What makes Coca-Cola an iconic brand? And how do I build one?

TheBrandUnion_Coca-ColaThis column was written by Gary Bryant, Managing Director at The Brand Union Johannesburg, a WPP-owned global branding agency. The Brand Union specializes in strategy, design, environmental design, brand development, and brand experience.

In just about every meeting I attend where people are asked to list what brands they admire, almost without fail, Coca-Cola is mentioned. This is not through coincidence or luck on the part of the brand owners. Coca-Cola have deliberately built their brand up over many, many years in a consistent fashion that continues to resonate with people of all ages, creeds and languages.

What are the key steps in being able to achieve this and how can you apply these principals to the brands you work on as an agency or manage as a brand owner?

1) The brand is bigger than the individual

No one person supersedes the Coca-Cola brand. There have been multiple marketing directors, brand managers and country managers across the globe for the brand over the years. When each takes up the job, they do not fall into the trap of looking to stamp their authority by changing the brand, its communication or overall message and tonality. These are set in stone and have not changed for many a year.

2) Coca-Cola knows what it stands for

They don’t change this because it resonates as a human truth and, as long as it continues to resonate, there is no reason to change. Pio Schunker, Head of Integrated Marketing Communications, highlights the guiding principle they abide by: “Coke brings Joy”.

It’s simple and clear, but is also defined a little further by always ensuring that any communication is always “filtered through the brand’s core values of happiness, refreshment, optimism, fun, simple moments of pleasure, authenticity, coming together and uplift.” These values are the pillars upon which the brand is built and they are not negotiable.

3) Clearly expressing these values through the consistent use of core brand assets built up over time

Coca-Cola is without a doubt the finest exponent of understanding what its core assets are and building these through all communication points. The red color is consistent and is clearly linked to happiness and refreshment – it’s not a randomly chosen color. In 1931, the brand took a huge leap and popularized Santa Claus with the Coca-Cola red color as a pure embodiment of fun, coming together and uplift. This is an incredibly bold move that worked, but it was very much a calculated decision, which would have been filtered through whether or not Santa Claus embodied the Coca-Cola brand values.

The bottle shape, sponsorship of the Olympics (started in 1928) and happiness factory are all products of understanding the brand values and identifying new and engaging ways to express the simple statement, “Coke brings joy”. The Coca-Cola logo has famously hardly changed since its inception as they rely on the deliberate building of other brand assets to carry its message.

There you have it, three steps to building a brand icon. Of course it’s not that easy. It requires years and years of perseverance and ruthless application of the principles. Even Coca-Cola would have gone through a long process up front to define and codify their values and essence. It’s critical that time is spent in this stage to get it right, rather than rushing to get the next campaign off the ground. First, get it right and then ruthlessly filter every expression and experience of your brand through the lens. The rewards will be well worth it and you will build long-term value by continually ensuring that your customers experience multiple positive moments of interaction with your brand through all channels.