Iconic and symbolic brands: why Simon Sinek’s golden circle is not an absolute truth

Is your brand a ‘what’ brand? Or is it ‘who’ or a ‘how’? And which is best? Branching off from Simon Sinek’s Ted Talk, Sergio Brodsky dives into the mechanics of brand-building by looking at how some iconic and symbolic brands position themselves.


Since his emblematic Ted Talk, author Simon Sinek was able to embed the idea that all brands need a ‘why’ in their DNA. However, the unspoken truth is that many brands can do pretty well with a strong ‘what’, ‘who’ and ‘how’.

It all comes down to how brands position themselves in the market. Positioning can be understood as a ‘geographic construct’ or, simply put, what space a brand occupies in consumers’ minds in relation to its competitors or chosen benchmarks.

For example, Nike has made us believe that if we have a body we can all be athletes. Nike is an ‘enabler brand’ and their ‘Just do it’ tagline speaks directly to that. The brand has inculcated a sense of purpose, an inner drive motivating people to simply believe in themselves and this way achieve a superior athletic performance.

Puma on the other hand, positions itself as the ‘after-hours athlete’ where being stylish and having fun are the metrics for top performance. Those values are clearly embodied by their brand ambassador Usain Bolt that besides being the fastest man on earth is also a club owner who loves to party, even when competing!

Reebok’s recent repositioning was directly driven by the CrossFit trend, which is essentially a novel approach to exercising, testing both physical, mental and (why not) spiritual limits of human will. The new logo, the Greek delta (a.k.a. triangle) paired with the much more robust product design is a reflection of the skills, know-how and perseverance required to be part of a modern-Spartan tribe of consumers.

The above are essentially sports and apparel brands selling virtually the same products but offering fundamentally different experiences.

Nike, the ‘why’ brand, strive at infusing a belief or mission. Puma, the ‘who’ brand, is all about a certain type of personality, where having a good time is more important than being competitive. Reebok, the ‘how’ brand, made sure to dial up a rugged aggressiveness and align with the demanding challenges CrossFitters need to overcome to master total control over themselves.

With that in mind, one could easily debunk Sinek’s theory. And at a more granular level we could split all those brands into iconic and symbolic and have greater clarity when strategizing about a brand’s fate.

An icon is a bold encapsulation of meaning, where what is seen, heard, smelled, touched or tasted is immediately understood with no need for interpretations. In the case of brands it represents a single-minded idea defining what they stand for. Nike is an iconic brand just as much as Heinz, Chanel No. 5, Hitchcock or the Rolling Stones. They are immediately recognisable by their unique styles, and attempts at copying them are mostly lame.

Symbols are transient carriers of meaning, not only representing different things to different people but also changing their own significance across time. Reebok used to target young women and aerobics and became the ‘poster brand’ for CrossFit. The Beatles took a whole generation on a crazy musical ride changing from rock and roll to pop to psychedelic rock and raga rock (not necessarily in this order). Melbourne is a city that one must experience to understand and truly appreciate as opposed to Sydney where photographing iconic buildings (the Opera House), beaches (Bondi) and precincts (harbour area) almost removes the need spend time in these places; as if your Instagram account took you there by visual-osmosis.


So what’s best: iconic or symbolic?

It depends.

Iconic brands will inherently have a timeless appeal, more chances to own a share of culture and usually greater consistency across their communications touchpoints helping build trust among its audiences. They can travel across borders with greater ease and will usually require smaller managerial efforts and financial investment (once established). However, iconic brands will also be more rigid and in an age of constant change and fluidity this could become an issue when attempting to gain new customer segments or remain relevant in varying zeitgeists.

Symbolic brands will usually be more nimble, flexible and trendsetting. Those who focus on products and services (either ‘what’ or ‘how’ brands) will have more chances to stay ahead of the curve and use it as a competitive advantage. Nevertheless, this could represent a challenge for employees who are not at the shop floor or on marketing sales or R&D roles, hence far more removed from actual products and services and at times lacking purpose.

As Karl Marx wisely said, capitalism has contributed to alienating people from their labour because they have been removed from tangible outcomes. Therefore, those guys in finance, supply-chain, IT and other support-related functions may feel detached from their corporate cultures when it all revolves around the end products.

‘Who’-brands, such as Virgin, enjoy the benefits of leading trends and flexibility to explore new market categories that align with its ‘industry-shaker’ personality. The same also applies to employee engagement bringing ease to HR policies and ultimately the consumer experience, more likely to be memorable and enjoyable.

The disadvantages also exist, beginning with the fact that different people have different personalities and that automatically excludes a big chunk of the consumer market and may eventually repel potential new hires with differing behavioural traits. Finally, central figures like charismatic CEOs (i.e. Richard Branson) or brand ambassadors (i.e. Usain Bolt) representing the embodiment of their corporate brands do not last forever and it can be tricky to replace them and keep up with the energy irradiated by them across the organisation.

Ted Talks are indeed very inspiring just as much as marketers are inspired by iconic representations when implementing brand programs. However, understanding the mechanics of brand-building is more effective than the seduction transmitted by great presenters and fancy theories.



Sérgio Brodsky
BY Sérgio Brodsky ON 9 April 2015
Sérgio Brodsky is an internationally experienced brand marketing professional having worked for some of the world's greatest strategic communications agencies. Sérgio is a proven thought-leader, speaking at industry events, lecturing and regularly being published worldwide. He is passionate about cities and culture and the role of brands and technology in society. Sérgio is multilingual and holds a BA in IP law and an MBA in global brand strategy and innovation. Follow him on Twitter: @brandKzar.
  • Supermario

    Wow, that is one of the most confused and flawed analysis I’ve ever read. Good thing he’s in media and not in branding.