Strategies & Insights

Turning Brand Icons Into Cultural Icons: Packaging Is the Catalyst

Posted: September 13, 2009 by
Ted Mininni


Strong brands can transcend their competitors to become category icons. A handful of brands have the power to become cultural icons.

Taking this a step further, brand identities that have strong icons become more easily identified in a crowded marketplace over time. Not to mention in a global marketplace. Copy is becoming more edited and tightened up in favor of creating brand identities with great icons that transcend language barriers and national boundaries. Product packaging, service packaging, advertising, Internet and other marketing communications benefit from iconic brand architecture.

Think of it. Before Nike, there were sneakers. Before Starbucks, there were coffee shops. Even more importantly, since these brands made their mark on our society, they've managed to keep their edge with new competition on the scene.

How many new brands of sneakers have appeared since Nike made its mark? Yet consumers around the globe recognize the Nike logo and its trademark Swoosh as the brand continues to hold its own. What about Starbucks? Many new chains of coffee shops have opened to capitalize on the popularity of coffee, lattes, cappuccinos, and espressos. Yet the Starbucks logo and "siren"—an alluring, fluid figure signifying natural elements—is recognized the world over.

Icon = Identity + Package Design

Since so many brands in the marketplace present consumer packaged products, and since packaging is so tangible, it is important to note that the brand identity is the marketer's best and last chance to speak to the customer. The brand identity encompasses its logo, its iconic presentation, its structural package design, and its communications hierarchy. Retail environments are very competitive places to do business today. Products do battle in category after category, even with widespread distribution in multiple retail channels.

Packaging has the power to do more than sell products. It has the power to build brands in a way that nothing else can because it puts products right into consumers' hands. Packaging shapes themselves can become iconic. Think of the original Coke bottle. The Heinz ketchup bottle with its distinctive key-shaped label. Pringles Potato Chip cylinder. Pom Wonderful juice bottles.

More often than not, the brand identity itself along with a unique identifying mark, has the power to become iconic, whether or not the packaging is conventional or has a unique structure. The McDonald's icon appears with its signature logo on all of the company's signage, as well as its packaging. The Golden Arches are immediately recognizable the world over. Tropicana's leaf-dotted "i" and its straw-embedded orange on gable top package are instantaneously recognized as well. Planter's Mr. Peanut on distinctive deep blue cans, Pringles' Mr. Pringles on its unique potato chip canisters and the Pillsbury's Dough Boy on refrigerated, ready-to-bake products are ingrained in our culture, proving that iconic characters can become part of an overall brand identity.
Iconic kids' brands are also plentiful. Think of Mattel's Barbie doll with her pink scrawled signature with the flower-dotted "i." Mattel's Hot Wheels with sizzling white and yellow logo dancing on a red hot flame. Think also of Sesame Street's logo within its own nifty street sign. Think of General Mills' Trix rabbit or its Lucky Charms leprechaun

Packaging deep connections

When designed properly, icons as part of overall brand identities have great implied meaning. If they refer back to the brand convincingly, they help to create an identity that is quite distinct from the competition. With consistent, repeated use, icons have the power to create a one-of-a-kind brand image and connection with consumers.
The ultimate brand icons become so ingrained in our culture that they transcend their categories to become cultural icons. When it comes to packaged products, Coke is absolutely iconic in our culture. The world's No. 1 brand and packaging would be recognized easily from a distance even if the letters in the logo were completely jumbled.

When a brand forms such a powerful consciousness in our society, and becomes such an indispensable part of life for its consumers, it truly has attained cultural icon status. Their brand identities and icons are recognized instantaneously and globally.
Brands that become deeply ingrained in our culture have formed deep connections at a cultural level. They create deeply emotional human experiences. In fact, these brands' adherents are passionate about their experiences with them and share them with a unique community. Besides the examples already cited, think of Harley-Davidson, the NFL, NASCAR, and Whole Foods. All of them have packaged their brands and their products in a profoundly cultural manner.

A devotion to brand values

Over time, brands survive by remaining true to their core values. They stay focused on a unique vision and enjoy true heritage. These brands are consistently represented, yet they adapt to our culture to remain fresh and relevant. And they never forsake the values that made them iconic brands in the first place.

Iconic brands don't happen by accident. Companies have to demonstrate leadership and a maniacal devotion to brand management. Some iconic brands have weathered storms, overcome negatives over the years and still retain top billing with consumers. Brands that misstep, acknowledge their mistakes, and demonstrate integrity can do that.

Whether or not brands become cultural icons depends very much upon how strongly they are perceived and received by consumers. When consumers attribute great meaning and deep emotional connection to brands for a period of time, these become cultural icons. Culturally iconic brands do not have to appeal to a large portion of the consuming public, either. They do have to be centrally important to their constituents. Think Harley-Davidson, MTV, Rolex, and Nintendo.

One thing is patently obvious: Conventional brand marketing to achieve differentiation from competitors does not create cultural icons. Marketing brands by making them relevant to specific lifestyles, cultural or lifestyle aspirations seems to be the factor that leads to a depth of motional response from the consumer to achieve this. Having said that, we must note that the ultimate goal of marketing is to deliver on the brand promise every time. No amount of cultural appeal will lead to iconic status without that.

Ted Mininni is president of Design Force Inc., a metro New York area consultancy that specializes in brand identity, package design, and consumer promotion campaigns for the food and beverage and toy and entertainment industries. Ted can be reached at 856-810-2277, or online at