5 Strategies to Turn Your Brand into an Industry Icon

Is there anything brands would love more than a fanatical, cult-like following of customers? That kind of support brings profitability and, perhaps more importantly, consistent revenue to help outlast the worst of droughts. Unfortunately, there’s no exact formula for becoming the Kleenex, Chapstick, and Coke of your industry. And trying to artificially dub your brand “iconic” is akin to giving yourself a nickname: it just doesn’t work.

There are, however, five strategies that can help position your brand to reach iconic success. Each approach is unique but not mutually exclusive; you could even implement all five at the same time. Just know that certain strategies may work better than others based on your brand and industry. So it’s your call to decide which ones are best for you.

No brand can artificially manufacture a gaggle of groupies, but these steps will build momentum in the right direction.


Air Jordan 1

The pair that started it all

2014 marks the 30th anniversary of Nike’s Air Jordan shoe brand. Without question, the early and ongoing success of the brand can be attributed to Michael Jordan’s illustrious basketball career. But it’s been 11 years since MJ’s retirement and Air Jordan is still as popular as ever. In 2013, Air Jordan brought in $2.5 billion in sales in the United States alone! So what’s keeping the engine running?

Through limited quantity releases, international only versions, and unique special editions, the Air Jordan brand singlehandedly created a new shoe-obsessed subculture: sneakerheads. Ever since the release of the Air Jordan 1, sneakerheads have been forking over small fortunes to satisfy their cravings. To top off that $2.5 billion, check out the ridiculous sales figures just from eBay:

Air Jordan's eBay Dominance

Michael’s missing out on a few extra million!

The thrill of snatching up an especially elusive pair of J’s. The sense of accomplishment after coming one shoe closer to completing the collection. The satisfaction of belonging to the “haves” club. These reasons drive customers to do some crazy, illegal, and egregious things to get their hands on Air Jordans.

Check out what one bystander witnessed while picking up his pair of Jordans:

Behavior like this is rooted in nothing other than pure idolism for the Air Jordan brand.

Yes, die-hard fandom is the goal, but this is a case of fanatical craze gone too far. So why hasn’t Air Jordan done anything to stem the violence? A simple increase in supply would likely end all the chaos that ensues when a new shoe drops, right?

My guess is fear. Air Jordan is afraid that an increase in supply will eliminate exclusivity and, without exclusivity, the appeal will be gone. As sad as it is, Air Jordan will only stop the terrible tragedies if it can still hold on to the cult following that keeps the brand alive.

Perhaps Air Jordan should consider the four other strategies it can employ to maintain its iconic brand.


Curse of the Billy Goat

The curse of the billy goat. More like the Cubs scapegoat!

There are a lot of reasons not to be a Cubs fan:

  • The Cubbies have an unimpressive .477 cumulative win record over the last 10 years
  • The team has placed second-to-last in its division the past 4 seasons (I bet the Cubs miss having the Astros in the NL Central)
  • Loyal Chi-town fans can opt to cheer for the crosstown White Sox, who have a much better 10-year win record of .510 and a World Series title in 2005
  • Worst of all, the franchise holds the record for the longest title drought in all of professional sports at 105 years

Despite the Cubs’ recent and historic troubles, for the past 10 years the ballclub somehow garnered the 3rd highest home game attendance rate in all of Major League Baseball.

Just so you can appreciate this phenomenon, consider the following: only the Giants and the Red Sox have higher home game attendance rates over the past 10 years. Oh, and did I mention that in the same time period both teams won the World Series twice and three times, respectively? It’s easy to fill seats when you’re that successful!

Trailing behind the Cubs in fourth place is the Yankees who claimed the World Series in 2009 and maintained an incredible .587 winning percentage over the previous 10 seasons. It’s crazy that the most plagued team in baseball history has a higher rate of attendance than the most decorated team in baseball history.

Through a little good and a lot of bad, Cubs fans have remained faithful to their team and, consequently, earned a very fitting moniker: Loveable Losers. It’s actually the franchise’s storied history, no matter how trying, that fuels their pride.

