What Becomes an Icon Most

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Citation: Douglas Holt (2003) What Becomes an Icon Most. Harvard Business Review (Volume 81(3)) (RSS)
Internet Archive Scholar (search for fulltext): What Becomes an Icon Most
Tagged: marketing (RSS), branding (RSS)


Some brands are iconic because they are able to tap into deep connections within our culture. Scholars have taken such theories a step further to suggest that consumers use authentic meanings in products to construct their identities, and heal identity and cultural conflicts. Doug Holt, in his work, How Brands Become Icons, lays out a cultural branding framework. To build an iconic brand a marketer should: select a cultural contradiction and compose a cultural brief to include myth treatment, populist authenticity, and a charismatic aesthetic. Holt has found that the most successful iconic brands use myths to address deep national conflicts that reside within the individual’s psyche, and that consumers use brands to heal these conflicts. He finds that brands that embody myths are grounded in empathic understanding of people’s most acute desires and anxieties. “Resonant myths spring from people’s ambitions at work, their dreams for their children, their fears of technology, and their difficulty building friendship, and so on.” Firms create authenticity by associating their products with cultural meanings that represent honesty, and a rejection of the commercial sphere and political power. They find these authentic narratives in communities who live according to their beliefs: on the frontier in bohemia, in rural backwaters, in athletic leagues, immigrant areas, and ghettos (Holt 2002, 2003, 2004). These narratives are associated with products to give them a feeling of authenticity, as Nike takes meaning from street cultures of basketball in the inner city. Thus, firms use these strategies to create resonating brand meanings by addressing identity issues and creating authenticity through honest narratives. They draw on cultural knowledge, rebelliousness, and populism.

Theoretical and Practical Relevance

It's interesting how we use brands to deal with our own emotions, and how the brands that do this well can sometimes end up being the most powerful.