Loving Your Icon Brand

Bathe it. Feed it. Sing it a song. And keep its essence alive

One sunny, 86-degree, everything’s-right-with-the-world L.A. day a few years ago, I’m driving through Raleigh Studios, yakking away with my partner, when she screams, “Watch it!” I jam on the brakes, look in the direction I should have been looking in the first place, and see George Burns walking slowly and obliviously, puffing on a cigar. My first thought is, “Please, Lord, don’t make me the nitwit who kills George Burns, the 90-plus-year-old national treasure who played God twice and seemed immortal until some New York ad guy in a rented Taurus hit him in a parking lot.” The car comes to a stop with George Burns inches from my bumper.

I know a little something about nearly killing an icon. Trust me, you don’t want to be that guy.

Now, some of you may be naive enough to think that being a creative director on a great icon brand like Oreo, Lifesavers or Jell-O is a cushy job. You just set it on cruise control and wait for your bonus, right? Wrong! Is it a pleasure? Yes. A privilege? Absolutely. Easy? You’d be Planters to think that (see how icons work?).

With that in mind, and with the utmost respect and empathy, I offer the following advice to guardians of today’s great icon brands:

First, love the icon brand more than its most loyal fans. Love its essence, love its logo, love its benefits. Use it, and tell everyone you know to do the same. And you’d better be able to tell them why—at length. If you don’t love it, your lack of passion and conviction will show in the work.

Don’t let anyone who doesn’t share your cultlike fanaticism work on your icon brand. Don’t let them tamper with its essence or its voice. Guard it from becoming a victim of some self-indulgent creative maverick who is using the “irreverence is my greatest form of reverence” line of crap. Don’t be the creative director who drops the baton that so many others have passed flawlessly through the years.

Don’t allow anyone near the advertising of an icon brand unless he or she truly understands and above all respects the history behind it—the components that have allowed it to sustain itself emotionally in the hearts and minds of so many generations and cultures. Only when you understand the key to its relevance can you help the brand evolve.

Yes, icon brands can evolve—in fact, they need to—but only from within their own identity and soul. In the end, brands are like people. How many people have succeeded long-term by trying to be someone they’re not? OK, besides Rich Little (and where is he now, anyway?).

Just for laughs, let’s take Mike Tyson. For better or worse, he’s a brand—the angry, abusive, ear-biting, butt-touching, belligerent, out-of-control guy in satin shorts. Then, a few months ago, he’s seen affectionately wiping blood off Lennox Lewis’ cheek. Now, no one (aside from an ex-cell mate or two, perhaps) is going to buy the image of an affectionate Mike Tyson. At least when he bit a piece of Evander Holyfield’s ear off, he was staying within the brand. (I really hope whoever reads to him doesn’t get Adweek.)

To wrap up, here’s some foolproof advice: Don’t do anything on any brand unless you’ve seen a brand essence statement. I prefer a hard copy so people can hang it on their wall. In fact, if it’s done right, it should be worthy of framing.

The brand essence statement is a short, inspiring, well-thought-out document that captures the voice, character, heart, soul and subtleties of the brand. What it stands for. Who it is. How it behaves. And, most important, why it exists. The brand essence should never change. It should serve as an uncompromising force guiding every decision made on behalf of the brand. In short, everything at every touch point should line up with the brand essence or be scrapped.

Well, that’s my allotted 700 words. I think it’s pretty good advice. Then again, it’s coming from a guy who nearly killed God.

Publish date: June 2, 2003 https://dev.adweek.com/brand-marketing/loving-your-icon-brand-64580/ © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT