Brand Activation Management

How iconic brands have stood the test of time

There are millions of successful brands and businesses in the world. Thousands dominate their respective markets. But few have the status of the world’s truly iconic brands.

Coca-Cola. Amazon. Apple. Disney. BMW.

These are more than the most popular brands on the planet – these are cultural institutions. They are the organisations that have captured the imaginations of generations of global consumers, commanding a level of brand loyalty and recognition that ensures they continue to stand out from the crowd.

And they set an intimidating benchmark for other brands to try and emulate. Indeed, at a time where the average lifespan of companies has fallen to around 10 years, many wonder if it’s still possible to forge an iconic brand in this environment. 

Yet, the brands mentioned above (and more below) are a testament to the fact that, by adapting to an ever-changing world and overcoming the challenges that come with this, it is possible to reach this status. It certainly isn’t easy, but nothing worth aspiring towards ever is.

What is an iconic brand?

So what makes branding iconic? Is it simply a case of longevity? Well, for brands like Twinings that have been in operation since 1706, that certainly helps. However, Google, the world’s most widely visited website, has been around for just over 20 years, yet is already firmly established as one of the all-time iconic brands.

Is it having a standout name or the best logo of all time then? Of course, the Nike swoosh or the Golden Arches of McDonald’s resonate in the minds of millions worldwide. But the most successful brands are so much more than this.

How about having all the characteristics of Soon Yu’s Iconic Brand Pyramid, or Hofstede and Hofstede’s Brand Onion Model?

While there is sadly no template behind all of the world’s most recognised brands, there are some predominantly shared characteristics to keep in mind:

  • The most iconic brands have strong cultural roots, reflecting the beliefs, values and experiences of their target audience in a powerful, meaningful way. In fact, in some cases they have proven the catalysts for changes in society’s values.
  • The most well-known brands have a clear, consistent and identifiable image, one that fits the character of the company and is instantly recognisable with people across the globe.
  • The most famous brands tell a compelling story about who they are and what they represent, adapting this foundation to the environment they currently find themselves in.

These core factors contribute to making timeless brands; those that connect with audiences today as strongly as they did decades or even centuries ago. Those that leverage brand activation management and use it to set themselves apart in their respective industries.

And, at a time where COVID-19 has understandably left many brands questioning how they will cope with these conditions, it is this perseverance and ingenuity of these iconic brands that others should use as inspiration to continue to engage their market and look for opportunities to make a real difference.

Here are three examples of “top ten brands” in their respective industries that faced similar hardships and returned to prominence stronger than ever.

3 examples of iconic brands in tough times


Starting with arguably the most famous brand name of them all, The Coca-Cola Corporation was formed in 1892 and, through the strength of its advertising and celebrity endorsement, had become firmly established in the eyes of American audiences by the 1920s.

The Great Depression that followed in the 1930s was a sustained period of difficulty for brands of all forms. But, if you simply looked at Coca-Cola’s net profit during this decade, you would struggle to believe that there was even depression at all.

This sustained success was in no small part down to adapting to the situation and evolution of the brand’s advertising. In 1931, the now-classic relationship between Coca-Cola and Santa Claus was first introduced, with this partnership shaping the jolly, bearded character we all picture today. 

They also pivoted their sales pitch to ‘one of life’s affordable luxuries’, ensuring they remained a go-to purchase for people during a difficult financial period.

Lesson learned? Adjust your marketing messages to fit the pain points that your target audience is facing, and use this period as an opportunity to explore new advertising messaging and angles that your competitors haven’t yet explored.


With a legacy stretching back to the 1880s, IBM as we know it formed in February 1924, and entered a sustained period of growth boosted by the post-WW1 boom period in America and its global expansion.

Like Coca-Cola, instead of buckling to the challenge presented by the Great Depression, those at the helm of this iconic branding focused on investment in the company. IBM became one of the first organisations to introduce life insurance, survivor benefits and paid holidays for staff, demonstrating their commitment to their employees as part of their core values. 

A greater shift was to come in the early 1990s where, after losing billions for multiple years and being regarded as a ‘dinosaur’ in its industry, IBM adjusted their focus to cloud-based technology. By leaving hardware behind and adapting to this new landscape, they reaped the benefits, becoming one of the most valuable and recognisable brands in the technology space.

Lesson learned? Pivot with the environment you find yourselves in, whether that is in a crisis scenario or just naturally as the world progresses. Their actions during the Great Depression also illustrate the brand value of supporting your employees and the importance of upholding the core characteristics your company is founded on.


