20 iconic brands – and why they work

'Iconic' is a big label. But there's more to an iconic brand than just the logo. It certainly helps, but you'll often find that the biggest brands aren't the ones with the best logos.

Logo design aside, what makes a brand iconic? Ask the experts and they'll tell you that it's a combination of things. "We respond to experiences," says Ben Marshall, creative director at Landor Associates, "stories we can pass on, and frankly, some things that are simply unusual or inspired." 

Michael Johnson of Johnson Banks agrees that an iconic brand should deliver on multiple levels – the product or service itself, the environment it appears in, its tone of voice, and more. "Thinking about 'branding' from this cinematic perspective is relatively new," he admits. "It's pretty difficult to deliver successfully."

In some cases volume of exposure can force brands into public consciousness, but it can be enormously expensive. "I can't tell you how many times we've been asked to design a logo as iconic as the Nike tick," says Paula Benson, partner at Form. "Our question: do you have the budget to repeat it boldly and consistently all over the world?"

With all this in mind, we asked these experts and others to select 20 brands that they feel qualify as iconic. Here's what they came up with, but if you want to create your own see our guide to how to design a logo.

01. The Red Cross

Top brands: the Red Cross

The Red Cross: universally associated with medicine and saving lives

Top brands can be universal in what they represent; the Red Cross logo is so ingrained into our collective consciousness that we automatically associate it with medical assistance. "Some of us have never interacted with the Red Cross, yet we perfectly know what it stands for and how it changes people's lives across the world," says Andra Oprisan, strategist at Saffron Consultants. "We are able to recognise its logo anywhere."

02. Apple

Top brands: Apple

Apple's iconic logo is instantly recognisable without the name. "It embodies all the company's principles," says Paula Benson

It would have been inconceivable not to include Cupertino's finest on any top brands list. "It's a truly great brand because it's become synonymous with innovation and outstanding design," says Form's Benson. "Its brand values permeate through absolutely everything, from usability to design to language to packaging to retail stores."

"Apple has large revenues but only a very small number of products," Benson adds. "The real hallmark is care."

03. Bass

Top brands: Bass

The Bass logo and branding has recently been redesigned to give it a clearer standout

The Bass logo is by far the most venerable of this collection; the Bass brewery was founded in 1777, and its red triangle logo is notable for being the first trademark registered in the UK, on 1 January 1876.

For Kieren Thorpe, creative director at BrandOpus Australia, Bass's bold use of a very simple primary shape and colour has helped it towards top brand status. "It's since been redesigned with a bigger icon and a smaller word mark, giving it a much clearer standout," he believes.

"We recognise colour and shape before the written word," explains Thorpe – and Bass goes for the jugular on both.

04. Uniqlo

Top brands: Uniqlo

English and Japanese characters appear side-by-side in the identity, which Michael Johnson heralds as a "masterstroke"

Founded in Japan as the 'Unique Clothing Warehouse', this basics-clothing line became Uniqlo, or yoo-nee-koo-roh in Japanese. "What sounds very Japanese actually derives from English," explains Johnson. "They'd already developed a world-class product and environment – the bilingual logo was the masterstroke that pushed them into being iconic."

05. Subway

subway logo

If you want a quick sandwich, you probably think of Subway

Logo Design Love's David Airey believes all of the top brands offer the 'go to' product or service within its market. "If you want a quick sandwich made with care, you think of Subway," he observes. "Some people might consider them great simply because of the product or service that backs up the brand: ultimately, that's what it's all about."

06. Ralph Lauren

Top brands: Ralph Lauren

According to Geoff Phillips, Ralph Lauren "owns American style and all its permutations" – and the brand is never static

Although its logotype may be relatively uninspiring in and of itself, Ralph Lauren is unquestionably iconic and one of the top brands in the world. "It has successfully connected the Ralph Lauren mythology with the American collective psyche and the American dream. Together, they form the brand," suggests Geoff Phillips, design director at MetaDesign. "That goes much deeper than any logo itself could achieve."

07. Veuve Clicquot

Top brands: Veuve Clicquot

The Veuve Clicquot label combines its anchor heritage mark with beautifully set typography

This champagne brand, according to Thorpe, has used colour to great effect to stand out from its competitors. "As a distinctly yellow brand in a world of category conventional colours such as black, gold and cream, the scope to create instant recognition across a multitude of touch points is clear," he points out. The identity carries across its advertising, with the signature becoming the flourish of an artist's brush.

08. Zippo

Top brands: Zippo

Marshall believes that, rather like Victorinox Swiss Army, the Zippo logo is "simply a reassurance"

For Landor Associates' Marshall, Zippo is a prime example of a brand that easily transcends its logo, which he dubs almost irrelevant. "It's a great innovation – windproof – and has great integrity in its history, having switched from commercial to military-only supply in the war," he says. "Its form, interaction and even sound are all unique."

"I love the smell of a Zippo," says Marshall. "Face it, even people who don't smoke want a Zippo."

09. Adidas

Top brands: adidas

According to Benson, Adidas' Olympics ads were loud and proud, but not overly attention-grabbing or corporate

Two distinctive graphic devices lie at the core of the Adidas brand: the trefoil of Originals, and the three stripes of the Sports division. "It also received the most positive uptake of any brand involved with the Olympics, which helped it secure its iconic status," says Benson.

