The first official brand emerged in the 1818, and since then nearly 90,000 brands in the United States have come and gone.  Today there are 50,000 active brands out of which roughly 5% to 8% will become memorable.  Of those, only a chosen few become iconic.  Like myths, brands that live on to become icons are shared far and wide, and are handed down from generation to generation.  Think of them as brand gods.  They are the Apollos, Neptunes, Hades, and Dionysuses of brand identities.  Although these gods don’t really exist, they represent the immortal truths of human nature.  Iconic brands are no different.  In the same way that, of all the stories ever told few of them go on to become centuries old cultural myths, so it is for the brands that become legends in our own culture.

Today, brand identity and positioning are created through conventual methods of advertising and marketing.  However, many of brands that have reached iconhood in the past had brand identities that were created more by the people using them, than the company that created them.  Vicks VapoRub, Harley Davidson, and Levi Steauss are examples of brand identities that were initially defined in the absence of brand strategy or marketing.  Instead, their growth to greatness was organic in nature as a function of co-creation between brand and culture.

Vicks VapoRub
For nearly 100 years, Vick VapoRub has been revered by Latinos everywhere. It can be found in practically every medicine cabinet, nightstand, and vanity of Latino homes across the United States and Mexico.  Fondly referred to as “Vipuro”, it has an endless array of uses including relief from congestion and coughing, cuts, bruises, sprains, headaches, toe fungus, stomach discomfort, and bug bites.  It’s also used as a face moisturizer, soothing calmative, and sometimes it’s even combined with a little tequila for a digestive.  Bottom line is, like Demeter the Goddess of Motherhood, VapoRub always makes you feel better. 

VapoRub has become a beloved common denominator among Latinos no matter where they are from or what lifestyle they lead.  Likewise, VapoRub humor, jokes, tweets and memes abound and are shared between Latinos of all ages, backgrounds, and countries.  Created in 1912, VapoRub was first advertised and promoted as a product for traditional middle-income Anglo-American wives with children living a modern lifestyle.  It couldn’t have been further removed from Latino culture.   However, VapoRub had a product attribute with a strong cultural familiarity that attracted Latinos.  It was the scent of eucalyptus.  Common homemade medicinal remedies used by Latinos often contained eucalyptus and other herbs with similar scents.  Scent evokes powerful memories and emotions, and for Latinos the smell of VapoRub brings on strong emotions associated with the feelings they experienced as children when cared for and comforted by their mothers.  VapoRub a scent associated with home.  Latinos who have moved away from their families tell of times when they would open a jar of Vicks just to smell it so they could feel like they were home with them again.  

Shortly after VapoRub began being sold in the United States, Vicks started distributing it in Mexico.  VapoRub was affordable and easily accessible for Mexicans, but most of all, it played into the role held by Mexican mothers.  And, because a tightly woven sense of family and community is a hallmark of Latino culture, VapoRub quickly spread from home to home throughout Mexico.   Today, Vicks VapoRub continues to be a top selling brand in Mexico with a market share of 95% .  It’s safe to say that the little blue immediately recognizable jar of eucalyptus-scented ointment has come to embody the heart and soul of Latinos.  It’s why VapoRub brand has remained beloved and will continue to beloved by many generations of Latinos to come.

Levi Strauss
Levi Strauss’s rise to icon stardom was a combination of luck, timing, and a sharp eye for opportunity.  Originally, Levi’s were pants for miners and factory workers who needed a more durable work pant that didn’t easily tear or wear out. Known as waist overalls, they were made of hemp canvas typically used for making ship sails.  While they were sturdy, these work pants lacked flexibility. Jacob Davis, a tailor who had partnered with Levi Strauss, solved the problem by adding rivets at the hips and switching from canvas to denim which was a more flexible fabric.  Also in those days, pants used for ranch work were made from burlap or wool.  Since the bulk of a ranch hand’s day consisted of hiding horses and working cattle, the combination of flexibility and durability was a godsend.  Levi’s caught on like wildfire.  Ranch hands were referred to as “cowboys” and were easily recognized by their attire.

It was a stroke of luck that Levi Stauss had created lather patch containing two horses to put on their first work pants. 

