Familiarity is something every marketer craves for their brand. They want the marque they are responsible for to be known, asked for, a household name. But does icon status in and of itself guarantee anything anymore?
In 2013, I examined how companies were able to create iconic advertising. Recently, in an article on the proposed Heinz-Kraft merger, Teresa Lindeman observed that the centre aisles of grocery stores were the epicentre of innovation a century ago, and that many of the resulting products, from these two companies, went on to achieve that coveted icon status. Processed cheese, condiments, Planters, Miracle Whip, ketchup … Household names indeed. But as Don Stuart points out, products like these may be seen as icons but that status alone doesn’t necessarily drive sales. “You remember them fondly. But they may not be part of your regular routine.” After all, “Millennials don’t necessarily put Miracle Whip on every sandwich, keep a jar of Planters peanuts in the cabinet or cook Oscar Mayer hot dogs and dump some Heinz ketchup on them.”
When these two companies come together to form the third-largest food and beverage company in North America, will growth spring from expanding the footprint of the collective brand footprint or shrinking the cost base? I’m reminded of the observation that if you were to cross-breed a blue whale and an elephant, you wouldn’t end up with a sports car. There’s no indication that bringing big things together results in a new thing that is sleeker or goes faster. Equally, bringing iconic brands together in a super-portfolio does not automatically upgrade the relevance of the brands involved. It simply groups what is already familiar in ways that appeal to shareholders but may or may not work for consumers.
That’s the danger of familiarity, or rather over-familiarity, at a time when attention spans are shorter than they have ever been. What people recognise and what they are drawn to are not one and the same thing. Icons can quickly become statues – big, imposing but lacking any sense of life. In order for this behemoth to flourish, presence alone will not be enough. The new business will need to leverage their new-found scale to re-shape the nature and direction of the middle aisle once again. And they will be doing so at a time when, according to CNBC, consumers are moving away from processed foods. The industry, that has been long very safe and predictable, is now experiencing unsettling breakdowns in barriers to entry.
Retaining icon status as a brand
If we follow Auro Trini Castelli’s suggestion, the new company will need to do six things to retain its brands’ iconic status:
1. Align purpose, presence and values – they will need to frame their offering in terms that are fresh, relevant and that align directly with the things they hold dear. Size alone doesn’t make you iconic in a world where scale is the norm. To remain iconic, the new company will need an idea of equal size and distinction around which to congregate everything that they offer across the world. And to do that effectively, they will, as Hilton Barbour points out here, need to align the new culture around a vitalising sense of purpose. Or wither.
2. Identify places to gather – they will need to reinvigorate the centre aisle as a place of interest. To do that, they will probably need to redefine the social significance of an area that is traditionally not particularly inviting and that most of us rush through in our bid to get back to work or home. At the same time, they will need to find ways to counter the calls to gather (competing) food elsewhere.
3. Create new habits – they may need to reformat what they offer to keep pace with a world that has shifting food priorities. That doesn’t necessarily mean a revolution. It may mean rethinking how the foods and beverages they offer are prepared or positioned, or those products may need to be aligned around changing behaviours that appeal to a broader audience than traditional Kraft and Heinz buyers.
4. Revisit their iconography – it may well be that, given all of the above, the brand identities themselves need to be tweaked to re-symbolise what the new company stands for. Many brands that consumers would regard as steady and unchanging have in fact altered and honed their visual presentation over time.
Icons may depend on their history but they also rely on freshness to keep catching the eye of consumers.
5. Re-iterate their relevance – education is critical to articulating what an iconic brand can mean for today’s generations. To capitalise on their iconic status, the brands will need to position themselves in new ways to buyers, through re-thought serving options, new target markets and new ways of being seen that makes the decision to choose a Heinz or Kraft brand exciting and not just reliable.
6. State who and what they love and what they don’t – in line with everything above, these brands are going to have to be much more vocal about what they stand for and champion, and the things that they regard as their enemies. Castelli gives the great example in the article of how Lego has championed imagination, creativity and play and chosen to make enemies of glue and permanence.
In the world of brand, if you’re not a living icon, you’re a dying one.
Will Kraft and Heinz pursue this iconic strategy after the dust has settled? I have no way of knowing. But it is a great example, of why iconic brands should never rest on their laurels and why restructuring in efficiencies alone may work for the bottom line but will not correspondingly improve brand equity. In the world of brand, if you’re not a living icon, you’re a dying one. The brands of Kraft and Heinz will need to continue to evolve and to improve if they are to make the most of the recognition and familiarity they have earned, and that shareholders have paid billions for. One investment may actually require another if it is to work to its potential.