Sixty Iconic Brands: 1959 to 2018

Hugh Burkitt studies our selection and finds six things about great brands that don’t change.

Selecting 60 brands to reflect marketing over the past 60 years has not been an easy task, but the basis of our choice was the Fifty Golden Brands we chose at the time of the Marketing Society’s Golden Jubilee a decade ago, combined with the winners of  our Brand of the Year and Bravest Brand votes which we have run over the past decade. This threw up a few duplicates so we have also included a small number of brands that have become particularly powerful in the past decade.

Any selection of this kind will inevitably cause disappointment for enthusiasts of the many thousands of brands we have been forced to exclude, but all the brands in our list have a reason to be included in a particular year. In some cases they began life then, and in others they ran a high profile campaign or they reflect the zeitgeist of that year.

There have been many huge changes in society and business in the past sixty years, but curiously there are many things that great brands still have in common.

Here are six things that don’t change:

1. Great brands endure

Surprisingly, more than half our list of brands began life before 1959 and all of our listed brands survive, though Benson and Hedges now operates only under cover of darkness and since we compiled our last list, the future may still be bright but it is definitely not Orange.

Brands on this list are not necessarily immortal. It would be invidious to suggest names of possible future casualties, but the internet has forced all retailers into a globally competitive market, when it used to be that all they had to worry about was their neighbours on the High Street. If you work in retailing at the moment, you may see Amazon less as an iconic band, and more as a kind of Japanese knotweed that has invaded nearly every category of retailing.

Broadly it is possible to see a pattern where the dominant brands in the earlier years of this period were primarily owned by manufacturers, whereas now they are more likely to be providers of an online service. Some of those internet based brands may fall as fast as they have risen, but if there are any consumers left in the warmer climes of 2079 they are still likely to be buying venerable brands like Heinz, Hovis, Smirnoff and Guinness.

Some of our iconic brands have reinvented themselves brilliantly in this period. Lego has has had at least two near-death experiences but has, always managed to update itself in what can be an extremely fickle toy market – most recently with its “intelligent brick” – the Mindstorms EV3.  The Guardian has survived the eclipse of print, but has established itself as a more popular brand online than it was in its original form.  

2. Great Brands leap national borders

The great majority of brands in this list have a global footprint, and this was true even in the first two decades of our historical review – for example: Lego, Shell, Schweppes, Coke and Perrier.

Exporting a physical brand can bring the financial benefits of economies of scale for a manufacturer, but retailers do not have this advantage. Tesco has had some success outside the UK but lost nearly £2billion in the US trading as Fresh & Easy. Two other great British retail brands – M&S and John Lewis - have had only modest success abroad. But some retail formats have conquered the world. Starbucks trades in over 70 countries and McDonalds thrives in 119. The brand which invented fast food is most popular in the US, but (pub quiz alert) places you can buy Le Big Mac are more ubiquitous in France than the UK.

It clearly helps to be selling a product that doesn’t need shipping. Internet behemoths like Facebook and Netflix operate in every country of the world except those with a deep distrust of the US such as China, North Korea and Iran. This leads to some astonishing levels of use. Facebook has over a billion users worldwide and Netflix over 150 million. By comparison the international growth of Amazon so far has been relatively modest. Amazon Prime membership is currently available in seventeen countries. But like climate change, one feels that wherever you are Amazon is coming.

3. Great brands offer consistent customer satisfaction

Older brands that can trace their history back before 1959 were created partly out of a need to offer consumers consistent quality. If you opened a bottle of Schweppes you knew it would fizz, if you pulled on a new pair of Levis you knew they would last, if you filled up with Shell you knew your car wouldn’t splutter to a stop. In fact, as the ads said “You can be sure of Shell!”

As brands moved on from delivering a physical product to more often delivering a service, the brand marketer’s job became harder, because they could not always control the way that that service was delivered to the customer, and the role of Brand Manager, which had been invented by Procter and Gamble, declined. But some great brands have also been built in modern times based on a strong customer service ethic.

The design of the O2 logo was actually commissioned by BT, but by the time O2 was launched to the public as a new style of mobile phone service in 2002, it had been spun out of the parent company and was being run by a new independent management team who were determined to have a much more responsive attitude to customers. Together with O2’s iconic branding this allowed it to make such swift progress in the market that it was sold to the Spanish company Telefonica in 2005 for nearly £18 million – more than double what it had been worth four years earlier.

Amazon is not only unpopular with other retailers it has attracted poor publicity for treating its warehouse staff like robots. But the brand’s growth in the past two decades has been fuelled by Jeff Bezos’ relentless focus on serving the customer, and making the process of buying online as cheap, swift and painless as possible. Meanwhile he tracks what you have bought and unlike some traditional retailers, isn’t slow to suggest what you might want to buy next. And if, like me, you worry about how those staff in one of its “dark” warehouses are being treated, you can now sign up to be taken on a warehouse visit to check out the working conditions for yourself. 

4. Great brands have sex appeal

Sexiness doesn’t always have to be overt, or indeed even involve humans. When M&S discovered the power of advertising in the early years of this century, after many years of viewing it with disdain, their television commercials were described as “food porn”. Surely Apple’s product design is also sexy, as were the ads for Benson and Hedges in the sixties that are now prohibited.

If you still insist that ads can only be sexy if they involve people, I am told that Nick Kamen - the young man who takes off his Levis in front of the other customers in the launderette gives sex appeal to what would otherwise be a quite ordinary denim brand. It also got the ad agency just founded by three other cool young men- Messrs Bartle, Bogle and Hegarty off to a confidently seductive start. Levis did pretty well too, but whatever happened to Nick Kamen? 

