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How Brands Become Household Icons: The Formula of Success is Different For Everyone

Jun 04, 2021 8 min read

The concept of the household icon is already known and defined in the global market. One of the first people who described cultural branding was former Harvard Business School professor Douglas B. Holt. In his book “How Brands Become Icons”, D. Holt explains that it’s the set of marketing actions to form a positive impact on a brand’s products while at the same time creating a well-known identity and staying relevant with the times and consumer needs. However, in the fast-changing world, consumers are the ones who are setting the businesses for success.

The Formula for Success

Creating a unique and relevant brand is the holy grail of advertising. It requires a mix of timing, attitude, and understanding of the current cultural trends. How do businesses manage to find their place in the consumer household when most seats are already taken? Here are a few main points:

  • Creating a sense of community when taking valuable marketing actions. As a direct result of reflecting and understanding consumer needs, brands give them a golden ticket to a club of like-minded individuals—for example, Sony’s Playstation community. The leading game consoles manufacturer Sony created a platform where gamers can gather and discuss various topics, participate in gaming-related events and host gaming sessions.

    That way, Playstation actively engages with the community. As of March 2020, the company introduced the Days of Play campaign. The community celebration event is happening monthly, as well as free game rotation and exclusive in-game content. Back in March 2020, when the campaign started, the brand had
    50 million active Playstation 4 console users. A year later, the count increased to 109 million daily, proving the success of the campaign.
  • The business has to be there when customers need it. If the brand is aspiring to be in consumers’ everyday lives, it must be within hand’s reach. A successful example of a big name brand that meets consumer demand in the most challenging times is Starbucks. The business successfully managed to continue the expansion during the pandemic: 2019, Starbucks had 31256 cafes. Only a year later, the company operated with 32660 coffee shops worldwide. Starbucks also started offering ground coffee and a ready-to-eat & drink line, delivered straight to the customer’s door. 
  • Taking action and being responsible for the community. The success of becoming a household icon also directly translates to what the brand stands for and how it operates. The best brands in culture exceed the product, including the experience, the story, and most importantly, the customers. Creating a positive impact on the brand and the environment is an essential step towards consumer appreciation.

    A great example is Trader Joe’s. The grocery store chain eliminated all products that are not harvested sustainably. Each Trader Joe’s store has an assigned volunteering coordinator responsible for working with local food banks, food pantries and soup kitchens in their local communities to ensure food donations seven days a week. As
    American Customer Satisfaction Index shows, the positive impact is important to consumers, who indicated Trader Joe’s as a leader in customer satisfaction.

Too much of a good thing?

Even if the marketing is on point and the product is relevant, not every brand became a part of the culture, and fewer became icons. However, there’s a dark side to the popularity and recognition of the brand that has become so ubiquitous that it becomes a generic trademark. This happens when the brand or its product reaches such popularity, it becomes a name of a general class of products - or went through genericide.

In numerous cases over the past century, the everyday use of a brand name as a generic term has led to losing a company's right to exclusive use. For example:

  • Escalator was first minted by Charles Seeberger of Otis Elevator Co. in 1900 when he debuted his device. However, the U.S. Patent Office revoked the trademark once the Escalator became a commonly used name for the conveyor transport device. Partly, it was the Otis’ fault when they used the word “escalator” generically in their advertising.
  • Thermos originally was James Dewar’s “vacuum flask,” invented in 1892. The Thermos first reached the market in 1904, named by German glassblowers. A Munich resident suggested the name from the Greek term for “heat.” Thermos GmbH sold trademark rights to three independent companies in 1907, producing it and selling it worldwide. It was identified as a generalized trademark and lost the rights in the U.S. in 1963.
  • App Store was initially the term that Apple used for their mobile applications online shop. However, shortly after the introduction, the term was adopted by many different businesses and became a victim of genericide. Back in 2011, Apple sued Amazon for publicly using “App Store” as a term but shortly after revoked the sue and abandoned the fight for trademark rights, allowing everyone to use the term on their needs.

