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Start-ups take note: Iconic brands bank on compelling story-telling in their quest for glory

What forces us to associate a check-print scarf with Burberry? The 'swoosh' sign with Nike? A cool elitism with BMW? Supreme functionality and classy style with all things Apple? A couple of things. First, iconic design. Second, a deeply entrenched association of a brand’s product with cherished value and meaning. Third, the evident success of companies in enduring as aspirational symbols for decades, irrespective of disruptive change in the wider industry.

But why should any of this matter? Because the brands that we tend to instantly recall, have what all companies yearn for: desirability, recognition, ‘meaningfulness’ and proven relevance. But how did they get there? And what can businesses — particularly start-ups— glean from the journey nearly every highly successful company adopts? To answer the first question, I would say what all iconic brands hold in common is the conscious adoption of an “iconic advantage” strategy.

My research of about 50 different companies revealed that there are three fundamental components of what makes a product, brand or franchise iconic: 'noticing power, staying power and scaling power'.

Noticing power is simply a company’s ability to attract its specific audience’s attention to the product or brand it has created. It requires creating something memorable that establishes unique differentiation. Next is staying power or the product’s ability to be highly relevant and beneficial to whatever audience it has targeted to be iconic with (for its distinctive relevance)— now and for decades to come. And finally is scaling power, which is the quality a brand has when the people it is ‘iconic to’ recognise it for the value or purpose it had set out to fulfil.

In other words, when, as a company, you create something distinctive, which is recognised universally and is highly relevant to a clearly defined audience that recognises you for being iconic, then you are on your way to establishing yourself as an unforgettable company. Further, if over time you are recognised for the distinctive relevance you have laid claim to, then you become a standard bearer for it and lay firm ground for iconic status.

Let us consider a few examples of companies which have consistently done this well. When Nike, for instance, introduced its signature element in the form of air pockets in its trainers, it created something that was unique, differentiated and meaningful. This is because of the backdrop the company created this feature against: up to 40 percent of the support in a shoe’s soles goes away in the lifetime of a shoe. The air pocket embodies the idea of buoyancy. In introducing it, Nike seemed to suggest that its shoes were as eternal as air and would ‘never’ lose their bounce.

Similarly, consider what Amazon has achieved with its distinctive one-click functionality. What started out as a feature to download music, CDs and movies is now a benefit embodied in nearly everything that Amazon deals with — including organic food and groceries. In act, what Amazon has done with its one-click feature is offer its customers an unusual, highly sticky proposition of relevance in today’s 24/7 digital age, namely, ‘No Patience Required’.

Startup. Representational image. ThinkStock

Startup. Representational image. ThinkStock

What makes companies iconic is the fact that they don’t create new product lines or franchises on new, 'shiny' ideas. And it is a tough decision they make. After all, companies are made up of people who want to leave their stamp at their place of work by introducing new franchises. This is where iconic brands do things differently. Instead of reinventing the wheel, iconic brands adapt these shiny ideas to update, recalibrate and redesign the old. That way they do not lose their established customer base. Instead, they further strengthen the strong and deep ties they have already established by presenting their audience the ‘same old’ sneaker, sedan, luxury scarf or smart phone with a carefully upgraded new feature or design. This preserves their brand’s timeless relevance, reiterates its scaling power and reaffirms why these companies are iconic to begin with.

Another strategy I found such companies adopt to keep their unusually powerful reputation is choosing to stay with the power of being highly relevant to a small clearly defined universe rather than the entire world. Instead of whittling down its captive customer base by overhauling its signature product, iconic companies including Nike dig in and enhance beloved functions with minor upgradation. Its air pocket feature for example, Air Max, used to figure in the heel. Over time, Nike has expanded it to cover the toe and eventually the entire shoe.

Which brings me to storytelling. At the end of the day, brands like us humans are founded on and moved by stories. When the story they tell is compelling, they deepen the link their audience experiences with its signature element or product and invest in a hook that is hard if not impossible to rip out. This is what start-ups must pay attention to, as they make their way on to a marketplace teeming with competition and disruption. The one way they can assure themselves a seat at the iconic table of greats is not only by keeping the three factors that constitute iconic advantage in mind but by actively embedding these into a story that pulls, enchants, fulfils and leaves customers asking for more.

(The author is a design and innovation advisor and a former graduate of Stanford's Graduate School of Business)


Updated Date: May 19, 2018 17:27 PM

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