News & Views

The Art of Creating Iconic Brands

by Contagious Contributor

Gyro NY's head of strategy Auro Trini Castelli on moving from social media to societal media

A few years ago, The Economist defined the word iconic as the ‘adjective of the age’ in its Intelligent Life magazine. The article came with illustration that paired an image of Jesus Christ with a jar of Marmite. More recently, Martin Kemp’s book Christ to Coke suggests that you can actually compare the Messiah of the Old Testament to a good old soda. 

Heresy, believers would say. Marketing, brand believers would counter. However, there is actually a profound and historical correlation between religion and marketing. This is specifically true of the Christian religion and contemporary brands that people would define as iconic.

While we often use the word iconic to refer to a powerful entity within contemporary society, the word icon originated with Eastern Christianity and referred to a religious work of art – typically a painting. And though the very first icon is more than 2,000 years old (and looks like a TV storyboard of our times), there is a strong connection between these ancient religious icons and contemporary iconic brands.

Both have something in common: they reduce their message to the max to diffuse it to the many.

Ancient icons were a way to simplify the complexity of religious culture and spread it across society, which, at the time, included many people who weren’t able to read. In its visual expression, Christianity could not be simpler. The history of religion and the saints, for example, was reduced to a simple halo for everyone to understand and absorb.

Today, the most celebrated iconic brands have taken that lesson from religion. Contemporary brand iconography is a way to reduce the complexity of the culture behind a brand and enable it to travel across society.

Confident enough to reduce their visual identity system to the simplest of forms, iconic brands show that the fewer symbols they are associated with, the more powerful those symbols will become.

Starbucks started with a full-body siren encrypted in the signature Coffee and Tea, which years later evolved into a half-body representation of the siren in a circular logo embedded with the Starbucks Coffee signature. Most recently, the brand started featuring a half siren in a half circle logo across some of its print executions. The brand name is not even mentioned.

The more familiar the brand becomes, the more familiar its logo is – up to a point where showing an illustrated face is enough to recognise and empathise with Starbucks.

With a similar yet more articulated approach, Apple simplified its logo moving from the illustration of a scientist under an apple tree (1976) to a multi-color-striped apple (1984), to many different colorful apples (1998), to one grey apple in 3D (2000). It eventually became the current grey bi-dimensional apple.

Apple teaches its product design beliefs to employees and new hires by using Picasso’s Bull painting – a masterpiece when it comes to the idea of reducing imagery without losing its essence.

Even the latest Mac Book Air TV ad, The notebook that people love, is a return to a hyper-iconic approach. The Mac Book Air is a product that itself has been reduced to the max. Its ad campaign is built-on pop-culture references while remaining very simple in its visual imagery; two ingredients for a perfect iconic recipe.

What brings religious icons and iconic brands closer together despite being historically separated by 20 centuries is that they are both culturally complex and visually simple.

Christian religion didn’t just originate visual icons; its cultural complexity was built, powerfully spread and broadly advocated based on precise principles and behaviours. Jesus Christ was wherever poverty was (a key value for Christianity when compared to greed, the evil behind wealth). Religious principles and values were shared in churches, through the prayer and the sacraments; the good and the bad across Christianity’s culture were explained in simple terms like the Ten Commandments and the seven deadly sins. The Bible itself acted as the badge that everyone carried to practice and share that same culture.

Today, the most powerful iconic brands share their own culture behaving in the same way, using the same techniques behind the diffusion of Christian religion. They are:

1. Be Wherever Your Values Are
2. Build Temples for Worship
3. Create Shared Rituals
4. Reduce the Badge so Others Can Take It On
5. Educate and Be Useful
6. Define Your Friends and Enemies

Examples of these behaviours cut across today’s most important and iconic brands, as well as across the entire spectrum of marketing possibilities – from product design to retail design and from classic to native advertising.