There are many remaining trademarks that companies managed to protect. Competitors can’t use the names, even if they became generic, without possibly facing trademark infringement lawsuits. Here are a few businesses that are actively protecting and using the genericized trademark:

  • Band-aid was introduced in 1920 by Johnson & Johnson. The new brand’s product initially generated only $3000 in revenue, however in 2001, the company reached an impressive milestone by manufacturing 100 billion Band-Aids. Since the popularity rocketed, the Band-Aid became a more popular name for the original adhesive bandage. Many companies tried to break the patent, proving its generification. However, the legal teams of the company managed to keep Band-Aid as their trademark for now.
  • Parker was created in 1889 by G.F. Parker. Years later, with investors, Parker founded The Parker Pen Company and trademarked the use of the word parker. As the popularity of ballpoint pens started growing, the leading manufacturer became a victim of generic trademark, and the ballpoint pens are now commonly known as just parkers.
  • Kleenex was first introduced in 1924 as facial paper towels by the Kimberly-Clark company. However, the idea of facial towels was not appealing to consumers, and a few years later, Kleenex rebranded itself as a handkerchief substitute. Since then, the sales have soared to the moon. Ultimately, Kleenex became so popular it’s now a more commonly used term than tissues or handkerchiefs.

With Great Power Comes Restrictions

When the brand’s product becomes a part of the household culture, further product development restrictions may set in.

If customers believe in your product, they are expecting stable quality when purchasing and using it. Once there is a slight change, even if the brand delivers it as a product improvement, consumers may not be satisfied. A great example of a failed change is the New Coke campaign.

Back in 1985, Coca-Cola decided to swap out the original Coke drink out of the US and some other markets and replace it with New Coke. The company introduced the new drink as a better substitute for the original, changing the drink’s taste, and the design of the can. 

After a few days, the brand faced a dramatic backlash from the consumers, as many saw Coca-Cola as a cultural icon. The media did not hesitate to diss the brand’s choice, and within 80 days of the New Coke’s introduction, the company decided to revoke the drastic changes and offer both drinks in the market. The New Coke was still discontinued within a year in the market.

After the product launch, Coca-Cola’s market share decreased from 24.3% in 1980 to 21.7% in 1984, and it took years of hard work to take back its “soda king” title. 

The Clear Trend of The Icons

Cultural icons are usually decided by a simple metric - frequency of use. Brands that manage to prove being an everyday necessity for the consumers are the ones who are finding their place in everyone’s life.

To prove the need for the consumer, brands implement extraordinary marketing strategies. Typically, the brands who aspire to be an icon of the culture, in their marketing actions, implement stand out factors:

  • Best features showcasing the product, for example: outlining the unique manufacturing technology, durability, uniqueness.
  • Competition is another marketing action that brands can take to win over the consumers: showing your potential customer that your brand’s products perform better. Back in 2011, detergent manufacturer Vanish started implementing “Versus” action in their marketing strategy. The brand compared its product to competitors in various ads and directly showcased better results with less effort.
  • Luck is an essential factor in becoming a cultural icon. Suppose the business is good at spotting opportunities. In that case, it can dramatically increase the chances of becoming a part of the household, for example, by taking a viral marketing campaign or showcasing the product at the right time & place.

Bottom Line

The process of becoming an icon in a fast-changing world is as complex as rocket science. Not every brand can reach the status that would be as recognizable as Coca-Cola, Kleenex or Nike. 

Brands are aspiring to become household icons as they understand that the status is the ultimate profitability generator. However, customers have the power to praise what they love about a product or service and decide what the icons of the culture are. To compete in the fast-changing market, the brand has to offer their customers the right mix of experience, quality and consistency through their products. While at the same time empowering the consumers themselves and creating a sense of community.

The result can’t be overstated: the brands become part of the culture, and you can’t buy that kind of success with any type of advertising.

Whatagraph team
Written by Whatagraph team

The Whatagraph blog team produces high-quality content on all things marketing: industry updates, how-to guides, and case studies.

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