When one thinks of branding agencies, images of creative, visionary, and competitive ad men like Donald Draper from TV’s Mad Men come to mind. Branding seems to be an unscientific discipline in which brand managers like Draper are struck with inspiration and weave together a magic story, logo, and slogan that creates a mystical allure and entices the public into buying a product. However, Douglas Holt, one of the world’s leading experts on branding innovation, argues that successful branding is a complex process that comes down to an understanding of culture. In How Brands Become Icons: The Principles of Cultural Branding, he nails branding down to a model that he calls “cultural branding,” which entails understanding the ideologies and tensions of a nation and synthesizing an “identity myth.” In his book, one of the case studies he examines is Coca-Cola, which he says has had great success in the past because of its ability to adapt to changes in national ideology and to create myths in the sweet spots of certain cultural tensions (Holt, 2004). Yet, there is more to iconic myth-making. Through a sociological model of iconic theory, it is clear that Holt misses key components that contribute to the iconic power of brands. Sociologist Jeffrey Alexander posits a theory of iconicity in which the material surfaces of objects and their discursive depths contribute to their iconic status. Using Alexander’s theory to analyze Holt’s case study of Coca-Cola, the importance of materiality and discourse in creating an iconic brand comes to light.
For Holt, a brand is iconic when it becomes a cultural icon, or “the most compelling symbol of a set of ideas or values that a society deems important.” The brand must become the material embodiment of a “consensus expression” of society’s principles and desires and do so better than any other brand. In Holt’s model of cultural branding, branding agencies tap into the present “national ideology,” or a country’s moral consensus, national goals, and definitions of success and respect. Holt sites popular features of America’s national ideology such as the frontier, the “self-made man,” and the melting pot. With knowledge of America’s ideologies, brands can construct “identity myths,” or stories that address consumers’ desires and anxieties and ameliorate “cultural contradictions,” or the tensions between ideology and experience. Iconic brands perform these identity myths so that they become important to the formation of consumers’ identities (Holt, 2004).
Holt attributes the success of Coca-Cola to its ability throughout past decades to understand “cultural disruptions,” or large shifts in national ideology, and to recreate its identity myths in response. During World War II, Coke became an icon of national solidarity; soldiers longed for and drank Coke while at war, and the product came to exemplify the war effort and American ideals: the industrious spirit, sacrifice for democracy, and ingenuity. In the 1950’s, Coke appealed to the new, suburban-nuclear way of life by creating feel-good utopias in their TV advertisements. However, when the Civil Rights protests and Vietnam War came along in the 1960’s, the cultural disruptions made the suburban myth obsolete (Holt, 2004).
In response to radical cultural shifts, Coca-Cola revamped its identity myth and released one of its most famous advertisements, “Hilltop,” in 1971. The ad begins with a young woman singing, “I’d like to buy the world a home and furnish it with love.” Gradually, the camera expands to include hundreds of young people of different ethnicities and cultures who are gathered on an idyllic hillside and are all holding a glass Coke bottle in front of them. They join in singing the upbeat tune like a chorus: “I’d love to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony. I’d like to buy the world a Coke, and keep it company.” Holt credits the advertisement’s success to Coke’s ability to mend the cultural tensions of racial and international divides. The optimistic and idealistic ad draws on ideals of the peace movement, hippie counterculture, and the desire of many youths of the time that people of the world gain a broader understanding of each other. Several of the Coke bottles are even written in different languages to emphasize that Coke is available to and drunken buy all people. The ad closes with the people singing, “That’s the real thing. What the world wants today is the real thing” (The Coca-Cola Co., 2016). It is intentionally unclear whether “what the world wants today” is perfect harmony or Coke, because the identity myth is that the two are one in the same. With the myth of universal harmony, sipping a Coke became a symbolic act of healing divides. Holt maintains that Coke sustained its iconic status by continuously embodying the myth that the American spirit can overcome difficulties throughout history’s cultural shifts (Holt, 2004).