Finally, let’s look at one of the world’s most popular toy brands, LEGO. Unlike Coca-Cola and IBM, LEGO didn’t enter the Great Depression as an already established name. As a matter of fact, LEGO was founded in 1934, in the heart of this difficult timeline.

After perfecting their plastic-mould brickwork in the late 1950s, the company entered a sustained period of expansion worldwide, which would last until the early 1990s. However, by this point, the rise of video games and other innovative forms of entertainment, led to a sustained decline and a $174 million loss in 2004, leaving LEGO on the verge of bankruptcy.

Once again, it was a case of adapting to a new world while sticking steadfastly to your values. Listening to feedback from their fans and customers, LEGO branched out into a range of ventures like K-12 educational programmes and their range of popular video games and movies. This investment into their company at a time of real difficulty (especially as the Global Recession was kicking off) helped the brand recover and connect with a new generation.

Lesson learned? Listen to your audience for guidance on the direction of your brand – this response to feedback is what keeps iconic brands engaged with their customers in good and bad times. Also, LEGO’s story shows the importance of investing in new advertising avenues in tough spots and diversifying your product offering, all while remaining true to their brand legacy.

How do iconic brands stay relevant?

Some of the most successful brands in the world have experienced difficulties, often due to factors beyond their control. But, like the examples above, some brands have evolved to stay relevant in the face of these challenges, adapting and persevering through these to become stronger than before.

So, what overarching lessons can brands of the world today take from their examples? How can you stay relevant in the eyes of consumers when the world they’ve become familiar with is changing before their eyes.

1. Look for new opportunities

First of all, consider the changes affecting people and what opportunities they present. If the crisis is located in a particular geographic area, perhaps now is the time to explore new territories? Do you need to alter your offerings for these circumstances, or engage with different audiences? With the world rapidly changing, this is the chance to recalibrate your brand to stay relevant.

2. Provide people with an alternative

A recession will cause consumers to make tough choices about what’s necessary for their lifestyles. The most enduring and popular brands will meet these difficult decisions with solutions, providing cost-effective alternatives that people can turn to in leaner times. This helps them stay at the forefront of consumers’ spending habits, reinforcing their brand for when things take a turn for the better.

3. Keep your promises and values

At times of crisis, it is more important than ever that brands live up to their core values if they want to retain the trust of their audience – something that’s hard to achieve but easy to lose. Timeless brands understand this and remain true to their promises to customers, even when that is more challenging than usual. This retains the loyalty of consumers through difficult periods, allowing them to bounce back stronger later on.

4. Stay consistent with your messaging

Consistency is crucial to any of the best brands in the world, and at the heart of how they stay iconic. Even during hard times, it’s essential that a brand’s messaging and identity doesn’t waver. This provides consumers with much-needed familiarity in periods of significant change around them, and that familiarity evolves into trust, which helps brands achieve iconic status.

5. Support those that are struggling

Finally, brands should focus on how they can specifically support people in this difficult environment. Whether this is lower prices or unique discounts related to the crisis in question, or getting hands-on and supporting the effort in a way that reflects your capabilities and values. By taking a stand to help others, you stand to forge lasting bonds with these individuals and others that appreciate your ethical initiative.

Of course, we recognise that the COVID-19 pandemic is unlike anything we’ve seen in our generation, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t opportunities to reinforce the strength of your brand and connect with consumers. 

The 3 iconic brands discussed earlier are demonstrating that right now in a variety of ways:

  • Coca-Cola is pushing the narrative of how staying apart through social distancing is how we actually stay united in these challenging circumstances
  • IBM is lending its resources to governments, the WHO and CDC to give people access to up-to-date, accurate virus tracking information
  • LEGO has adapted its manufacturing tools towards helping support the creation of protective visors for healthcare workers in their native Denmark

BAM by Papirfly™ and the journey to iconic brand status

Hopefully this has given you some food for thought about how the world’s most famous brands have evolved in the face of an ever-changing landscape, and inspiration to help you manage and reinforce your brand during difficult circumstances, such as those we are dealing with right now.

Papirfly is here to help you achieve this aim and keep you on the path to becoming an iconic brand. BAM by Papirfly™ provides a single online destination for global organisations seeking to preserve, protect and propel their brand by empowering their in-house marketing efforts.

  • Create an infinite number of studio-quality marketing assets through bespoke templates – no specialist support necessary
  • Educate your global teams on everything your brand stands for
  • Manage the delivery of your marketing campaigns with total governance
  • Store & share assets across the globe through a single online location

Some of the world’s most iconic brands like Coca-Cola, IBM, Vodafone and Unilever are harnessing the power of BAM. If you would like to join them on the path to ageless branding, request a demo of our software today.