And surely the now sadly departed Rutger Hauer gave Guinness fantastic sex appeal? But then Guinness has been adding sex appeal to a beer which is technically known rather unattractively as “stout” since 1759, and has defied market trends for decades with the brilliance of its advertising. The brand features in our list in 1999 when it produced the “Surfer” ad which has been voted one of  best commercials ever made. It brilliantly combines a rational proposition – “Good things come to those who wait” (the perfect pint of Guinness was then said to take 119 seconds to pour) with the surfer’s yearning for the perfect wave.

I may be unusual in seeing sports kit as inherently unappealing, perhaps because I have early memories of lugging damp and smelly gym kit to and from school, but Nike have certainly made a few bob by adding sex appeal to gym shoes – sorry trainers. You can find them in our list in 1989 shortly after they had begun to exhort us to “Just do it”.   

Times have changed when it comes to public morality too. The Advertising Standards Authority would (rightly) have a fit if the Smirnoff campaign of the seventies - “Accountancy was my life until I discovered Smirnoff” re-emerged, but I confess that back then when I was young and foolish I rather liked the look of the girl who said “I was the mainstay of the public library until I discovered Smirnoff”. Even worse, wasn’t there one which said “I thought the Kama Sutra was an Indian restaurant until I discovered Smirnoff” ?

5. Great brands enter the language

The sheer repetition of sixties and seventies television commercials made many advertising lines of that era famous. Two of our selected brands produced jingles that became penicillin-resistant ear-worms: “A million housewives every day pick up a can of beans and say: Beanz Meanz Heinz”  and “Now hands that do dishes can be soft as your face with mild green Fairy Liquid”.

Many of the brands that feature in the later part of our list have produced advertising that has been much shared and talked about. By the first decade of the  21st century traditional advertisers like Cadbury’s were finding it hard to keep up with the rising cost of television, but they created a TV commercial that went spectacularly viral in 2007 when their drumming gorilla playing Phil Collins “In the Air Tonight” was viewed ten million times online.

“Simples!” The catch phrase of Russian meerkat Aleksandr Orlov, spokesman for has also passed into popular language in this century, and John Lewis have run such a strong series of Christmas TV ads that the arrival of the new one each year has become an eagerly awaited event. Thanks to YouTube we have a new measure of creative conquest - how many people willingly succumb to a new campaign without having it forced on them. Last Christmas an astonishing 12 million people gave John Lewis sixty seconds of their time for free.

6. Great brands move bravely with the times

Not many car brands have sustained the same personality and charm across six decades, but the very first brand on our list, the Mini which launched in 1959 and became the cool car of the sixties has reinvented itself in the twenty first century under the ownership of BMW. My very first car was a Mini and it was a delight to drive until you went through any serious puddles and then it stopped until you opened the bonnet took off the distributor head and dried it out. I’m not sure I know how to open the bonnet on my current car, but if I were driving one of those rather smart BMW Mini’s, I am sure I would never need to. Today’s Mini does look slightly overweight to me, but then isn’t that just another sign of moving with the times?                                  

Lego has already been noted as a brand that has reinvented itself several times in order to keep up with sixty years of changing technology, home entertainment, and the pampered tastes of the world’s increasingly indulged children. The humble interlocking plastic brick remains the core building block (sorry) of the brand, but they have moved on to selling four billion “Minifigures” (without selling a single toy soldier) before arriving at today’s “intelligent brick”. Now Lego are, ironically, under attack for being manufacturers of plastic – the material chosen in the first place as superior to wood because of its indestructible qualities. But we can be confident that, as a great brand should, Lego will rise to this challenge too. They have already announced  that some of their products are being made from plant-based plastic.

IBM is one of the oldest brands in our list and celebrated its centenary in 2011. It still features in the world’s top ten most valuable brands, but in 1991 when it claims a place in our list, it was actually at a financial low point. It had dominated the manufacture of mainframe computers and then led the explosion in the market for PC’s in the mid-eighties, but its desk top models ran on Microsoft Windows and an assault from competitors on all sides caused a near fatal collapse in sales. But that was the point at which the company moved back into sales of professional services and found a profitable path which led it out of hardware and back to software.

BT is in our list in 1996, when they were the UK’s biggest advertiser and their campaign used Bob Hoskins to persuade BT Customers – especially men – that it was “Good to talk” on the phone and hence spend more money with BT. It won the IPA’s Advertising Effectiveness Grand Prix that year. Looking back from an era when the land line is an irritant that still occasionally badgers one with cold calls and BT is a supplier of broadband and BT Sport, it seems rather surprising that the Bob Hoskins campaign happened as recently as 23 years ago. BT’s bold move into the world of entertainment has cost it billions but has also given it a sporting chance of still featuring as an iconic brand in future editions of this list.

The recent new ASA rules on sexual stereotyping caused some controversy and even dismay when two well-known brands - VW and Philadelphia – had complaints upheld against their commercials. I have personally inclined to the view that advertising in total is a relatively weak force in shaping social attitudes, and that at any given time it is merely reflecting back how our society at large behaves and speaks. However, I can see the virtue in not reinforcing bad attitudes and in encouraging good ones, and both Channel 4 and Sainsbury’s deserve respect for taking the decision to be major supporters of the Paralympics in both London and Rio, when there was little guarantee that anyone would be watching. They both helped to encourage a more positive attitude towards disability.