5 features shared by world’s most recognizable companies

By Peter Nicholson

The recipe for a lasting brand impact is 

comprised of 5 crucial ingredients, writes 

Hill Holliday’s Peter Nicholson


In October, Disney will celebrate its centennial.

The brand has maintained its iconic status over its nearly 100-year history by building on its founder’s vision while remaining true to its core mission of providing high-quality programming and products that inspire and delight. And it’s that value proposition that many of the world’s other top brands – like Apple, Coca-Cola, Burger King and Patagonia – employ to forge unbreakable bonds with their customers and weather the controversies that inevitably arise.

Here are the five critical factors that helped these iconic brands make the jump from average company to cultural mainstay:

1. A clear purpose

A brand becomes iconic when it develops a strong following - a high level of loyalty among a base of brand advocates who spread the word about the brand’s products and services. When people understand the “why” behind a brand – that is, its reason for being – it ascends to a new level.

2. Trust

Trust is another critical factor on the road to becoming an iconic brand. One recent study conducted by Adobe found a high correlation between trust and consumer behavior, with 66% of people saying they would stop buying from brands that break their trust.

Apple enthusiasts swear by the company because of that trust factor, which has allowed it to become the wealthiest company in the world. Facebook, on the other hand, has seen its stardom diminished by scandals that have damaged its credibility and led to an exodus of users.

3. Bold marketing moves

Big marketing initiatives like a Super Bowl ad can turn a brand into a superstar. Apple, for example, will forever be remembered for its 1984 Super Bowl ad introducing the Macintosh computer. But a bold action that’s not backed up by product excellence can backfire; in Apple’s case, the Super Bowl marketing decision move was a success precisely because the computer it introduced was truly groundbreaking.

Burger King is another example of a brand that has taken a risk on a bold (and ultimately successful) marketing move. During the height of the pandemic, the brand promoted its rivals to support fast food workers. “We never thought we’d be asking you to do this, but restaurants employing thousands of staff really need your support at the moment,” the company tweeted, suggesting consumers order from a host of competitors – even its arch-rival, McDonald’s.

The unexpected move garnered positive publicity and kudos from fans on social media.

4. Staying ahead of the competition

First-mover advantage can also help brands achieve immediate success. But there’s no such thing as a completely unique brand offering. Even if a brand creates a new category, the minute it proves to be successful, there will be more – and sometimes even better – competitors that start to enter the picture.

Coca-Cola may have been the first of its kind. But that didn’t stop Pepsi from muscling in on the action.

This is why brand differentiation is key. Iconic brands understand the power of quality products amplified by strategic marketing that taps into people’s emotions and needs. Consumers are compelled to buy Coca-Cola to satisfy their thirst, even if it’s not the healthiest choice, in part because of the brand’s ability to deliver that feeling of joy when consumers open a can and take that first sip. It’s a subconscious but strong connection to fond memories and family traditions.

Importantly, value cannot be solely price-dependent. Price as the only competitive differentiation hurts a brand in the long run. Does anyone even remember Royal Crown Cola?

5. A distinct brand personality

Truly iconic brands have their own personalities, which their fans can relate to and appreciate.

It starts with company culture. Patagonia’s focus on philanthropy and environmentalism has led it to become one of the most trusted brands in history. The company also stands behind its products, offering to repair or replace items that wear out years after purchase. This reinforces Patagonia’s value to customers and keeps them coming back.

Here’s the bottom line: a brand becomes iconic when it demonstrates its purpose and matches that with superior products, memorable experiences, smart marketing and a commitment to maintaining its “why.” Trust, loyalty and authenticity are critical factors that can help brands rise above price wars and maintain their leadership status for decades to come.

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