The Icons Have It

An icon, by definition, is an important and enduring symbol, an object or person commanding great attention, even religious or spiritual devotion.

In our culture, people tend to achieve icon status more easily than things do. John F. Kennedy, Babe Ruth, Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Luther King Jr., the Beatles, Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, Jack Kerouac, Nelson Mandela—we all know who they are and have at least a general sense of their accomplishments. They are worshipped by many. They’re icons.

Corporate honchos can also become icons. Oprah, for reasons I can’t quite explain, qualifies both as an individual and as a brand. Martha Stewart doesn’t. She’s just annoying—and indicted. Bill Gates could have been an icon, but he got mean-spirited and greedy. Steve Jobs was an icon briefly, in the ’80s; now he just seems weird and in constant need of a shave.

The ad business, in my opinion, has only one true icon, David Ogilvy, and the time may have come for a successor. Filling the void are brands themselves. The word icon has become fashionable in reviews of late, with companies telling agencies that their brands, products and services should be viewed as iconic markers in the cultural landscape, indispensable and instantly recognizable in the consumer psyche.

It seems morally questionable to equate a corporate name with one like Mandela (or even Marilyn). But for the sake of argument, I think we can agree that some brands have become so woven into the emotional fabric of our lives that they have achieved something approaching icon status. Nike, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and Apple’s Macintosh qualify. Devotees of such brands routinely shell out hundred of dollars for new sneakers, fatten up on fries and apple pies despite persistant health warnings, and stoically face recurring hard-drive crashes—that’s close enough to religious zeal for me. Porsche and Ford are also icons, if only because both played a role in James Dean’s fatal crash.

Two clients that are now making agency changes, Polaroid and Monster, can also claim to be icons of a sort. And, according to sources, they both want their marketing partners to assert that status in upcoming campaigns.

For Polaroid, it might just work, as the 66-year-old brand name, though tarnished, still resonates with a large segment of the public. I was rummaging through my hall closet recently and found, hidden behind old sneaker boxes and dusty gift wrapping, a vintage Polaroid SX-70 and a box of faded instant photos. Polaroid’s technology used to be on the cutting edge, and if you were born before 1980, chances are you owned a Polaroid at one time and still have the proof somewhere in your attic or basement. Perhaps you even remember the day you got that camera, as you sat beneath a Christmas tree or in the backyard at a birthday party.

Sure, such images are schlocky and predictable, but iconic brands like Polaroid can effectively translate schmaltz into sales. Ads must remind people that they have a long-standing connection to the brand while at the same time convincing them that the company has truly entered the digital age.

Monster has a tougher road. Many of us have gotten jobs through classified ads—print or online—but who collects old help-wanted sections (or printouts) for old times’ sake? Besides, Monster is simply too new. Iconic brands need a past—even a questionable one—to give them meaning and relevance beyond product specs and functionality. Once a few generations of job seekers have scored dream gigs thanks to Monster, then the brand might have a story to tell.

Reviving the full Monster.com name would be a good first step. It already has resonance and equity. Bringing it back would restore the company’s history and identify it as a survivor, a ready-made icon of the rough-and-tumble era, surging ahead in the new millennium.

Does it really want to be just a Monster—dangerous, deadly and perhaps best avoided?