It was completely unrelated to their work pants adopted by ranch hands.  Unbeknownst to Levi Strauss that same leather patch would go on to become an important part of Levi’s strong association with cowboys.  Serendipity had a hand in the timing of Levi’s use among cowboys and the resurgence of Western films in popular culture. Western cinema attracted movie stars like John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart who’s acting brought the cowboy character to life. Because of the grand scale of movie screens, these celluloid cowboys became bigger than life and Americans became enamored with them. Wearing jeans was a massive cultural opportunity in the making and it was not lost on Levi Strauss. They immediately created ads and promoted the idea that by wearing Levi’s those who wore them would take on the same qualities as the cowboys on the big screen.  From there on in, Levi’s and their leather patch became emblematic of rugged independence, a free and untamed spirit, and the ethic of hard work which was a cultural cornerstone of American values. 

When America entered the 1960’s no one could have possibly predicted the immensity of the oncoming cultural revolution led by a new breed of cowboy that would come to be known as the counterculture.  They were the untamable, individualistic, and stood steadfast in their ideals built around freedom of progressive thought.   And they all wore blue jeans.  Once again, Levi’s was at the right cultural place at the right time and was in the perfect position to take advantage of a cultural opportunity in the making. For the youths of America, the countercultural movement was perceived as cool which meant wearing jeans was cool.  Jeans were a visual and easily identifiable way to separate oneself from a fuddy duddy generation of squares and their unprogressive thinking. It was what allowed Levi’s to stay relevant in a cultural revolution that would go on to rock the foundations of an established American society.  All Levi’s had to do was make a lateral move in the brand’s identity to create advertising that captured a new but yet similar cowboy culture.  And of course, also put the production of Levi Strauss blue jeans on steroids to meet the demand.  

Levi Strauss also had the good sense to not mess with their leather patch and its design. The patch had become a highly recognized symbol that was inseparable with what the Levi Strauss brand stood for.  For nearly five generations Levi’s has kept a firm grasp on their core identity. Levis Strauss’s website continues to echo what the brand has managed to maintain from the very beginning and promote their jeans as “a brand that epitomizes classic American style and effortless cool.”.

Harley Davidson

Few brands have become as legendary as Harley Davidson, and this year marks its 120th anniversary since the first Harley Davidson hit the road.  Walter Davidson was a motorcycle enthusiastic with a passion for racing motorcycles who began tinkering with motorcycles in a small wooden shed.  He came up with a two-cylinder motorcycle and named it “Harley Davidson” after his two other brothers and William Harley.  They were the four founders of a motorcycle company that began making two-cylinder motorcycles with an engine, known as a V Twin.  It was an engine that could reach speeds of up to 60 mph. 

Harley Davidson’s traction began when the partners decided to sponsor a motorcycle racing team called “The Wrecking Crew” who had a reputation for being dare devils.   While company-sponsored racing teams are commonplace now, it was a revolutionary idea at the time.  On top of being made in America, Harleys were also chosen by the military to use in WWll.  One could say that Harley Davidson took on the aura of Ares, the god of war, because they were the motorcycle that helped win WWll.  Those two factors led to a brand associated with American pride.  

Harley Davidson’s image began taking a visible form when, because of the motorcycle’s use in WWI, police departments across the country started using Harley Davidsons.  The motorcycle cops at the time typically wore boots, breaches, and saddlebags which gave them a Wild West look.  Being that western movies had become highly popular, the general public, particularly young boys, were drawn to the combination of a tough guy motorcycle with the persona of masculine independence as seen in western cinema.  Harley Davidson capitalized on this emerging opportunity by selling Harley Davidson clothing and accessories that underscored that perception.  Then along came the 1960’s cultural wave of non-conformance.  Harley Davidson, already associated with the wild west outlaw, was in the perfect place to catch the wave and ride it all the way to shore. Ironically enough, the motorcycle that only a few years earlier had been associated with motorcycle cops, suddenly became synonymous with anti-establishment rebellion. 

