start their initiative was one of global brand ownership and management. To increase their own leverage at home so they can capture more of the income their coffees earn in far away gourmet markets, like the U.S., EU and Japan, Ethiopians began managing the Ethiopian fine coffee brand as an umbrella brand, made up of all specific fine coffees as its ingredient brands. To formally own them and to be able to license (royalty-free) everybody along a complex supply chain (importers, roasters and retailers), Ethiopians had to establish formal TM ownership in all of those markets. Ethiopian Coffee Network does a good job of explaining these plans and goals.

Ever since the publicity following the Starbucks affair, Ethiopians have been working quietly on a program much larger than its Starbucks connection, although you would never know that by reading The Economist. Here is a fascinating example of an international brand made up of sub-identities, licensed across the world to companies large and small, with about five million people owning the brand by producing and delivering the intangible value buyers pay for. But how do you manage a brand like that? Collectively owned IP?

That became the crux of Ethiopia’s challenge, while others still debated whether Ethiopia should even be in the “business of trademarks.” They came up with an answer: no ministry supervision but a stakeholder committee. Heads of farmer cooperatives, exporters, and relevant government offices (such as quality control and export agencies) have all powers to manage the brand and coordinate marketing and licensing strategy across international markets. A massive undertaking for Africa’s biggest coffee producer.

All of this slowly starts shaping into a complete redefinition of terms of engagement of the two sides of the supply chain, producers and distributors. It is a beginning of a more equitable relationship where both sides can for the first time talk regularly (actual licensor-licensee consultations) and address mutual issues (i.e. retail pricing, appropriate wholesale share of that price, coordinated marketing, quality consistency, labeling, uniform presentation, joint ventures, among others). For the first time in centuries of exporting and trading coffee, Ethiopia has the ability and incentive to know what happens to its coffee beyond border, but also means to address long-term concerns of its buyers, this time actual partners. All of this seems perfectly normal to, say, Dell and Intel, or Kraft and Nestle (hint: KitKat).

Let’s also not leave out the minor detail that, in the process, about 5 million people producing the prized and valued products just might get out of extreme poverty (< $2/day) by not only having higher gains but also by this income becoming more stable and predictable. One tends to forget: poverty alleviation = income + income security.

Not too long after signing the licensing deal with Starbucks and others, Ethiopia got itself a branding agency – the London based Brandhouse – and started working on aligning the many pieces.

ethiopian coffee brands

And here is the beginning of a pillar to the Ethiopian identity that goes beyond the political and cultural. A vital business brand built, a group identity managed and leveraged; success of all of that ties to stakeholders having vested interests in the success of their shared identity. In Ethiopia’s case this means that Christian Amhara and Muslim Oromo who both produce prized varieties of Ethiopian coffee realize in quite real and economic terms how their united action is good not only in terms of bargaining power with importers in the wholesale market at home but also the value they have in and get from retail. If you are called on, at some later unfortunate point, to start slashing this common identity in the name of a less inclusive one, it might not come as easy if one is so intimately aware of the value and assets built and premised on cooperation and the national brand.



  • 1. Danielle  |  July 16, 2009 at 1:39 am

    Wow, that was a quite an essay. Well done!

  • 2. Matt  |  August 14, 2009 at 1:37 am

    longest. blog. entry. ever.

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