Hattable brands – what makes a business a cultural icon

Arguably there are two types of brand in this world:

Those you could put on a hat, and those you couldn’t.

Harley Davidson, Mountain Dew, Jack Daniels, Levis, Marlboro, Fender, Porsche; all “hattable” brands.  Dell, Audi, Dove, Pepsi, Cadbury’s, FedEx; all great brands, yes, but not “hattable”.

To be the sort of brand who an ordinary person might emblazon on their clothing, or even tattoo to their body, is both extraordinarily valuable and extraordinarily difficult.  At first glance it’s hard to distil just what it is that makes a brand worthy of this rare honour.

Clearly, as we discussed in my recent post the toilet paper rule, the nature of the industry the brand occupies has a lot to do with it.  Referring to the list above, it’s clearly easier to pull this off if you make motorcycles than if you make shampoo.  However that being said, it’s not like a sexy category guarantees a hattable brand.  Jack Daniels may pull it off, but I don’t see many people rocking Famous Grouse or Glenfiddich merch as a fashion statement.

No, hattable brands do a different job which is in fact distinct from their core category job, and that is this:

They are symbols of an archetype or ideology.

If you think about the word “iconic” for a moment, you can see that what it literally means is that something (say a person) acts as a representative symbol (icon) for something else – e.g. Marilyn Monroe is an icon of femininity and glamour; Charles Manson is an icon of evil and insanity; Kurt Kobain is an icon of teenage angst; etc.

In certain instances, this same magic can become attached to a brand, whereby it comes to symbolise a certain idea separate from what the brand is.  A Harley cap doesn’t necessarily say “I like motorcycles”.  Instead, it says something akin to “I’m a rebel”.  A Google cap doesn’t say “I like search engines”.  Instead, it says something like “I’m smart”.  In these cases, the brands are performing a sort of “double duty” – not only doing the usual job of communicating the propositions of their companies, but also acting as sort of free-floating “ideals”, which would persist even if the company in question went out of business.

I am sceptical to what extent you can deliberately create a brand like this; iconography is formed in the cultural hive mind, not engineered by some marketing department.  However, that being said the trend that often links such brands is a willingness to be co-opted by a group of people that stand against prevailing norms.

Just as we have discussed at length how important it is for businesses to strategically cut against category norms, here we are talking about businesses that cut against social norms – two techniques that can have similarly powerful effects in different arenas.

It goes without saying that all brands attempt to embody some sort of ideal– to be “aspirational”.  However, if you attempt to embody an ideal that is too broad or orthodox then nobody will feel sufficiently motivated to claim it as a personal emblem.  Signalling with iconography is generally an act of defiance, and thus demands a certain degree of antagonism.  Note that for the most part the brands we’re talking about here have enemies.  Or rather, the people associated with them do.  It’s unquestionable that one of the most “iconic” and literally hattable brands of the past 20 years is MAGA – Make America Great Again – which pretty much says it all.

Assuming that a brand successfully manages to tap into a counter-current like this, the next step on the road to iconography would have to be real-world adoption by genuine exemplars of the archetype in question.  The most obvious example of this is of course the incredible loyalty that various generations of rock stars have felt towards Jack Daniels – surely the greatest organic cultural association in business history.

It is at this stage of the process that I do feel there is potential to engineer these associations, primarily though things like sponsorship, if sensitively handled.  For the most part people see sponsorship for what it is: a desperate attempt for brands to borrow credibility from a cultural property they have no real claim to.  However, there are notable exceptions.  One that I find fascinating with the relationship between Red Stripe, the beer, and the Notting Hill Carnival, a huge Caribbean street party that takes place in London each year.  Whether there is any official relationship between the two I don’t know, however, if you visit the event you will immediately be struck by the dozens of opportunistic vendors selling the stuff out of bin bags on every corner.  Although the truth is probably far more mundane, I like to think that Red Stripe surreptitiously organise this (highly illegal) activity in order to build their iconography.

More often however I think brands fall ass-backwards into these roles – as evidenced by those which end up as icons for things they wouldn’t necessarily choose.

American readers will surely remember the trend of “icing” – whereby you creatively hide a Smirnoff Ice for an unsuspecting victim to find, meaning they have to drop to one knee and chug the whole thing.  This came about because the brand had become emblematic of (for want of a better word) “lameness”, hence being forced to drink one represented some sort of ritual humiliation.

I also recall, in my prior life, having Fruitella as a client.  For those who don’t know, Fruitella is a slightly old school, childish, chewy sweet (or “candy”) – “made with real fruit juice”.  Unbeknownst to them however, they had developed a cult following as “the badman sweet” thanks to this great scene in the movie Anuvahood.  Naturally, I wanted them to double down on this – I mean, come on, you couldn’t come up with a better positioning than that in a million years – but alas they weren’t keen.

In sum, although clearly companies have strategic influence over their brands, the true owners of them are the public at large.  They are not only participants in their category, and in their market; they are also participants in history.  The greatest ones recognise that there is no clear line that can be drawn between their basic commercial presence, and their presence in the world at large.

To develop a strategy that simultaneously plays a sharp category game (i.e. providing unique value in comparison to competitors) and a savvy cultural one (i.e. holding a clear position within a wider social conversation) is the greatest achievement to which we can aspire.

Perhaps the very best management consultants can do the first, and the very best brand / ad agencies can do the second.  We should aspire to both.

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