Sunday, March 11, 2012

Is Oreo an Iconic Brand?

I am in the middle of writing a new Point of View about iconic brands (you can find the previous one here). The trouble is that we don’t have a good, data-driven definition of an iconic brand. Last time I settled for the “you know it when you see it” definition, and left it at that. But this time around, I was hoping to be a little more prescriptive.
The trouble with the “you know it when you see it” definition, is that it gets me into all sorts of debates. Is Kodak still iconic, even though the company is bankrupt? Do I really believe Google is iconic, even though its identity is only really a logo? (And a logo that often becomes a Doodle at that.) And is McDonald’s a sort of fading icon, with its heyday in the past? Interesting though these debates are, it would be nice to have some more definitive metrics that we could put around a brand and say, “yes, that one is iconic.”
I had this challenge in mind when I came across this article in The New York Times. It seems that this year, Kraft Foods’ Oreo brand celebrates its centenary. Now there, I thought, is a brand that must be iconic. The dictionary definition of an icon is a person or thing regarded as a representative symbol of a culture or movement; someone or something afforded great admiration or respect. So, what are the key elements that make Oreo iconic?
First off, I would say the brand is instantly recognizable. So recognizable that it can’t be mistaken for anything else, and can even be used as a reference point. I was once directed to look for the “Oreo cows” while driving in Maine. Sure enough, the Belted Galloways made a good navigation aid. 
But there is far more to Oreo’s symbolism than the purely visual. There is a whole set of sensory rituals associated with the brand: twist and lick, dunking in milk and so on. These ensure that most people have a strong and positive affection for the brand based on personal experience. And the rituals are something that is shared. This ad, from the UK, brilliantly highlights the emotional connection that is built around the Oreo experience.
So my second marker for an iconic brand is that the brand’s meaning is shared across a wide audience and embedded in popular culture.
Unlike iconic brands of days gone by, the Oreo brand is still a vital one. It is alive and kicking, doing things that make sure it is still salient and accessible. As John Ghingo, senior director for global biscuits at Kraft Foods, states in The New York Times article: 
What we have really set out to do is something authentic for the brand, true to its roots, that is fresh for today...We want to acknowledge what Oreo has been over the past 100 years and recognize what it means in today’s world.
And that speaks to the fact that for an iconic brand to remain relevant, it must somehow remain true to its origins. But it cannot do that at the expense of its contemporary relevance. It needs to balance the two.
So what do you think? Are the elements of instant recognition and shared understanding the ingredients of an iconic brand? Are there more? Is Oreo truly iconic? And what other brands would you nominate to that status?
Please share your thoughts.

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