Moving brands beyond reason into culture

Among brands, truly iconic status is advertising's new killer app -- if you can catch it

"Iconic" is on the rise. In 1988, The New York Times used the word only 11 times.  Ten years later, the paper of record used it 142 times, and by 2008 there were 442 things in the world worthy of being labeled iconic. In the past three days the "iconic" moniker has been used by The Times over a dozen times — referring to buildings, handbags, movie characters — making for over a thousand usages a year.

Similarly, brands get labeled "iconic" all the time. Yet so few truly are. You may have iconic brand assets, but what really makes you iconic is how you use them. Your brand may have been around for a long time, but let’s not confuse "heritage brands" with iconic brands. You’re only iconic if what you’re doing right now is in culture.

And the truly iconic brands achieve an unfair share of culture. They get disproportionate "earned" and "involved" media, generating a second wave multiplier effect much bigger than their actual budgets. They are more talked about, tweeted, shared and ultimately, remembered, than other brands.

Brands today no longer compete with other brands in their category. They are competing for people’s time, attention and minds with everything else that is in culture. And what’s happening in culture at any given moment is more entertaining, more compelling and more necessary than most marketing.

Today, how do brands move beyond consumer recognition, preference, and even love to become iconic in culture?

Iconic brands have these six elements (yes, it’s a lot of sweat):

1. Instantly recognizable through their symbolism and language. They are unusually powerful, beautiful, say-able. Uber and Google are triumphs of semiotics. And to be truly iconic, you don’t even need the brand name; the color, typography and design should be enough. The little blue box is more powerful than the Tiffany logo. Same for the Paul Smith stripe. The true test is this – can you take the logo off and would people know it’s your brand.

2. They transcend the rational. Reason leads to conclusions. Emotion leads to action. Too many marketers obsess over persuasion, thinking the job of communication is to close the sale. Its job is to inspire people so they will to care enough to find out more. Remember, we are competing with all that interesting stuff in culture that doesn’t bother explaining itself. See Minecraft, which doesn’t even come with instructions on how to play.

3. Move people to share. Borrow from Broadway: make them laugh, make them cry, make them think. If brands are generous and spend less time selling and more time entertaining, people will reciprocate the generosity and share your story. It’s the stuff of "biological media." Remember, people don’t share because they like your brand (no matter how iconic); they share because they like their friends. So don’t tell stories that require a certain amount of GRPs, tell stories that have to be shared.

4. Have a point of view on the world. A point of difference isn’t enough. That’s playing the category game again. It’s a point of view that gets you out of your category and into culture. Multiracial families. Athletes with disabilities. Second-time moms. Ask not how people fit into your brand, but how you meet them in the real world.

5. Do stuff. We need to move from a brand management culture to a maker culture. What is needed is constant inspiration, experimenting, trying stuff, small bets, fast prototyping, rapid production, instant feedback, optimization, going with imperfection. Just make more stuff and do more stuff. Agencies need to stop asking clients to take a huge leap of faith from a PowerPoint deck. Make something that clients can touch, feel, play with and they’ll be more likely to buy, approve, invest.

6. Move at the speed of culture. Culture moves faster than marketing. It doesn’t wait for a Q3 launch. When we have less time to do things, we engage our gut more and our head less. No time for research or overthink. And no time for the internal team to get sick of it before a consumer has even seen it. The best three pieces of work we’ve done this year all had three weeks or less for production timelines. I’m not saying forget craft, it makes the difference between something being good and great. I’m saying make a call and get on with making. It’s more important to be interesting than right.

We’ve been living these six principles with our clients at General Mills on a brand that truly is iconic, Cheerios. From big yellow billboards with no logo and packshot to a story about a multi-racial family that got the whole nation talking. And according to the Wall Street Journal, over the last year Cheerios got 80 percent of all digital engagement in the breakfast and cereal category. Not because it has 80 percent of the digital spend and ran more banners or social posts, but because we told stories that got into culture.

Not fair if you’re Kellogg’s, right?

That’s what I mean by an unfair share of culture.

Brent Smart is CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi New York and sits on the Worldwide Executive Board. 

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