How iconic design builds time-tested brands

The word ‘iconic’ is often overused in the marketing industry, but those brands that have truly succeeded in creating instantly recognisable brand design with lasting cultural impact reap consistent rewards from the effects on brand awareness and sales.

Coca-Cola is celebrating 100 years of its ‘contour’ bottle this year, and this month also announced plans to introduce a “one brand strategy” across its four product variants that put greater focus on the Coca-Cola master brand, rather than their individual designs and personalities.

At the other end of the scale, icons such as the Marlboro man have all but disappeared from the tobacco market, and with MPs voting to require plain packaging for cigarettes this month, it is an industry that is seeing its brand value stripped. Marlboro’s brand value dropped 3% between 2014 and 2015, according to Brand Finance, while Winston, which ranks behind it as the world’s second most valuable tobacco brand, lost 21%.

Opportunities for tobacco brands to use their highly recognisable brand colours and designs have progressively diminished in a long battle by successive governments to make cigarettes less appealing to consumers. All packets will be standardised from 2016 onwards, merely showing the company and brand name.

For Coca-Cola, the contour bottle was introduced in 1915 to distinguish the brand from rivals and imitators, and to let consumers know they were buying the ‘real thing’ – a phrase that Coke went on to adopt as a strapline in 1969. The bottle has remained a key asset in Coca-Cola’s brand marketing over the years.

James Sommerville, vice president of global design at Coca-Cola told Marketing Week at the 100 year anniversary global launch in Atlanta last month that its new campaign celebrates the bottle design as an “ingredient” to the brand’s success in cutting through competitors’ messages, “however noisy the retail environment is”.

Sommerville adds: “What we do not want to do is add noise to an already noisy environment, both visually and with the messages that we are bombarded with every day.”

Identifying what is iconic

Jon Hunter, head of design at TfL, says that referring to a brand, design or campaign as ‘iconic’ is “something that is bandied around too often”.  He argues: “An icon should have been ground breaking when it was invented and, importantly, stands the test of time.”

The Transport for London (TfL) tube map, typeface and ‘roundel’ – the circular tube station logo – have all evolved since the inception of the London Underground in the early 1900s, but they have also maintained a consistency that made them central to celebrations of the Underground’s 150th birthday in 2013.

TfL believes that its assets are viewed as a representation of London, often used as cues in film or TV to inform viewers of the location they are seeing, and this is one of the reasons why the company does not want to reinvent or change the brand.

Protecting iconic designs is one thing; using what they stand for to convey what the brand is delivering is something entirely separate. Working with agency M&C Saatchi, TfL uses the designs of the maps and the roundels to denote its mission to keep London moving, while Coca-Cola’s bottle represents the authenticity of the product.

Although marketers understand the importance of brand properties, many are not making use of some of the most influential ones they have available, according to a research project by Decode Marketing and Brandgym released in October last year.

While the global survey of 80 senior marketing professionals unsurprisingly shows that 83% say brand properties are extremely important in creating strong brands (the other 17% say ‘important’), the study also suggests that there is an opportunity to make use of a broader set of properties.

This is because less than half use distinctive shapes such as Coke’s iconic bottle, or ‘reasons to believe’ in a product such as Dove’s statement that it is made up of ‘one quarter moisturising cream’. Sonic branding, jingles or music attached to brands, are used by only 18%.

When brands use these broader properties it plays to a consumer’s ‘implicit memory system’, which is what enables someone to recall a brand within a few seconds. The Coca-Cola bottle is recognisable in an instant, even if it doesn’t have the brand name attached, and Microsoft’s start-up jingle also plays to the same memory structure.

“If as a marketer we can help consumers navigate and evoke brands in memory without using conscious processing, that is a real win,” says Phil Barden, UK managing director of Decode Marketing and author of Decoded: The science behind what we buy.

Barden adds: “The research highlights that there are many different things we can use to do a branding job without having to name the brand or have the logo present. Some marketers get this but I wouldn’t say that systematic understanding of what [brand properties] are is the norm.”

Remaining iconic

Occasionally companies need to refresh product design, packaging, slogans and other brand properties in order to innovate but this carries risks in altering the memory recall of consumers. There has to be a balance when trying to innovate between refreshing the brand and not removing iconic sensory cues.

