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Iconic Brands and Identity Myths: How to Use Cultural Branding to Resolve Consumer Tensions and Anxieties

How Brands Become Icons: The Principles of Cultural Branding

Have you ever wondered how some brands become more than just products or services, but symbols of culture, identity, and values? How do brands like Coca-Cola, Harley-Davidson, Nike, or Apple transcend their functional benefits and create loyal fans, passionate advocates, and even movements? How do these brands become icons?

How Brands Become Icons The Principles Of Cultural Brandingtorrent

In this article, we will explore the concept of iconic brands and how they are created through a process called cultural branding. We will learn from the insights and examples of Douglas B. Holt, a professor of marketing at Harvard Business School and the author of How Brands Become Icons: The Principles of Cultural Branding. We will also provide some practical tips and resources for applying cultural branding to your own brand.

What is an iconic brand?

An iconic brand is a brand that has a strong symbolic meaning for consumers, beyond its functional benefits or attributes. An iconic brand represents a set of values, beliefs, ideals, or aspirations that resonate with consumers on an emotional level. An iconic brand also reflects and shapes the culture and society in which it operates.

Some examples of iconic brands are:

  • Coca-Cola: The brand that symbolizes happiness, optimism, and American values.

  • Harley-Davidson: The brand that symbolizes freedom, rebellion, and individualism.

  • Nike: The brand that symbolizes excellence, achievement, and empowerment.

  • Apple: The brand that symbolizes innovation, creativity, and differentiation.

These brands are not only successful in terms of sales or market share, but also in terms of creating a loyal fan base, a distinctive identity, and a lasting legacy. They are more than brandsthey are icons.

How is cultural branding different from conventional branding?

Cultural branding is a different approach to branding than conventional branding. Conventional branding focuses on creating a unique brand personality, a consistent brand image, and an emotional relationship with consumers. Conventional branding assumes that consumers choose brands based on their personal preferences, needs, or lifestyles.

Cultural branding, on the other hand, focuses on creating a powerful brand myth, a compelling brand story, and a social relationship with consumers. Cultural branding assumes that consumers choose brands based on their cultural identities, values, or aspirations. Cultural branding also recognizes that consumers are not passive recipients of brand messages, but active co-creators of brand meanings.

According to Holt, cultural branding is based on four principles:

  • Iconic brands address acute social tensions or contradictions that consumers face in their lives.

  • Iconic brands offer identity myths that resolve these tensions or contradictions in a culturally resonant way.

  • Iconic brands rely on cultural and political authority to legitimize their myths and differentiate themselves from competitors.

  • Iconic brands foster a community of loyal followers who share and co-author the brand myth.

We will explain each of these principles in more detail in the following sections.

How to target myth markets

The first step in creating an iconic brand is to identify and understand the myth market. A myth market is a segment of consumers who share a common cultural contradiction or anxiety that they want to resolve. A cultural contradiction or anxiety is a gap or tension between the ideal and the reality of a certain aspect of life, such as work, family, leisure, or identity.

For example, Holt identifies the following cultural contradictions or anxieties that some iconic brands have addressed:

  • Coca-Cola: The tension between the desire for happiness and the reality of stress and anxiety in modern life.

  • Harley-Davidson: The tension between the desire for freedom and individuality and the reality of conformity and bureaucracy in corporate America.

  • Nike: The tension between the desire for excellence and achievement and the reality of mediocrity and complacency in mass culture.

  • Apple: The tension between the desire for innovation and creativity and the reality of standardization and imitation in the technology industry.

To target a myth market, you need to conduct a cultural analysis of your potential consumers. You need to understand their values, beliefs, attitudes, behaviors, and lifestyles. You also need to understand their frustrations, challenges, aspirations, and dreams. You need to uncover the deeper meanings and motivations behind their choices and actions.

You can use various methods and sources to conduct a cultural analysis, such as:

  • Observing and interviewing consumers in their natural settings.

  • Analyzing consumer-generated content on social media, blogs, forums, or reviews.

  • Studying cultural trends, movements, events, or influencers that affect consumers.

  • Reviewing academic research, literature, or media that explore consumer culture.

How to compose the cultural brief

The second step in creating an iconic brand is to craft a cultural brief. A cultural brief is a document that summarizes the key insights from your cultural analysis and outlines the identity myth that your brand will offer to your myth market. An identity myth is a story that shows how consumers can resolve their cultural contradiction or anxiety by using your brand.

An identity myth has three main elements:

  • A protagonist: The consumer who faces the cultural contradiction or anxiety.

  • An antagonist: The source or cause of the cultural contradiction or anxiety.

  • A plot: The action or outcome that resolves the cultural contradiction or anxiety with the help of your brand.

For example, Holt provides the following identity myths for some iconic brands:

  • Coca-Cola: The protagonist is the stressed-out modern consumer who wants to enjoy life. The antagonist is the fast-paced, competitive, and demanding society that prevents happiness. The plot is that by drinking Coca-Cola, the consumer can experience moments of joy, optimism, and connection with others.

  • Harley-Davidson: The protagonist is the rebellious individualist who wants to express his true self. The antagonist is the conformist corporate culture that stifles freedom and creativity. The plot is that by riding a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, the consumer can escape from the mundane routine and join a community of like-minded outlaws.

  • Nike: The protagonist is the ambitious achiever who wants to excel in sports and life. The antagonist is the mediocre mass culture that discourages effort and excellence. The plot is that by wearing Nike products, the consumer can overcome any obstacle and reach his full potential.

  • Apple: The protagonist is the innovative creative who wants to make a difference in the world. The antagonist is the standardized technology industry that limits innovation and differentiation. The plot is that by using Apple products, the consumer can unleash his creativity and challenge the status quo.

How to leverage cultural and political authority

The third step in creating an iconic brand is to build cultural and political authority for your brand myth. Cultural and political authority is the degree of credibility and legitimacy that your brand myth has in the eyes of your myth market and the broader society. Cultural and political authority helps your brand myth stand out from the competition and gain acceptance and endorsement from influential sources.

There are two main ways to leverage cultural and political authority for your brand myth:

  • Aligning your brand myth with existing cultural codes or narratives that are widely recognized and respected in your myth market and society.

  • Partnering with or featuring cultural icons or leaders who have high cultural and political authority in your myth market and society.

For example, Holt explains how some iconic brands have leveraged cultural and political authority for their brand myths: