Britain’s most iconic brands, as one says farewell

There are annual tables of the coolest, most profitable and most popular brands for the world, the UK, and even for market niches. The algorithms for each of the tables are proprietary, and secret (and may well involve a lot of jiggery pokery to produce the ‘right’ answer) but we seldom get lists of iconic brands.

There are two reasons for this. The first is that ‘iconic’ needs a bit of definition. The term is often used to mean ‘really, really, really very good and big and everything and like, well, so totally up there with the others’. It is naturally hard to quantify ‘iconic’ if it means that. The second is that iconicity is not particularly volatile. Iconic brands stay iconic for a generation. If they don’t, they aren’t iconic.

Actually, ‘iconic’ doesn’t mean that long sentence I mentioned. If we discount its usage for Russian religious paintings, the term refers to brands which are so widely understood that they can be used to represent other things without confusion. The ‘mail’ icon for your email programme works because it’s obvious (more or less) what it is.

With that in mind, it’s actually not at all difficult to quantify and track iconic brands. We just need to look at what writers are writing about. To the rescue, then, Google Ngram viewer — a way of searching the text of hundreds of thousands of books. Books are the way to go here, because they are much less susceptible to fads and trends, to PR and marketing, to deliberate product placement, and to reviews. If you tried the same exercise with the Internet as a whole, you would get a snapshot of how hard people are working to beat the system, using ‘Search Engine Optimisation’. Mercifully, no one has yet got a system for getting that into published books.

Because iconic brands change only on a generational basis, there isn’t a good time for publishing lists of them. Except for now. It’s fitting to mark some of the businesses or products which have become symbols in their own right because one of them will shortly be no more.

The UK top ten iconic brands

In order, the top ten brands are BBC, NHS, Post Office/Royal Mail, Land Rover, British Rail, Harrods, Lego, Rolls Royce, Marmite and Ronseal.

The UK top 10

The UK top 10

I should explain the jiggery-pokery here. All these are brands which, in Britain, are unique in their fields. Tesco is actually mentioned in writing more in 2008 than most of the others (excluding the BBC and the NHS, which dwarf everything), but Tesco is not iconic because it can’t be used as a representative type. John Lewis does nearly as well as Harrods, and is definitely on its way to iconicity, but it is not quite there yet. You can’t simply refer to ‘John Lewis’ in a piece of writing and expect everyone to know what set of ideas and feelings you are referring to. There are quite a few other candidates for iconicity which have a huge influence on our culture, but which generally only represent themselves. Cadbury vies with the Post Office for the number of times it’s mentioned, and it is clearly one of Britain’s best loved brands, but it represents a particular kind of confectionary, not confectionary as a whole.

You might argue that the BBC and the NHS only represent themselves, but they are used in such an all-encompassing fashion that it’s hard not to list them as iconic. Interestingly, they are almost opaque to non-Brits. My wife, being Dutch, cannot fathom the attachment to 1970s BBC children’s programmes for people of a certain age. The NHS, though known across the world, is misunderstood to a more or less maximum level by many Americans.

Number 3 iconic brand

Number 3 iconic brand: the Post Office

After the BBC and the NHS, the Post Office dwarfs the others— especially if you add in ‘Royal Mail’, which, on its own, does creditably.

I’ve broken out the numbers 4-10 separately, because this is the level at which you can see how things interrelate a bit more.

Brands 4-10

Brands 4-10

British Rail was abolished in 1997, and yet still manages to keep up with the others. Many people refer to British Rail as if it still existed. It may be a surprise that Land Rover is bigger than Harrods or Lego. More on that in a moment. I’ve included Lego because, although it’s a Danish company, it is iconic in its use in the UK. Meccano has the same kind of resonance, but it now languishes lower than Marmite.

Rolls Royce, of course, is the iconic brand of all iconic brands. The ‘Rolls Royce’ of any category is the premium, most sumptuous, most luxurious and most desirable thing in that category. I occasionally (rather mischievously) ask people to name the most premium brand of cars. ‘Mercedes’, ‘Audi’, ‘Ferrari’ are often mentioned, until I ask them about Rolls Royce. At that point, everyone agrees, The Rolls Royce of cars is… Rolls Royce.

Marmite has worked hard to leverage its iconicity to drive sales. I often wonder how Marmite makes a profit. I love Marmite, but a medium sized jar lasts us about a year. Who is buying all the Marmite? Someone clearly is. There was a marvellous Time Out ‘Overheard in London’ a couple of years ago: “My boyfriend says he’s so-so about Marmite. Now I can’t believe anything he says”.

Ronseal is an up and coming icon, but it is so universally used to describe other things that it deserves its place. When someone says ‘I’m the Ronseal of … — I do exactly what I say on the tin’, we all know what they mean. We also think they’re a bit of a wally for comparing themselves with varnish that dries in 30 minutes. Nonetheless, everyone knows what they’re talking about.

Apple is not on the list. Even if you subtract all the usages of the word ‘Apple’ with a capital A before the 1970s, when the company did not exist, it does very well—not competing with the NHS or the BBC, but very well. But Apple is not iconic in that sense. Apple means very different things to different people (just look at any internet discussion of it—it degenerates into a flame war pretty quickly).

The advantage of Iconicity

Iconicity can be a mixed blessing. If a brand isn’t careful, its Trade Mark degenerates into just a commonly used term, and everyone gets to use it. Public sector icons, like British Rail and the Post Office, become easier targets for sell-offs, while the BBC and the NHS are regularly kicked around as political footballs. For commercial products, though, iconic status can be a coveted prize. Many people who love cars would rather own a Morgan than a Rolls Royce, but it’s Rolls Royce which has the iconic status (if you have the money and want something which combines aspects of both, consider a Panther). Marmite’s monopoly on extremely strongly flavoured spreads is in the UK pretty much unbreakable. Marmite is banned from some countries because of its strength. In a world where modular toys are easy to manufacture, it is the Lego brand which has taught generations of parents to avoid the cheaper, off-brand brick-shaped toys and succumb to only buying Lego if it’s Lego that is asked for. Fake Lego is probably one of the biggest disappointments of any possible gifts.

One of the companies that has done the most with its iconic status in the last ten years is Jaguar Land Rover, and it is to part of that which we must now say farewell.

Goodbye Land Rover Defender


1982 Series III

The two millionth Land Rover rolled off the line in Coventry recently, and was sold at auction for £400,000 the Coventry Telegraph reported this week. Two million requires adding up all the Series I, II, III, Stage II and Defender models produced from 1947 to 2015—the classic ‘Land Rover’ shape. Production ends in January 2016. The successor has not yet been announced.

According to one claim, 80% of all the Land Rovers ever built are still in operation somewhere in the world. I have to say I’m slightly sceptical about that figure: there are parts from at least three Land Rovers in my 1982 Series III, and it’s the ability to cannibalise old Land Rovers for spares (as well as people’s penchant for fixing them with whatever happens to be around, including Meccano, that keeps them going. My particular vehicle was on Heathrow airport for most of its working life, which accounts for the yellow paint job and the white stripe.

Jaguar Land Rover has leveraged the rugged vehicle’s iconic status with exceptional skill over the last ten years, taking a car maker that was on its last legs to be a leading West Midlands, and, indeed, UK exporter, though it’s the posh Range Rover models which are the ones everyone wants to buy.

I’m hopeful, of course, that JLR will announce something which is more Land Rover than Land Rover when the Defenders come to an end. Even if they don’t, the lesson from British Rail is hopeful: as long as the concept exists in people’s minds, the brand will remain a British icon.