Thoughts | Tash Kershaw - Senior Strategist

How do you make an established brand iconic?


We see new brands appearing on the supermarket shelves everyday, with many of them leaving as quickly as they arrived. A Nielsen study reports that 3 out of 4 new product launches will in fact fail within the first year*. When we compare these to the brands we have seen week in and week out for as long as we can remember as we push the trolley up and down each aisle, it begs the question, why? Why have some brands been so successful for so many years when others fail to survive for more than a few months?

But now, it seems like the time may have come to say goodbye to even some of the most beloved brands of years gone by, as consumers start to lose interest, believe the products are now dated and have become what we call, recessive.

In the branding world, a recessive brand essentially means they’ve failed to keep up with the latest trends and consumer needs and have become reliant on their heritage to keep consumers interested and loyal. It has worked to a point; they’re still selling units in their hundreds of thousands each year but not nearly as much as in their heyday, and the sales are only going one way. Why the change? Consumers are becoming less loyal, they like to see brands moving with the times and delivering to their current needs and not resting on their laurels. A recent report by Accenture** identified that two thirds of consumers say the number of companies or brands they consider when making purchase decisions has increased significantly compared with 10 years ago. 

These recessive brands tend to have a number of things in common. They’re typically mass-produced, in bold industrial packaging, often more functional/less emotional and are essentially representations of industrial post-war utopia.

 So why is it that some of these brands that haven’t changed in the way they look or taste in decades still manage to secure a comfy spot in our cupboard week after week? How have these brands future-proofed themselves? 

They’ve made themselves iconic.

As a strategic branding agency, we have thought long and hard about what this means and more importantly, how is it achieved? We believe the critical concept is that of originality.

What do we mean by ‘originality’? The reality is that there are in fact four meanings of the word...and four distinct concepts. This is best described (well, visualised) through a quadrant, with axis from Past to Present and Brand Focus to Product Focus.

The Past refers to themes, concepts and imagery located in yesteryear, connoting traditional or historic things, processes, people etc. The Present refers to themes, contemporary contexts and scenarios connoting the here-and-now.

Brand Focus is where brands tell the consumer why they exist, through stories of their values and vision (e.g. Dorset Cereals – Dorset by name, Dorset by nature). Product Focus is what they do, a focus on the technical, with only a weak story if there is one (e.g. Aero – a chocolate bar with air bubbles).

 The principle of focusing on the brand ‘why’ is perfectly encapsulated by Simon Sinek’s well-known TED talk about the brand, Apple. He sums up why the brand is so successful: not because it focuses on its computers but because it represents values of inventiveness and vision, with computers as merely a concrete manifestation of those values. As he puts it, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”



When we think about recessive brands, they tend to have become stuck on the nature of the product – the way the Feast ice-cream crumbles in the mouth, the way a Vienetta cracks and collapses etc.  

This is originality as… “Originally…”  i.e. this product was originally like this. It hasn’t changed. It may have been the first of its kind but now is looked back upon rather than resonating in relatable consumer contexts or in terms of brand values.

Then there are brands that focus on how the product’s USP gives you something special and distinct – and relevant to today. These brands are less focused on the past – a brand’s heritage and nostalgia for a bygone era – and more on the present (or possibly the future).

This is originality as … To be an original” i.e. a real one-off, a unique and rare taste, feel, look, quality – or effect on the consumer. The exemplar is Marmite. It dials up the strangeness of the product itself above all else. At over 100 years old, rarely on promotion, almost always sold at full price and still winning ‘brand of the year’ awards, it’s doing something right.

It's also possible to talk about the past and become iconic rather than recessive, if the focus is at a higher brand level. Focusing on the past, but much stronger stories, of a brand’s values as an embodiment of the fun or poignant life experiences of consumers, often with a nostalgic or historic flavour. It could also concentrate on authentic places and people e.g. the brand’s creator or its creation myth.

This is originality as … The Original” i.e. the classic, the timeless, the real and authentic. Take Pimms – the original no 1 cup since 1823. With branding that harks back to the early 19th century, yet still holds appeal with the modern-day consumer, it’s doing something right. Its product hasn’t changed in all the years and they’re proud of their recipe, but it has renewed its brand relevance by associating itself firming as the drink of choice during the British summer months and partnering with high profile sporting events (as well as featuring at every British garden party!). It’s been called ‘almost as British as a cup of tea’, with sales peaking year on year as the summer arrives.

The final piece of the Originality puzzle is “to be original” and is achieved through a present-day brand focus. These brands dial up the storytelling, share their beliefs, their values, their way of looking at the world. The difference is that these are brands that have more radically reinvented themselves. They focus not on their origins – which is nevertheless there in the background to give the brand power – but on fresh and creative ideas. They are imaginative, inventive, ingenious and surprising.

Coca Cola is at the forefront of marketing and creative thinking. The core brand embodies vision and spontaneity. They don’t dwell on the brands history or the product itself, it’s all about the present and their ideology. The iconic 90’s Diet Coke break TVC is a prime example of Coca Cola communicating brand values (we’re a feminist brand) and less about the product’s physiological benefits (thirst quenching). More recently, in the hyper-competitive Super Bowl commercial break, there was no mention of its origins from the 1880s, instead an arresting mashup in both comms and product.

It’s worth pointing out that brands that are now heading into the recessive world may once upon a time have communicated values from the other quadrants – which is probably why they came to prominence. For example, Mr Kipling and Bisto once articulated heritage, but that’s now a distant cultural memory, anchored firmly in the 70s and 80s. Other cake and gravy brands have now come along, with a more relevant positioning, leaving them behind.

The crucial next step for any already (or at risk of becoming) recessive brand would be to decide which of the three more valuable quadrants to move into. Does your brand already have a known heritage story it could dial up? Is NPD is possible, lending itself more to Creativity? Or could your product plausibly claim uniqueness?

These are the Hard Questions 1HQ can help you answer.




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