What makes a brand iconic?

Creative Bloq's article on iconic brands caused a lot of discussion and controversy, not least from readers questioning the choices in the list of the 'Top 20' iconic brands. Which raises the question: what makes a brand truly 'iconic' anyway?

People have described three of my brands as 'iconic'. The first is the online and phone banking service First Direct, where I was founding CEO. The second is Mercury Communications where, as incoming CEO in 1991, I moved the company and the brand massively into the consumer market which it had previously neglected. And the third is the online banking service Egg where, as at First Direct, I was the founding CEO. These days, I mentor entrepreneurs who wish to create iconic brands and businesses.

Iconic criteria

One thing I'd argue is that you don’t have to be famous globally to be iconic. For example, while Egg was voted one of the top 10 internet brands in the world in 1999, my businesses have been famous with consumers only in the UK, albeit their influence on their industries was global.

Further to that, I'd suggest that to be iconic you have to:

  • have a purpose beyond money - a cause to which others can rally
  • provide a brand experience that stands out from the crowd and gives emotional as well as rational benefits
  • be a symbol of excellence to which others aspire
  • have admirers, and you often have detractors (iconic brands polarise people!)

The most iconic brands of all time have all of that and more: they are famous with consumers globally, instantly recognisable and somehow a shining, technicolor representation of their time.

With that in mind, here's my personal selection of the top 20 iconic brands, which to my mind all meet these criteria...

01. Apple

The transformation from quirky and struggling in the late '90s to the most valuable company in the world a decade later is iconic in itself. The company’s products represent the perfect merger of art and science to create the first consumer electronic devices ever to be beautiful to look at and beautiful to use.

02. Coca Cola

The ultimate global brand in the '60s, '70s, and '80s, Coca Cola is now overshadowed by the digital superstars - but its iconic advertising meant it owned fun and freedom for young people for years.

03. Nike

Great quality products and Nike owns the concept of winning - clever marketing has associated the logo forever with global sporting superstars.

04. Google

Quirky and increasingly controversial, Google makes the web intelligent and it owns the information age with its brilliantly delivered mission of organising the world's information. An indispensible daily tool for a billion people.

05. Marlboro

It may be deeply unfashionable now, but in its day Malboro was an icon of strong, cool masculinity, and Marlboro Man was a global icon.

06. McDonald's

The icon of the best and worst of US imperialism. You can travel anywhere in the world and find a little bit of America - familiar, dependable, and culturally out of place.

07. Disney

Disney has continued to succeed brilliantly in its mission to bring happiness to millions by delivering magical experiences.

08. Amazon

A darling of the Dot Com boom, Amazon avoided going bust, thrived and now dominates web retailing with continuous innovation and customer service that is iconically good.

09. BMW

BMW cars are beautifully designed and aspirational. The whole company lives the brand, which has transitioned seamlessly from the ultimate driving machine to the joy of driving.

10. Microsoft

Love it or hate it, we can thank Microsoft for putting a PC in every home and on every desk; a world-changing mission, executed with determination and skill.

11. Sony

It may be struggling a bit now, but for two decades Sony was the Apple of its day - world famous for beautifully designed, reliable and innovative consumer electronics.

12. The BBC

In its heyday a global icon of quality and integrity, the BBC is currently struggling to adapt to a multichannel digital world, not to mention a few scandals. But it remains a much-loved British institution with massive global reach and influence.

13. Facebook

Facebook has reached a billion customers, redefined everybody’s experience of the web and indeed changed the way we communicate and relate to each other and to businesses - all at breathtaking speed. It's even had a whole generation named after it - The Facebook Generation. The jury is out on whether this is a shooting star which will burn out or an enduring part of our lives. If it's the latter it will be number one in a few years!

14. Ferrari

The Apple of the car industry, Ferrari is a merger of Italian design and innovative engineering to produce a thing of beauty that drives like a high octane dream. And it's instantly recognisable across the world.

15. Intel

Famous for one of the most effective branding campaigns of all time, 'Intel Inside' has added value not only to Intel but to all devices that carry the stamp. As a consequence we all know about Intel and we all know it’s important - even though few of us have a clue what the little pieces of silicon actually do.

16. YouTube

A world changing idea - everybody can broadcast themselves - stunningly well executed and becoming the media channel of choice for the young all over the world.

17. Starbucks

Like McDonald's, Starbucks is an extension of modern US culture onto every high street in the world. And it's loved and hated for that fact in equal measure.

18. Manchester United

Kids all over the world kick a ball around in Manchester United shirts. Hundreds of millions of fans love the romantic nature of the way they play. If you're not a United supporter and you live in the UK, you hate them with a vengeance, but as someone who has watched football for over 50 years from a seat at Villa Park, I can say there's been no more exciting sight in football than Best, Law, and Charlton in their pomp.

19. The New York Yankees

Another massively valuable and iconic sporting brand that has somehow infiltrated the popular culture in books and films and not just in the USA.

20. Virgin

Recognisable globally as a brand that delivers great service and fun with a hint of sex appeal. Branson’s genius has been to make that brand work across so many different industries - an iconic feat in itself.

And that's it! If you're seeking further inspiration, you can look at how I’ve achieved iconic results over the years, what’s happening to the gang of the people I mentor now, and indeed how to join the gang at my new website IconicShift.

Words: Mike Harris

Mike Harris is a business mentor, successful serial entrepreneur, bestselling author and public speaker.

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