Holt’s model of cultural branding may seem like a magic bullet; however, in terms of iconic theory, his model is incomplete. He mentions nothing of the aesthetics of the Coke bottle or logo, nor the qualities of the drink itself. Should not the nature of a product affect its iconicity, or can all products assume any myth? Additionally, Holt fails to explain how one observes a national ideology. The ideology does not simply appear; it is developed through discourses, which are often manifested through the media. Lacking knowledge of sociology and iconic theory, Holt disregards the materiality of objects and ads, and he misses the importance of objects’ discursive depths.
In his theory of iconic consciousness, Jeffrey Alexander takes a much more nuanced approach to iconicity, and when applied to branding, his theory creates a more detailed picture of iconic branding than Holt’s model does. To Alexander, objects are made up of “surfaces” and “depth.” The surface consists of an object’s “materiality,” or the physical properties of an object that engage the senses, and the depth represents the meanings that society attaches to the object’s surface. Society establishes these meanings, codes, narratives, and norms through collective discourses, the basis for what Holt calls national ideology. For an object to be an icon, Alexander says that the material surface must immerse the subject into the object and its meaning. The process of immersion begins with “subjectification,” in which the subject draws the object into their own point of view, and then “materialization,” through which the subject feels as though they become part of the object (Alexander, 2008). Alexander explains that iconic consciousness occurs in an individual when “an aesthetically shaped materiality signifies social value.” These iconic experiences influence how people feel a part of their social surroundings, how they develop an understanding of cultural standards, and how they maintain a sense of self. Alexander states that iconic experience is “at the basis of contemporary social life” (Alexander, 2010). While Holt’s cultural branding model acknowledges the ability of brands to perform current social ideas, he fails to recognize the role of materiality in immersing consumers in the myth and the role of discursive depths in developing a perceived national ideology.
Through examination of the “Hilltop” ad and a Coca-Cola ad from the present, Alexander’s theory of iconic consciousness shows the importance of materiality and discourses in the formation of an iconic brand. For “Hilltop,” Holt correctly identifies the pulse of the nation during the sixties. However, the national ideology that he speaks of actually comes from the discourses occurring across the country; the perceived ideology develops out of discourses that become widespread. Yet, surely not everyone in the U.S. was longing to bridge racial and international divides in the late 1960’s— Coke chose to target young people by making its product embody the narratives and social codes of the majority of young people engaging in the discourse surrounding the Civil Rights Movement and hippie counterculture. Coke took a previously established narrative, created a new expression of it, and contributed to the discourse around peace and harmony, thus imbuing the depth of a Coke bottle with that same discursive significance.
The materiality of “Hilltop” encouraged viewers to find the said discursive depth within Coke. Each person in the ad was holding the Coke in front of them like a candle, or even a totem, that represented harmony and peace. Everyone was smiling and looking forward in the same direction, symbolizing the myth that forward-thinking people drink Coke. Each bottle was covered with glistening condensation intending to evoke feelings of refreshment and renewal, which young people desired due to the tiresome strife pervading the country and world. The glass bottles were all nearly full and looked as though the people had just taken a sip before bursting into song about love and harmony. Once the chorus joined in on the song, the clinking of Coke bottles could be heard in the background (perhaps a subliminal message) attempting to instill those sounds with the depth of understanding and peace in the advertisement. Each of these material features of the ad enhanced what Holt would call the identity myth and reinforced the idea that Coke can solve present cultural tensions. In Alexander’s terms, the materiality of the ad drew consumers in, enabled the process of immersion to occur, earned Coke a place in consumers’ iconic consciousness as a panacea for society’s evils.
Coke’s skillful ability to utilize materiality and discourse to sustain its iconicity is still alive today. In partnership with ESPN College GameDay and Shazam, a popular app that can recognize music and TV, Coke released a drinkable advertisement called “GAMEDAY TRADITION” in 2015 (Swant, 2015). The television ad begins with intense rock music and a close-up of a glass Coca-Cola Zero bottle. Coke attempts to excite every possible sense with the ad’s materiality: the bottle is drenched with condensation and even has mist gathered around it, evoking the cold feeling of a Coke in one’s hand, bubbles in the drink wildly fizzle and sparkle across the screen, conjuring the feeling of carbonation on one’s tongue and throat, and the distinctive sound of uncapping and the hiss of carbon dioxide tap into one’s own sensuous memories of opening a glass bottle (Coca-Cola Zero, 2015). The ad could have featured a plastic Coke bottle or a can of Coke, but the materiality of and tactile memory associated with a glass Coke bottle is much more sensuously impactful. The materiality of the ad instills the Coke brand with feeling of release, lightness, and freedom, which can all be unlocked by the simple uncapping of a Coke.