The folklore, superstitions, and legends:

The traditions, rituals, and legacy:

  • The Cubs are the oldest professional baseball team (est. 1870) and have played the most games of any team (20,613)
  • Wrigley Field is the second oldest MLB ballpark at 100 years old; only Fenway is older (by just two years)
  • Flying the White W flag after each victory (how ironic the team chose the color of surrender)
  • The manual scoreboard from 1937 (who needs electricity?)
  • The “Throw it Back” tradition
  • The Eamus Catuli sign that (proudly?) displays how long the Cubs have gone without winning a division title, NL pennant, and World Series
Eamus Catuli

Cubs fans wait in hopeful expectation for the day this sign will read AC0000000

The history of turmoil ironically serves as the badge of honor that true fans proudly display. Generations of fans have passed the baton to new generations who consider it a privilege to carry the torch for the Cubs organization. And on that fateful day when the Cubs are crowned World Series champions, there will undoubtedly be crying: tears of joy for the end of an era and tears of sadness for those who could not see the day.

For a century, the Cubs have formed a unique culture and heritage that instills pride in its fans, and this pride is what creates lifelong fans, generation after generation.


In-N-Out Burger's 100x100

In-N-Out Burger’s 100×100 Burger!

Ever heard of In-N-Out Burger?

If you know anyone from the West Coast or Central Texas, then you’ve likely gotten an ear full about the burger joint’s greatness. Or perhaps you saw In-N-Out Burger rated as the best fast food restaurant in 2011 by Consumer Reports. Or, best of all, maybe you’ve had the opportunity to experience the famed fast food restaurant for yourself.

Since 1948, In-N-Out Burger has made quality its main focus. The restaurant prides itself on serving the freshest meals with the purest ingredients. In-N-Out Burger makes it a point to deliver on the promise in its company slogan: “Quality you can taste.”

While most patrons would appreciate 100% beef patties, fresh-baked buns, hand-leafed lettuce, fresh onions, thick-cut tomatoes, and real cheese, the food quality alone doesn’t actually explain In-N-Out Burger’s huge cult following. In fact, some food critics argue that the restaurant’s quality ingredients don’t necessarily translate to quality taste.

As blasphemous as this may sound, it’s not the burgers, fries, and shakes that make In-N-Out Burger so special. No, the secret to the restaurant’s success is really in its bend-over-backwards customer service.

First, In-N-Out Burger keeps its restaurants ridiculously clean. It may seem easy to shine above the competition in a market known for its lack of cleanliness, but In-N-Out Burger doesn’t just settle for average. In fact, the restaurant has such high standards that it created the Custodial Associate position to ensure that each location maintains a clean and welcoming environment for its customers. Believe it or not, cleanliness is one of the best ways to serve customers).

Second, In-N-Out Burger is renown for its friendly staff. Again, the bar isn’t set too high in the fast food industry, but In-N-Out Burger treats its customers unusually well. How many restaurants without a wait staff visit dine-in customers to ensure everything is satisfactory and address any outstanding needs? Only one. In-N-Out Burger.

Finally, in its biggest display of service, In-N-Out Burger gives customers complete freedom to customize orders to their hearts’ desires. Choosing burger trimmings is only the tip of the iceberg.

Certain selections were so popular that customers developed a secret menu that spread through word of mouth (eventually In-N-Out Burger posted the “secret” menu on its website to bring newbies up to speed).

But even with the secret menu published, the extent to which customers can make additional special requests is borderline absurd. There are, obviously, some limitations. For example, the infamous 100×100 burger shown above (100 beef patties with 100 slices of cheese!) is no longer available due to quality control concerns, but 49 Flying Dutchmen and a 2×2 is always a viable alternative.

In-N-Out Burger is an iconic fast food brand because it truly cares about its customers and demonstrates that care in meaningful ways. Simple as that.


Whole Paycheck

Eat rich, live poor

Though the beginnings of the organic movement trace back to 1920s Europe, America didn’t catch up until the ‘60s and ‘70s when the nation began focusing more on environmentalism, conservation, and natural health. Even still, the organic movement has only recently bloomed into a mainstream consumer interest and industry niche. There are many factors responsible for the organic movement’s transition from obscurity to ubiquity, but perhaps the greatest of all is the continued expansion of Whole Foods Market.

