Comment: Unpicking iconism

Kirsty Minns discusses the importance of building out a timeless approach to branding.

Kirsty Minns is the executive creative director of Mother Design, a branding studio based in London and New York.

Why are so many of today's businesses launching without any desire to be original in their branding or considering a more long-term strategy? They enter the market in a cookie-cutter manner, adding to the visual noise for people to consume mindlessly. Within a few months, no one cares that they ever existed, as the next ‘Instabland’ brand turns up, competing for that very same audience's attention. 

Even those that entered the market as the poster children of ‘how to build a brand’ (think the likes of skincare company Glossier) are now paying the price for not recognizing the importance of future-proofing – in other words, what it takes to be iconic.

Thinking about your brand's potential iconic status isn't just for big global players like Coca-Cola, Nike or McDonald's. It's business critical, no matter what size you are. 

Most business founders don't give iconism the thought that it deserves in this context. In fact, they shy away from it, not wanting to seem vain. But, when you unpick what it means to be iconic, it becomes a yard stick for so much more. To be iconic is to be recognizable and to stand the test of time, but it's also about having the ability to turn up, surprise and delight. 

Arguably, Glossier neglected to consider this. It failed to evolve its brand world – components such as its millennial pink color are becoming increasingly dated. Such brand stagnation invites competitors to swoop in and take a slice of the pie. These brands feel more relevant, and those that fail to think long-term become old news.

Yes, iconic brands have distinctive assets that people recognize. But, more than just being recognizable, they're loaded with meaning. They convey a set of values, behaviors and a spirit that connects with people in a relevant way. Iconic brands have successfully translated their strategy and positioning into their branding, so that every element builds their narrative. It's not just a visual dressing. 

Arguably, oat milk brand Oatly became instantly iconic when it rebranded in the 2010s – the combination of unpredictable design with provocative thought made it stand out. Its clear communication around its values and positioning laid the foundation for incredible growth and resonance with its audience. 

One mistake many make is thinking that reaching iconic heights is just about a moment in time – a successful advertising campaign, for example – that captures hearts and minds worldwide. Consider Coca-Cola's Holidays Are Coming. Yes, it provides a comms moment of delight; but it uses distinctive brand assets – the sound, the red, the truck. It's through the continual use of those brand elements, rather than a standalone comms idea, that businesses achieve long-lasting connections. 

Looking at your proposition through the lens of iconism is particularly beneficial because it provides a useful shorthand for creating an enduring business. As consumer choice is constantly growing and people become smarter about which brands most reflect their values, you need to have an identity that resonates. While the complexity of branding grows, having a focused strategy based around these core principles of iconism will help your business connect and survive. 

Smaller businesses might not need to be as explicit as the giants, but that shorthand is for everyone. When used constructively, it can only make your business stronger. 

A version of this article was first published in Courier issue 47, June/July 2022. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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