The four partners stood in awe of their good fortune as the popularity of their motorcycles continued rising to new heights accompanied by sky rocketing sales.  But what happened next that was beyond thier wildest dreams.  It was Easy Rider.  The movie became an incredible nation-wide sensation and brought Harley Davidson along for the ride. While most brands would have been mortified at the thought of being associated with two weed smoking renegade hippies with questionable values riding across the country on their anti-establishment motorcycles, for Harley Davidson it was gold. Because of Easy Rider, Harley Davidson’s brand identity, through sheer luck, down shifted and punched through the stratosphere of cool.

Around the same time Sturgis Rallies were gaining steam and over half of the motorcyclists rode Harleys.  Because it was mostly ridden by the hard-core motorcyclists that traveled in packs to the rally, Harley Davidson became associated with comaraderie Eventually distinct values like comaraderie fused with additional traits and symbols of Harley Davidson and solidified to become a badge that signified membership to the echelon of Harley Davidson motorcyclists. This was a badge that said “you’re one of us” and meant anyone who rode a Harley was welcome to ride with a pack even if that rider was a complete stranger. 

Today Harley Davidson faces plenty of competition, however no motorcycle can compete with what Harley Davidson has come to symbolize in the American culture.  Fiercely independent, unyieldingly individualistic, and an intense comradery of shared values, is the foundation on which America was built. When it comes to that, no motorcycle can even come close to taking Harley Davidson’s iconic crown. 

The Surprising Success of Iconic Brands
What’s so amazing is that despite their humble beginnings and starting out in the absence of marketing, advertising, brand insight or strategy, these brands were able to reach icon hood.  Of course, advertising and market eventually took the wheel and guided these brands, but initially the identities of these brand were organically created by the people that used them.  When a certain attribute of a brand began drawing a significant number of people that an astute company could jump on the opportunity to capitalize on it.  It was a precursor to brand insight, only it wasn’t used to develop positioning prior to a coordinated launch.

Also remarkable is not only have most of these legendary brands been successful for over 100 years, but they were also able to retain their original meaning in a way that’s still relevant.

The Immorality of a Brand God
Myths behave in much the same way, and the rise to icon by brands like Vicks VapoRub, Levi Strauss, and Harley Davidson parallels that of the Greek gods and legends.  Think of the Greek god Dionysus as a brand god.  His logo consists of grape clusters, pinecone staff, wine cup, and panther.  Innumerable artifacts throughout the antiquities such pottery, jewelry, sculptures, and architectural elements contain the symbols that represent Dionysius. He also often showed up as a product placement in many Greek plays.  This brand god was associated with revery, fertility and abundance which was expressed through the cultural prevalence of high-octane festivals, celebrations and banquets. An extension of the attribute of abundance was the power to inspire and create extasy as evidenced by the copious number of tragedies and comedies that were central to Greek festivals. 

How Dionysus Became An Iconic Greek God
Dionysus rose to become an iconic Greek god because his story tapped into the human condition of the culture in those times.  Violence of invasions and wars were commonplace.  Death was around every corner in the form of plagues, diseases, and injuries and more.  Dionysus represented death and rebirth.  He stood for the exuberance of life in the face of tragedy.  This was a god who flipped the bird at death.  Dionysus became an icon and stayed relevant because this theme is perennial part of the human experience.  Like every iconic Greek god, his identity acquired some additional attributes during times of cultural change, however his central identity remained intact.  In addition, the symbols by which he was recognized remained unchanged.

Iconic Brands Are Co-Created
What iconic brands and myths have in common is an organic evolution of identity.   Whether god or brand, their meanings are co-created. When a culture has a hand in creating a brand identity, it contains part of themselves. And something that contains part of oneself is not easily left behind during times of cultural change.  Instead, people tend to look for relevant ways that a brand becomes modified in order to bring that brand along with them.  

The point is that a brand will stand a better chance of becoming an icon when a company stays aware of cultural change, the ways in which a brand identity’s meaning is being modified by people when a culture undergoes change, and seizing the opportunity to align a brand’s identity with what it is coming to represent without losing it’s core identity or the logo that symbolizes it.  While the chances of becoming an Iconic brand are slim, perhaps taking a page out of the myth making playbook can provide the insight needed to better a brand’s likelihood of becoming the next brand god to enter the halls of iconic fame.