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As an admirer of great brands, oftentimes from a distance, I’ve come to appreciate the idiosyncrasies that apply to their behavior over time. In these quickly shifting, ephemeral times, when marketing behavior is often dictated by the trend or practice du jour, it’s satisfying to watch certain brands strictly adhering to beliefs and behavior aimed at reinforcing their value over time. Which brings us to the symbol, or the icon that quirky bit of behavior, most often unjustified from a profit viewpoint, that says something important about the brand, that reinforces its uniqueness and its specialness in a world where the lowest common denominator reigns supreme in values, in taste and in brand performance itself. There are nine brands that have nailed it: ? The famous contour bottle. It’s been around for decades. In fact, many of us were introduced to it fresh out of the cradle. Its unique shape conjures up a time and place in most peoples’ minds. It represents more than just a drink. It evokes memories, pleasures, rewards and, for many, a special time of life. The Coca-Cola people appreciate its value and that’s why it continues to be a hardworking pylon in the company’s marketing effort. They’ve even designed a can that incorporates the contour shape. ? Dunkin’ Donuts coffee. Bill Rosenberg, the founder of the company, once related a conversation with his MBA son, who suggested a reduction in the quality and price of the coffee. “Not so fast,” said the elder Rosenberg. “It’s the coffee that makes us special, that keeps the customer returning.” To this day, Dunkin’ Donuts has maintained the formula and it continues to work. Good donuts are easy to find; a good cup of coffee well that’s another matter. ? Never on Sunday. Regional chicken chain Chick-fil-A never opens its doors on Sunday. It’s a legacy of founder Truett Cathy, who believes that Sunday is a day of rest, and that applies to everyone, including Chick-fil-A operators, staff and family. And it hasn’t hurt. In most shopping malls where Chick-fil-A competes with other fast-food vendors, the Chick-fil-A store generates more revenues in six days than the others do in seven. The chain is consistently ranked No. 1 in quality and service. One has to admire a culture that operates with such self-confidence and success. ? The cobalt-blue glasses. In most hotels, a water glass is a water glass. But not at The Ritz-Carlton. There, the glassware is made of special cobalt-blue glass. Sure, it costs more. But it makes a statement of elegance and exclusiveness. It reinforces the notion that Ritz-Carlton Hotels are unique, not just in service and performance, but even when it applies to the mundane things in life like the water glass. ? The Tiffany box. The aquamarine box with its accompanying white ribbon is, by now, legendary. The recipient knows that if it comes in the distinctive Tiffany box, it must be special, perhaps even expensive. All this without even opening the package. For some recipients, receiving the box can be more important than the gift item itself. Tiffany’s fully understands the value of the symbol. That’s why everything that leaves the store is always wrapped in the familiar aquamarine and white colors, irrespective of size or price. ? I Love New York. The line, with a bright red heart to symbolize the word love, first appeared in the ’70s, at a time, ironically, when much of the world hated the city. That’s what made it so special, so contradictory, so arrogant, so New York itself. Its classic Milton Glazer design, even today, can be seen worldwide in the form of derivatives, each of which continues to make a residual payment to the city (they never registered the design because they deliberately wanted everyone to copy it). As has been previously noted, New York is probably the only city that has successfully built its positioning on a visual metaphor rather than an architectural landmark. ? Leo’s apples. In every office in every city within its worldwide empire, a basketful of fresh, red, apples sits atop the receptionist’s desk. It’s a practice that started with its founder, Leo Burnett, and today the Chicago advertising agency that bears his name continues the practice. No doubt historians will ascribe any number of meanings and motivations to the practice. At a basic level, it reinforces the culture of trust and the value of the relationship that the Leo Burnett agency has developed with its clients. The big question now remains, as the agency weathers its current period of turbulence and account loss and confronts an advertising environment in which trust and partnership are no longer prerequisites in the agency/client relationship, will they keep the apples? ? The pin drop. From day one, Sprint communicated its message of audio clarity with the now-familiar dropping pin, and they’ve maintained the practice almost to the point of obsession. To this day, every Sprint commercial ends with the dropping pin routine. And it makes sense to do that. In the highly competitive long-distance wars, the Sprint message is all that is remembered amongst the babble of cents-per-minute rates and other irrelevancies. ? The Neiman-Marcus catalog. The world awaits its publication every fall. From thousand-dollar doghouses to one-of-a-kind his-and-hers specialties, the catalog presents a plethora of millionaire playthings that few can afford, but most devour with vicarious pleasure. Neiman-Marcus, very smartly, keeps the spirit alive, each year outdoing itself with more and better splendor and grandeur, all of which is firmly focused on the nouveau riche, who simply can’t bear to live without the latest item. Smart marketing from the folks at Neiman-Marcus. It reinforces the store’s positioning, generates news and creates a marketing annuity that grows each year. An effective symbol is more than just a logo. It provides instant recognition of a brand’s culture its reason for being. And it communicates the brand’s unique selling proposition (USP), sometimes with a sense of immediacy and clarity that a thousand words can never capture in even the most finely dissected mission statement. Remember, however, that the symbolic action appreciates over time. It’s the repetitive practice, coupled with a strict adherence to an unwavering belief or philosophy, that builds value for the symbol and makes it stand for something significant. Devalue the practice by cutting corners, and the heritage quickly evaporates as once-prominent emblems (e.g., Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval) have learned to their dismay. Alf Nucifora is an Atlanta-based marketing consultant. He can be contacted via e-mail at zubicon@aol.com or by fax at (770) 952-7834.

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