What makes a brand iconic? For me, it is the story behind the brand that draws me toward it. And it isn’t just about the story of the brand’s formation that intrigues me, but more about how the founders of the company believed so much in their brand that they left no stone unturned to give their offering to the world.
An example that comes to mind is the Air Jordan sport shoe brand. When introduced into the market, the Air Jordan 1 was first produced for Michael Jordan in 1984. When the Air Jordan prototype was introduced, the then NBA Commissioner put a ban on Nike’s Air Ship sport shoe because of the “uniformity of uniform rule” set by the NBA which stated that “a player must wear shoes that not only matched their uniforms, but matched the shoes worn by their teammates”.
The Nike Air Ship had a red and black colourway with no white, and when Michael Jordan wore these shoes during a practice session, he was issued with a written warning. The Nike team responded to this by introducing the Air Jordan 1 prototype with the red and black colours dominating most of the shoe, and a bit of white to be compliant with the set NBA rules. They did, however, implement a strategy that had Michael wearing the Nike Air Ship (in red and black only) during practice sessions and other NBA sponsored events such as slam dunk competitions, creating and sustaining the buzz around these shoes.
In addition, although the Air Jordan 1 somewhat complied with the NBA’s uniformity rule, the red and black colours still stood out when compared plain black and white shoes. This “rebellion” in a sense established the cult status that the Air Jordan brand now has today. Urban legends are now built around Nike’s belief in Michael Jordan and the Jordan brand including Michael Jordan continuing to wear the Air Jordan 1s and being fined for wearing them as they broke the rules and Nike settling these fines on his behalf. Because of this rebellion and belief in the brand, the Air Jordan brand today sponsors 21 active NBA players and sponsors other sports leagues including MLB, NFL, NASCAR and the WNBA.
Sticking with the sports shoe industry and going back in history, the Adidas brand is another example that comes to mind. During the 1936 Olympics, Adi Dassler, the founder of Adidas travelled from Bavaria to Berlin with a suitcase full of athletic shoes. At the Olympic village, he met with and persuaded U.S. sprinter Jesse Owens to wear his shoes, the first sponsorship for an African American. The athlete’s win of four Olympic gold medals during the 1936 games after Adi Dassler drove 506km to persuade him to wear his shoes, added to Adidas’ growing reputation within the sports apparel industry. This resulted in a boom in business for the company over the next few years before World War II.
The risks associated with entering into an endorsement agreement with Jesse Owens had generated the desired effect. Because of this rebellion and belief in the brand, including its associated partners Adidas is today one of the oldest and most sought-after global sports apparel brands; generating between 20 and 22 billion Euros per annum in revenue.
Another example that comes to mind is Nando’s advertising campaigns over the last few years in Australia and South Africa. The company’s advertising campaigns often lampoon current social and political issues, creating controversy and evoking interesting responses from the public and the people lampooned in their advertisements. These “rebellious” advertising campaigns have contributed to Nando’s being thought of as outspoken, weighing in with an opinion on current affairs; at times drawing a bit of ire from the lampooned and their supporters for saying the “unsaid”. They’ve also developed a knack of knowing how to respond whenever they’re confronted for putting out their controversial adverts, another aspect that adds to their rebellious nature.
To add to the above examples, research conducted by Texas A&M and the University of Colorado on winning brands revealed that a factor critical to ensuring sustainable success within a company’s industry is to master the art of cool. This mastery included offering a moderate amount of rebellion to the company’s target market to become a topical organisation that attains some form of iconic status.
Based on their research brands that met consumers’ expectations of cool were Nike, Pabst Blue Ribbon and Virgin Records. The research also revealed that there is an acceptable threshold to the level of rebellion – bending the rules or breaking away from the norm in a small way – that is regarded as “cool”. Extreme divergence, on the other hand, is considered to be stranger than cool and would thus take away, instead of adding to, building an iconic brand. Therefore, a balance should be established on how outrageous a brand should be when it comes to standing for what it believes in.
In conclusion, belief in your brand is critical to building an iconic brand. This belief will sometimes have you working against what is considered normal to get your message across to your targeted stakeholders. Working against the norm could result in your brand embarking on some form of rebellion. Ensure that this rebellion is aligned to your organisation’s core beliefs and is controlled, that is, adds to your brand, garnering its intended state as opposed to being too outlandish and taking away from the great product and service offering you’re trying to bring.
Remember – making it into the cool club is only the beginning. Staying in the cool club is another uphill battle. As a brand, you need to keep asking yourself how do you stay relevant and adequately rebellious. Sustaining that balance is difficult because the cooler you are to more customers, the more normal you become – and your perceived normalcy suggests that you’re no longer cool.