Iconic brands are defined by their ability to be wherever their values are. They live outside their product and inside their values. Nike’s co-founder Phil Knight recently made a multimillion-dollar investment in the Oregon Ducks’ athletic facilities, soon nicknamed “The University of Nike”. In doing so, he did not just celebrate his roots as an alumnus of the University of Oregon and kept up with his philanthropic efforts, he also tangibly invested in the idea that everyone is an athlete and has a right to become a better one, day after day.


The second recurring iconic behavior for a brand is to build temples for worship, by creating landmarks out of their brand marks. The most visible – and visited – example is the Apple Store on Fifth Avenue in New York.

Apple is all about user friendliness and simplicity. The building’s design is meant to convey this. So much so that Steve Jobs was not happy with the original cube design because it was made of too many different pieces of glass (90 in total, 16 per side). Jobs had it torn down completely in 2011 and rebuilt with three gigantic pieces of glass per side5: 15 in total, for a total amount of $6.6 million.
Sometimes, even integrity has its price.

Iconic brands are also recognisable for their successful efforts in creating shared rituals by turning brand habits into recurring life habits. Oreo, with its Twist, Lick and Dunk ritual, advocates for preserving and nurturing the innocence of childhood by filling people’s daily lives with wonder and their daily cookies with wonderful cream.

Just like the bible condensed religious culture in a book for everyone to pass it on, an iconic brand reduces its badge so it, too, can travel. This can only happen when a brand is reduced to the essential so people will easily be able to carry on and reinforce its essence. When Pharrell Williams released the video 24 hours of Happy, consisting of the four-minute song repeated with various people dancing around Los Angeles and miming along, he knew how simple it would have to be for people to participate and keep spreading the happy for the next 24 hours and weeks and months to come.

Educating people to the values behind a product or a service and being useful is an expression of the brand’s desire to become an authority and elevate your ‘citizens’ and their lives. With its Smart Ideas for Smarter Cities IBM demonstrated that, if you really want to build a smarter planet, you have to let people share their smarts in the first place.

Last, but not least, in a culture that seems to exclusively promote likes and friendships, the ability to stand against something, not just for something makes a brand a critical – no pun intended – part of society’s fabric. Chipotle cultivates smart marketing and, in turn, harvests amazing results. It reached a peak with its Farmed and Dangerous TV Series. Not only does the show build the brand while entertaining its audience; it also demonstrates that there’s no healthier way to fight for healthy food than fighting against unhealthy industrial practices.

At the 2014 Cannes Lions Festival, 37% of the work that was awarded a Gold Lion (45 out of 121) reflects more than three of the aforementioned behaviours, while 40% of the work that was awarded a Grand Prix reflects more than four behaviours.

Each of the three campaigns (Coca Cola’s Happy ID, Chipotle’s The Scarecrow and ANZ Bank’s GAYTM's) that were awarded the highest number of Grand Prix reflect an average of four behaviors. The three most awarded campaigns of the entire Festival (Sweetie, The Scarecrow and Sorry, I Spent it on Myself) reflect an average of four behaviours and won 32 awards, including seven Grand Prix and 25 Gold Lions.

Beyond the numeric evidence, applying these behaviours demonstrates that iconic brands don't just try to be part of their culture, or infiltrate pop-culture. They shape our culture. Just like Christian religion, they operate at a much higher level and with a much higher purpose than just growing their audiences and sales.

They fight to bring something that goes beyond their core products or category.
They don’t just sell effervescence out of a soda bottle; they open happiness.
They don’t just cultivate better food, but better thoughts.

They elevate product values into higher-order societal values. They don't just spread them exclusively through social media, but through societally based principles and online/offline vehicles that can be defined as societal media.

Iconic brands behave like cultural authorities, not just market category authorities. They go beyond great creative ideas. They have greater ideals.

What they show us all is that – in order to keep standing out in the 22nd century – you need to think society, not just marketing.

In the end, their behaviour begs the question: Why aim to be just relevant within your own category when you can be humanly relevant?