10. Google

google logo

Google's visual identity is expressed through its logo, the signature colours, and its much-loved 'Doodles'

Google is another must-include on this list – although its logo alone is hardly a work of art. "Consider the bigger picture," advises Oprisan. "Google's brand lives in its products; its culture (those famous job interviews); its environment (its enviable creative offices); its advertising; and also its visual identity."

11. Paul Smith

Top brands: Paul Smith

Paul Smith's signature excudes an effortlessly classic quality

The Paul Smith signature wordmark is beautifully crafted in itself, but for Thorpe it's the continuity of the pinstripe livery that brings the brand iconic status: "It represents the 'classic with a modern twist' ethos." Johnson concurs, having nominated the same brand: "This recognisable 'graphic wallpaper' makes everything from carrier bags to scarves instantly recognisable."

Top brands: Paul Smith stripes

The pinstripe livery is at the heart of the brand's iconic status

12. IKEA

Top brands: Ikea

Ikea has become shorthand across the world for cheap self-assemble furniture

Airey believes that modern customers are looking for a complete experience, and highlights the free coffee that IKEA gives family-card holders as part of the global home furnishing giant's wider brand experience: "If you want to kit out a new home without spending a fortune, you think of IKEA," he adds.

13. Charity Water

Top brands: Charity Water

Sophisticated infographics and National Geographic-style photography help define the brand's look and feel

Compared to most non-profits, argues Phillips, Charity Water has particularly high design acumen. "The founder said that charities' poverty mentality reflects in their brands: he wanted a more aspirational approach," he says.

"The jerrycan logo is an iconic symbol of water accessibility. It has some notoriety, but it's not in the top brands yet – although it deserves to be."

14. Toms

Top brands: Toms

The Toms logo isn't over-designed, which for Thorpe, fits its brand personality

Like Charity Water, Toms is another brand tipped for iconic status in the future: "It doesn't necessarily have a great logo," admits Thorpe: "A modern-looking san serif font, in the context of an Argentinian flag – the place where inspiration struck. But it's a cause-related brand dedicated to making things better, or in the words of the founder: 'Making things that matter.'"

15. Dyson

Top brands: Dyson

"The product is innovative, the result is better, the aesthetic is unique. It's these qualities that truly elevate," reflects Marshall

Marshall advocates a simple mantra: "to be iconic, be the first, best or only." In the modern marketplace, this often means truly innovative products cut through the competition. "When I was a kid, a vacuum cleaner was a Hoover; it was the byword," he recalls. "By using new, radical (and importantly, better) technology, Dyson eclipsed all others in people's minds."

16. The Rolling Stones

Top brands: The Rolliing Stones

Homage to Mick Jagger's famously full pout, the graphic is one of rock's best known logos

Designed by John Pasche in 1970 and first used on the Sticky Fingers album cover, the illustrated lips and tongue became an iconic emblem for the Rolling Stones. "It sums up the band brilliantly, and is one of the world's most instantly recognisable symbols of rock and roll," argues Benson.

17. Coca-Cola

Top brands: Coca-Cola

"Coca Cola has seemingly endless possibilities through its core design," says Thorpe

If any of the top brands have nailed global ubiquity, it's Coke. "It's a shining example of continual evolution, as relevant and desirable today as it was over a century ago," believes Thorpe. And the highly distinctive script logotype has remained a constant throughout its lifetime – compare that to bitter rival Pepsi's multiple radical rebrands.

18. The V&A

Top brands: V&A

"Everything about it is working; I think few Londoners would disagree," says Johnson of the V&A brand

Alan Fletcher's V&A logo has been a classic since the late-'80s, but Johnson recalls a time when it was better loved than the museum: "It was dusty, labyrinthine – the kind of place a design student loved to get lost in, but confounded the everyday visitor," he says. "It's since elevated itself into one of the world's greats."

19. Pixar

"The animated intro of the bouncing lamp isn't grandiose, like most production company intros," Phillips observes. "It's witty, simple, down-to-earth and intimate. Pixar's brand is rooted in original stories, rather than sampling traditional children's literature, sugar coating it and watering it down. They've proven that audiences don't always want what they've already seen and heard."

20. Irn-Bru

Top brands: Irn-Bru

Scotland's other national drink. Made from girders!

Perhaps a slightly unconventional choice from Marshall: Scotland's finest, Irn-Bru. "Looking beyond its distinctive neon-ginger aesthetic and brilliant straplines, why is it one of the few markets that outsells Coca-Cola?" he poses. "Because it's part of the Scots' outlook. The challenger. It will always be this."

This article first appeared in Computer Arts magazine. Subscribe here.

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Nick Carson

Nick is a content strategist and copywriter. He has worked with world-class agencies including Superunion, Wolff Olins and Vault49 on brand storytelling, tone of voice and verbal strategy for global brands such as Virgin, Pepsi and TikTok. Nick launched the Brand Impact Awards in 2013 while editor of Computer Arts, and remains chair of judges. He's written for Creative Bloq on design and branding matters since the site's launch.