Computer Arts editor Nick Carson asked me to name three contemporary, iconic brands. Nick also asked what I think defines an iconic brand, if this has changed in recent times compared to classic brands of previous decades, and if a brand can be iconic without a great logo.

Here's my take.

IKEA pictogramsImage via Jiho Park

My three picks: Google, Subway, IKEA.

The definition of an iconic brand

It should offer the "go to" product or service within its market, delivering what people think of first when they want what the brand sells. So if I'm looking for something online, I think of Google. If I want a quick sandwich made with care, I think of Subway. If I want to furnish a house without spending a fortune, then there's IKEA.

Competing today is different from the past because where customers once had just a handful of brands from which to choose, they'll now have hundreds, maybe thousands. To stay at the top, brands need to relate to their customers in ways that are more than just an exchange of money and products. A small part of the relationship can be as simple as the free tea and coffee IKEA gives family card holders, or as life-changing as the $50M+ that Google employees donated to more than 12,000 non-profit organisations.

Can a brand be iconic if it doesn't have a great logo?

I don't think Google, Subway, or IKEA have great logos. Some people might think they're great simply because of the product or service that backs up the brand, and ultimately, that's what it's all about — the product or service.

But the visual identity plays its part, and most successfully when different elements interact. Google, for instance, paints thousands of feet of pipework in its data centres with the various colours used in the logo. But not just because it looks fun or cohesive. Each colour designates a different section of pipeline, so engineers know where they go and what purpose they serve.

Google data center pipes
The blue pipes supply cold water and the red pipes return warm water back to be cooled.

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My answers were a part of Creative Bloq's post on 20 iconic brands, along with contributions from Ben Marshall (Landor), Michael Johnson (johnson banks), Paula Benson (Form), Geoff Philips (MetaDesign), Andra Oprisan (Saffron), and Kieren Thorpe (BrandOpus).

Related, from the archives: Remove the logo. Know the brand.