Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Making the Shift to Iconic Branding

Published in Sep-Oct 2020

Successful brands don’t do functional or emotional; they do iconic, writes Khalid Naseem.

This is the boardroom of a local consumer goods company. The company’s marketing and creative agency teams are sitting around the table. A debate is going on. “We need to position our brand around an emotional benefit,” a voice emphatically says.

“Why?” we overhear another.

“Because consumers don’t buy a function, they buy an emotion,” comes the reply.

It is a scene that people in the corporate world are too familiar with. Our marketing communications are quite mature; yet, we are pondering over a dead issue. An issue which our counterparts in the West ceased talking about decades ago. The issue is not complex if we learn and appreciate the underlying theory, paradigm or framework that defines it. In every market, there are levels of branding for each product category. If the category leader is positioned at a higher level of branding and we position our brand at a lower level, chances are we won’t succeed. This is one of the reasons why local brands cannot compete with their global counterparts. The levels of branding are as follows.

1 Name Only: The initial level when a brand ensures name recognition among the target audience. The message is ‘I am here’ and this alone is sufficient to ensure purchase; Éclair, Shahi Supari, Tulsi.

2 Product Attribute: A step up from ‘name only’ where a product’s attribute is the reason why the brand performs better than the competition; reliability for Dawlance, durability for Duracell, strength for Samsonite, speed for Zong 4G...

3 Functional Benefit: The brand describes what it can do for the consumer; Ariel removes tough stains, Pampers keeps babies dry…

4 Emotional Benefit: The brand initiates a relationship with consumers by evoking certain feelings; exclusivity for BMW, a childlike fun experience for McDonald’s...

5 Values/Attitudes/Lifestyles: The brand stands for something bigger than the product offering and which is of significant importance to the target audience; Nike stands for winning and enhancing athletic performance.

6 Mission/Philosophy: Some brands set out to bring in changes consumers want; British Telecom’s philosophy “It’s good to talk” and The Body Shop’s resolve never to test its products on animals.

The focus of most debates in our marketing circles remains whether to communicate functional or emotional benefits – and this is a matter dependent on a consumer’s advertising literacy levels for different product categories. If a dominant market leader is communicating an emotional benefit, chances are that consumers are ready for the next level. Iconic branding enters the picture when the positioning targets values/attitudes/lifestyles. As the name suggests, the brand becomes a symbol of something of greater significance to consumers. Iconic brands are identity brands. Consumers use them to express who they are and what they value. They value Budweiser, Coca-Cola, Harley-Davidson or Nike for what they represent rather than for what they do. They resonate with consumers. There are different ways brands become icons. Here are some.

Iconic Brands Resolve Consumer Tensions

In the seventies, there were severe racial and social conflicts in American society and Coke identified an opportunity in this. They re-launched the brand with the Mean Joe Greene ad, which featured the black football hero sharing a Coke with a little white boy. In the context of the racial strife American society was experiencing, the ad stood as a symbol of ‘solidarity’ and Coke became a great success. Sharing and belonging became Coke’s key values. However, the sequels to the ad missed the point and failed to evoke comparable responses. Iconic brands have to be careful in their communication. When the cultural context changes and the tensions in question disappear, they have to reassess their strategy. When racial tensions ceased to be a major source of anxiety for Americans, Coke adjusted by finding a new source of anxiety – the tensions arising out of the clash between the younger generation’s idealism and older one’s pragmatism. Coke decided to become a universal icon for ‘optimism’ helping to resolve inter-generational tensions. This paved the way for Coke to go global with the launch of yet another groundbreaking campaign – ‘I Would Like To Buy The World A Home’. In the not too distant past, ‘the Coke side of life’ idea has yet again repositioned Coke around ‘happiness’, this time aiming to resolve everyday tensions and anxieties and moving away from more profound cultural tensions. Their more recent communications, however, appear to have nothing to do with resolving human anxieties and tensions.

Iconic Brands Embody Cultural Myths

Iconic brands embody myths that are more imaginary than real. These myths describe a group of people to which audiences aspire to belong. They create a perception that an experience lies within the brand, so they purchase it to engage with it. Douglas B. Holt, in his book How Brands Become Icons: The Principles of Cultural Branding, quotes the example of Corona beer as a brand that embodied such a myth. Corona is a Mexican beer Americans imported during the eighties. It was the time when American college students began taking ‘spring breaks’ and started going on vacation to Mexican beaches drinking Corona (it was cheap). However, the brand grew not because it was cheap but because people began associating it with a beach party, which resonated with the American college culture as opposed to generic partying (which most beer brands communicated). People loved Corona because drinking it evoked the experience of spring breaks on beautiful Mexican beaches. Since then, Corona has continuously communicated this myth.

Iconic Brands Create Myths

Levi-Strauss defines myth as “a logical system of explaining apparent contradictions.” Brands that follow this approach create propositions that are contradictory in the prevalent culture and then explain how they can resolve those inconsistencies. Take DeBeers. During the lifetime of a couple, moments of romantic engagement become fewer and short-lived. So DeBeers came up with their ‘Diamonds are Forever’ proposition which has a double meaning. Diamond, the precious stone, lasts forever and diamond as a symbol of romantic relationships also lasts forever. Think of a woman wearing the diamond ring she received as a commitment to the relationship she was entering. When she looks at it, the brand promise reassures her of the ‘longevity of the relationship’. Kraft Cheese Sticks claimed ‘playful nutrition’ for children because nutritious food is boring and junk is fun. They made their cheese sticks in funny shapes and textures that kids found playful.

Today, there are many opportunities for brands to adopt iconic branding as our society experiences several tensions, including economic difficulties. Men are at their lowest ebb as sole providers for their families; being restricted to our homes kills our desire for autonomy and freedom; stories of deep injustices in recent times are creating feelings of profound insecurity... It is time we stepped beyond the debate of functional or emotional brand propositions and explored branding opportunities at the higher levels – particularly iconic branding.

Khalid Naseem is Head of Strategy, Firebolt63.