Early adopters sustained Whole Foods during its infancy in the ‘80s and its adolescence in the ‘90s. And at the turn of the millennium the early majority jumped on board to usher the supermarket into adulthood. This symbiotic relationship boosted the organic marketplace and Whole Foods in ways that neither could have achieved individually.

So why did the market choose to mature with Whole Foods instead of the other trailblazing organic grocers? Because Whole Foods turns its consumers into heroes.

Whole Foods makes sure that its customers know the impact each product has on their families’ health, their local economy, the farmers’ livelihood, and the environment’s conservation. Just look at the company motto: “Whole Foods, Whole People, Whole Planet.”

Whole Foods gets a lot of bad press for its premium prices, but customers aren’t just paying to eat, they’re paying to be a hero.

Shoppers aren’t just buying bananas; they’re supporting a family-operated farm in Costa Rica. Customers aren’t just buying free-range chicken; they’re advancing the humane treatment of animals. Patrons aren’t just buying organic tomatoes; they’re protecting the environment for generations to come. And last but not least, customers aren’t just buying dinner; they’re keeping their loved ones healthy and strong.

Social, environmental, economic, and healthful good are built into the value proposition, and consumers feel heroic when they spend money at Whole Foods.


Zumba is Fun

Zumba followers in the making

To say Zumba Fitness is a craze is an understatement. After only 13 years of existence, Zumba already has 14 million weekly participants in 185 countries around the world. Sounds a lot more like an epidemic to me!

But success hasn’t always been part of the story. For the first five years after its start in 2001, Zumba Fitness floundered around in infomercials and DVD sales, trying to peddle an exercise program. The problem was that consumers couldn’t tell the difference between Zumba Fitness and its competitors. “Why should I try another workout routine?”

In 2006, CMO Jeffrey Perlman had an epiphany:

I called my brother [Alberto Perlman, the CEO of Zumba] and said, “You’re selling the wrong thing. You’re selling fitness when you should be selling emotion.”

I wanted to turn Zumba into a brand where people felt that kind of free and electrifying joy.

A new tagline was created: “Ditch the workout; join the party!” And with that, Zumba was no longer in the business of fitness; Zumba was in the business of fun.

For most people, working out is viewed as a boring chore. Zumba changes the entire exercise experience by making it fun. Of 1,000 consumers surveyed in a 2014 fitness trends research study, 97% of all who practice dance-fitness cardio are likely to continue Zumba classes in the next 12 months. People have found a way to really enjoy their workouts through Zumba.

To top it off, the American Council on Exercise found that Zumba is one of the leading workouts for burning calories:

Zumba Calorie Burn Chart

Kettleball and BootCamp may burn more calories, but Zumba is heck of a lot more fun!

Zumba’s powerful competitive advantage of making exercise fun has made them an industry leader in the fitness world and won them a huge cult following that only seems to continue to grow.

The Not So Obvious Takeaway

I’m not sure if you noticed, but one very interesting finding from examining these iconic brands is that none of them have the indisputable best product in their respective industries.

Air Jordans probably aren’t the highest performing basketball shoes available. The Cubs definitely aren’t the most successful team in Major League Baseball. It’s debatable that In-N-Out Burger boasts the most delicious hamburger. Whole Foods Market may not carry the freshest produce. And Zumba isn’t the most effective workout.

Don’t misunderstand. These brands provide great products and services. A valuable core offering is the foundation on which success is built. But the five strategies discussed above are what pushed these brands into iconic status.

If your products and services deliver true value to customers, then consider baking these strategies into your offering. You might just end up with a cult-like following.

Know of some other brands that became icons using these strategies? Leave a comment and share your insights!

Image Sources: Air Jordan 1 via Nice Kicks, Air Jordan eBay Sales via Quartz, Curse of the billy goat via Florida Standard, Eamus Catuli via Ballpark Chasers, In-N-Out Burger’s 100×100 via Man Eat Food, Whole Paycheck Market via The Owl’s Skull, Zumba Kids via Army Medicine Flickr, Zumba Calorie Burn Chart via Ace Fitness

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