A male voice exclaims, “This is a drinkable commercial. Shazam now to drink it.” A hand holding a Coke bottle enters from the side of the screen and begins to pour the Coke seemingly off the screen. Consumers then open Shazam on their phone, Shazam recognizes the music from the ad, and a video of a glass Coke cup opens on the phone screen. If one holds their phone between themselves and the screen, the liquid seems to be coming straight from the TV into their phone, in a personal glass of Coke. The ice in the cup clinks and cracks as it is being filled with the fizzling, bubbly soda. The ad ends with an invitation to consumers: “You don’t know zero until you’ve tried it” (Coca-Cola Zero, 2015). The many sensuous features of the ad fills Coke’s depth with ideas of lightness and freedom, and solidifies Coke’s uplifting qualities into consumers’ iconic consciousness.
As for the discursive depth of “GAMEDAY TRADITION,” the ad both drew on existing discourses and set the stage for new ones. Again, Coke was targeting young consumers, today’s millennials (Swant, 2015). By using Shazam to create an augmented reality, the Coke brand associated itself with cool, cutting edge, high-tech advances that companies today have been competing for and that have received a ton of attention in the media. As the first brand to attempt an ad like this, Coke also incited a discourse about the capabilities of advertising, for which they were ahead of the curve. Additionally, since the ad was run during ESPN College GameDay, a pre-game show that always plays before Saturday college football games (Swant, 2015), Coke positioned itself within the discourses and ritual of Saturday college football, making Coke accompany and signify tradition. Further, since the ad featured a glass bottle, Coke further instilled its brand with nostalgia and sentimentality. Tapping into and spurring a discourse, the ad sends the message that Coke is a timeless drink that satisfies and invigorates twenty-first century tastes and inspires its drinkers to feel free and uninhibited. Thus, the materiality and discursive depth of “GAMEDAY TRADITION” reifies the iconic power of Coca-Cola.
Holt and Alexander agree that to be iconic, brands must be important to the formation of consumer identities. In “Hilltop,” Coke became iconic of and necessary for harmony, and in “GAMEDAY TRADITION,” Coke became the dual-embodiment of nostalgia and modernity. Yet, in comparison to Alexander’s theory, Holt’s cultural branding model is much more speculative in that he gives no explanations for how brands can identify the pulse of the nation or embody constructed myths. Alexander’s theory of iconic consciousness introduces the importance of discourses in creating meaning and the necessity of sensual surfaces for manifesting those discursive meanings. The materiality in the Coke ads throughout past decades generate feelings of lightness, refreshment, and renewal which further draw consumers past the surface and into the depth, and enhance Coke’s iconicity. The materiality and discursive depths of objects are integral to creating iconic consciousness and vital to developing iconic brands that are valuable to consumers’ identities.
Written for SOCY 352: Iconic Material Culture, with Jeffrey Alexander and Anne Marie Champagne
Alexander, Jeffrey C. (2008, October 17) “Iconic Experience in Art and Life: Beginning with Giacometti’s “Standing Woman” in Theory, Culture and Society, Vol. 25(5): 1-19
Alexander, Jeffrey C. (2010). “Iconic Consciousness: The Material Feeling of Meaning,” Thesis Eleven, 2010 103: 10.
[The Coca-Cola Co.] (2016, April 4). “Hilltop” Remastered. [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C2406n8_rUw
[Coca-Cola Zero]. (2015, September 18). GAMEDAY TRADITION. [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PAUGiF3dMno
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Swant, M. (2015, September 21). Coke Zero’s ‘Drinkable Advertising’ Push Looks to Get Millennials
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