The Future Of Iconic Brands

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In the real-time Web, the value of branding could become a game of diminishing returns.

A friend recently told me that he’s nervous about Apple and their ability to deliver products that people can’t get enough of. It seems like a ridiculous statement, doesn’t it? Then again, one look at your investments and you may think otherwise. The speed with which our world now lives could well put an end to the world of iconic brands. Before all of this connectivity, a great brand could stand the test of time. Books like Built To Last by Jim Collins created blueprints for a company that could last forever. Investment advisors would have you invest your money in companies for the long haul. How often have you sat down with a financial planner and they spoke about investing in a company for over twenty years. It wasn’t that long ago, that this type of thinking made rational and frugal sense.

It now seems like insanity.

Do you think Apple will continue to be as strong, powerful and resilient in twenty year’s time? Ask the folks at RIM (BlackBerry) what that type of event horizon now feels like. Does it make any sense that Kodak implodes around the same time that Instagram is bought by Facebook for one billion dollars (give or take a buck or two)? Do we think that Chrysler will have what it takes to be relevant in twenty years? It’s easy to chalk the brand disasters that we have see up to poor management or a lack of innovation, but at a macro level it just seems like the pendulum is swinging with faster momentum. From a media perspective, we all know that what’s hot today may well be cold tomorrow. From a Twitter perspective, what’s hot right now may be cold before dinner.

An over-dramatization to make a point.

Sure, Apple could still be relevant in twenty years and yes, Facebook may very well be the place where we’re all connected, but the ability for a brand to have a enduring legacy looks less likely as the speed with which consumer interest evolves. As media people, this is a trend that should both fascinate and terrify us. It gives room for new and interesting players (fascinating) while killing off brands we would consider iconic in short order (terrifying). So, this raises two important question:

  1. What is a brand worth?
  2. Can we value brands on a forward-looking model.

A brand has value… today.

Perhaps we have to re-imagine (to steal turn of phrase from Tom Peters) how we define value in the now economy. Perhaps we have to agree (and accept) that the brand of today may not be the brand of tomorrow and prescribing value can’t be done by looking twenty years into the future, because the pace of change and disruption is increasingly happening faster and faster. We can all admire the work that brands like Apple, Starbucks, Red Bull and more have created and continue to nurture, but perhaps these brands will disappear into our ether, having been relevant for a brief moment in history. What this could mean is that more and more brands fill these voids over less and less time. So, will memory serve or fail us in terms of brand perception? The Beatles were iconic. Some may argue that Nirvana was iconic too. Do you believe that any of the musicians today that we admire will be able to leave this kind of legacy? As Gangnam Style becomes the most viewed video of all time on YouTube, do we believe that Psy becomes an iconic brand, a one hit wonder or just an indicator that the world of iconic brands may have seen their final days? Why not prescribe that same kind of thinking to business. Perhaps a great run for a company that lasts decade or two won’t qualify them for iconic status.

The end of iconic brands.

When I think about the end of iconic brands – which I believe will become a reality, I realize that with it, comes a natural thought that this means we cannot invest too deeply in a company’s future. This, is where the true rub lies. This type of thinking (no matter how salient or foolish) spells a very scary story for the stock market. Not the stock market of today that is littered with high speed algorithms making most of the trades happen in milliseconds, but for the true stock market of tomorrow that is counting on the rise of the iconic brands for the wealth of nations.

What do you think? Will our future have iconic brands or simply a mass of companies that made good money during short period of time?

The above posting is my twice-monthly column for The Huffington Post called, Media Hacker. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original version online here:


  1. Mitch,
    An intereting and provactive point.
    I suspect what may happen is that iconic brands will come and go faster and require more concerted effort to get there. So I am agreeing and disagreeing with you at the same time.
    With the pace of innovation, the ability for competitors to match (or just copy) differentiated products or services means product lifecyles and the brands that sit on top of them no longer have time to rest on their laurels. But companies and brands that get it right and get it right quickly will still capture our admiration. Apple of course is a perfect example of a brand doing just that, but that list will be shorter and come with more turnover. And even those who do transcend the mountain, the climb will be steeper and windier at the top.

  2. Whether you meant to or not, what you attribute to your friend at the top of the post serves as an interesting definition of an iconic brand, one with the “ability to deliver products that people can’t get enough of.” By that definition, “iconic” brands may indeed wear themselves out, serving only to endlessly, and ever more quickly, create consumer hunger rather than satisfy it.
    If, however, you cleave to the more ancient sense of iconic as being like an icon, a sacred or venerated image representing a deeper value, then iconic brands may last. They will fit the mold of what Don Peppers and Martha Rogers describe in their book Extreme Trust as “trustable brands,” ones that proactively look out for the best interests of consumers. That sort of commitment, and deeper brand value and confidence it creates with and for consumers, is so foundational, it should enable the best brands to not only weather the storms of hyper-fast change but even focus their power for the good of shareholders and consumers alike.