As part of the Decode/Brandgym study, 1,000 UK consumers took part in developing a measure called Iconic Asset Tracker (IcAT). Design is highlighted as an important factor in marketing and has higher branding power than other techniques, such as product claims. Magnum is cited as an example where not highlighting iconic assets had an impact on how consumers viewed the brand, even as far as attributing creative work to competitors.

The brand’s most most important asset is the product shape as it achieves a 93% ‘activation’ score, which is a measure of prompt recall of the brand. This is compared to the brand’s slogan ‘For pleasure seekers’, which scores just 41% with a third of people linking this to competitor ice cream brand Häagen Dazs.

Celebrities associated with a brand score the lowest in terms of recall. For example, when seeing an advert featuring actor Benicio del Toro, a third (31%) of people associated it with Häagen Dazs, versus 21% who correctly named Magnum.

Mizkan Euro, which owns brands such as Sarson’s Malt Vinegar and Branston Pickle, had to evaluate the value of its shapes when launching extensions to both products. Sarson’s introduced a balsamic vinegar and decided to keep the shape of its ‘tear drop’ bottle in order to provide “a clear message to consumers of the quality they have grown to recognise from the brand”, according to Mizkan Euro’s head of marketing Lorna Kimberley.

A similar approach was taken for Branston’s launch of a chutney. In its current size the jar did not help the strategic plan of entering a new category, although the brand wanted to retain its shape. It therefore retained the shape while reducing the size.

Kimberley says: “It didn’t come without challenges. Factory settings to cope with a smaller jar had to be checked and reset; we had to optimise the label to ensure branding and information fit in to a reduced amount of space; and jar aperture had to be considered – shrinking the shape in perspective would not allow us to use our current lid so we needed to ensure the overall design did not look unbalanced as a shape.”

“It was always a question of balancing shape versus branding and cost efficiencies,” she adds.

At TfL considerations have to be made in terms of guarding what the design says about the service, so it tries to be a “responsible custodian” in protecting the Underground’s 150 years of heritage. TfL also has to consider the family of services using the design, including London Overground and Crossrail, which is currently under construction and due to be running by 2018.

Hunter believes that the familiar design assists TfL in being a trusted source of information, which is one of the “main commodities” it offers to the customer. “When they see the brand, whether it’s a tube map, a roundel or a vehicle, there is an inherent link with that trusted brand,” he says.

However, Hunter adds: “It’s about design, innovation and function, if you haven’t got all three of those considered in the process then you are not going to end up with the right result for the customer at the end of the day.”

Branston Pickle assessed the signifiance of its product shape at length before launching a new chutney jar

TfL head of marketing services Julie Dixon adds: “That is what retains something as being iconic. It’s that no matter how old it is it still keeps delivering what it is meant to deliver.”

The Decode/Brandgym study shows that over half of marketers surveyed say the main reason for changing brand properties is organisational change, especially changes of marketing director.

It suggest that altering brand properties affects ‘memory structure’ so consumers are less likely to immediately recognise the brand and therefore its values. One fifth say change is a judgement call and 24% say that a change in brand property is a strategic choice based on quantitative data.

Barden argues that changes need to be implemented using an ‘implicit approach’, which looks at immediate recall, to track brand properties and the effect on consumers. In his book, Decoded, Barden also advises brands to be more conscious of what they change, such as design, in order to avoid eradicating brand cues.

For the Guardian, which redesigned it’s website in January this year, innovation became a technical issue rather than a design challenge but required the same user experience approach to innovating without losing what is iconic.

“The challenge with creating the Guardian’s website was twofold,” says the news brand’s creative director Alex Breuer. “Deciding how much of our rich visual DNA we could technically afford to implement without sacrificing performance, and choosing the key elements of the new user experience that really deliver innovation.”

The Guardian released many of its new design features before fully relaunching and went live in the early process with a beta site to see if it was heading in the right direction. “It’s important to push innovation, and sometimes get it out into the public domain before it is notionally ‘design perfect’,” says Breuer.

But design innovation efforts always needs to identify first what assets exist that are too valuable to lose, what role they perform for the brand and how they can be updated without risking the loss of immediate brand recognition. Design, function and innovation are the three key pillars of protecting iconic brands, and will help to build businesses that have resonance both today and long into the future.