  3. On the downward slope of a roller coaster it can feel like you are accelerating faster than in the car that took you to an amusement park, even though you’re only going 35 miles per hour. I think we always perceive that technology and the whims of popular culture are expediting consumer tastes. Yet 10 years ago people were saying the same thing about brands like Netscape and Saturn.
    There will always be iconic brands. The icons are the brands that stand for something big. Apple dominates today, but it’s hold may indeed change. So much depends on how well it lives up to the expectation of its promise. Brands like Disney, Nike, Coca-Cola and Tiffany have been icons for decades and will continue to be so as long as they resonate with consumers. How do they resonate? By delivering great brand experiences that meet or exceed consumer expectations … and by framing their promise in a great story. Storytelling never dies. It’s part of our psychological DNA. We can always point to someone or something that appears to short-change the process, but the truth is that we feel connected to the brands that activate the stories locked in our heads. They’re the ones that become iconic. Will Abercrombie remain a leader ten years from now? Who knows? I’d invest if I believed that the story they tell will appeal to young people if they continue to live up to their promise.
    I tell myself that I am growing old every time I catch myself saying, “it used to be.” George Eastman probably used those same words ages ago when he built the once great Kodak brand. Generations later, his management team failed when they thought, “it used to be that people bought more film.” That doesn’t mean the brand isn’t iconic. In my own consumer research, Kodak still surfaces. It suffered from catastrophically bad decisions. Not a lack of reverence for strong brands.

  4. There may be moments of greatness/inspiration of a brand or person in timeline but sustaining and reaching an Iconic stage like today’s may be a difficult one 🙁
    Another Gangnam might be a difficult act for PSY but who knows there may be another PSY who might cross his record .But PSY ,Justin Beiber and others have given us a reason to believe that common people like myself and many a hope to achieve some great things.
    Well let’s hope we find more Inspiring Persons and Brands .
    Thanks Mitch for another gr8 post.

  5. In terms of the stock market the Fortune 500 will look very different and everyone essentially will become day traders. It will all become about timing the market. That is scary.

  6. I think a lot of brands are going to fall. But some will stay. I just don’t see a brand like Coca Cola crumbling anytime soon. It would take a lot to disrupt the soft drink market. Plus the brand equity that Coke has built over decades is huge. Unless something drastic happens I think coke is here to stay.
    I do agree that it will be harder in the future for a brand to reach iconic status. I think our attention span has just gotten too short. There are too many options that are equally good. I think it was in Youngme Moon’s book, Different, that I read about the homogenization of products. Every car maker feels like they have to be the safest and the most stylish until eventually the difference between them becomes minimal.
    Unless brands do something radical it will be hard to even rise above the noise much less become iconic.
    Great thoughts Joel as always.

  7. Interesting post. IMHO Apple or Coca-Cola are not brands. They are corporations. And the relationship between a corporation and its brand (or brands) is not a simple one.
    In yesterday markets, where the game was selling simple products in predictable markets, product-based brands had an opportunity to become icons: Coca-Cola.
    We’ve changed playfields now. Products are not here to stay. Consumption is being replaced by something different, in the long run (prosumption, or whatever it becomes). I think we will have iconic corporations (able to build iconic brands). I would even go as far as saying that corporations that master the new IT paradigm first will be very long lasting icons

  8. This really makes you think. On the one hand, if the information cycle keeps half-lifing at its current rate it might become impossible for any company to establish a brand in the first place and the term would just go away. Maybe everything we consume would just become a commodity. Which could mean even more that just the stock market would be at risk.
    But I also like to think that from a historical perspective we might just be in a period of phenomenally fast change that will level off at some point. I’ll bet the industrial revolution probably seemed phenomenally fast BITD, too. And back then, there were probably thousands of businesses starting and trying to establish their brands and failing, with only some of the big names who figured out the best business models for the time succeeding and becoming true brands.
    So I think that is what might be happening here, too–we’re right in the middle of a new economy forming with thousands of companies trying to figure it out. The ones that do may become iconic brands and then we will let someone else have our current conversation about brands in 100 years!

  9. I like the observation you make about the relationship between brands and corporations.
    The leadership of the corporation will determine the fate of whether or not a brand sustains iconic status.
    It’s people that make all the difference. When fear is absent, organizations can shine.
    If I had to choose an iconic sustainable leader in the large corporation category it would be Richard Branson.
    He has fun and keeps it real. Isn’t that what business and pleasure are all about?

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