Icons are like aces. You hold on to them for as long as you can.

October 30, 2008

George Lois, icon maker.

I was listening to an interview with famed art director, George Lois on AdAge.com. Among the many interesting things he said, one comment stood out. Lois was addressing the art of magazine covers, something he was famous for. The subject came around to which magazines he thought were doing covers right. Despite abhorring the New Yorker’s Barack & Michelle Obama cover for “unintentionally misleading a lot of dumb voters,” Lois spoke flatteringly of the magazine.

a notorious cover, an iconic format.

He recalled a recent conversation with its Editor-In-Chief, David Remnick. Remnick had asked him if maybe the New Yorker should move away from illustrated covers and explore photography. Aghast, Lois told him he’d better not. “You own the cartoon cover! Why on earth would you walk away from it?”

His comment stopped me because it reminded me of various examples in my career when some of my most famous clients wanted to walk away from the advertising campaigns that had made them so famous!

Heinz Ketchup (or do you say catsup?) for example. The iconic brand was seriously considering a departure from the “Anticipation” type advertising it had made for years. Who doesn’t remember the rework of Carly Simon’s huge hit? It turned the products biggest negative (takes too long to pour) into a monster benefit: slow equals best. With “Anticipation,” the brand’s eminence had reached its zenith.

And now Heinz wanted to change all that. They had some research saying teens were uninspired by the slow pour approach. Most of us at Burnett decried their passion for change. The debate became fear-driven. Do we walk away from what we know is the brand’s signature attribute or risk pissing off the client by sticking to our guns?

The solution became a gang-bang, in which all bases would be covered. Long story short, yours truly won this battle royal and, happily, Heinz stayed on point with a rework of the old cliché: Good Things Come to Those Who Wait. “Rooftop” was the signature spot in this campaign, and would get me my first Gold Lion at Cannes. It didn’t hurt Matt LeBlanc’s acting career either!

Ten years later, same agency, Maytag began questioning the efficacy of their long-running and beloved “Lonely Repairman.” They had research showing “dependability” was less relevant to today’s customer than style and performance.

Good God! I remember telling them that they could not create the Lonely Repairman today even if they wanted to. The message was too powerful. Implying their machines NEVER broke down would be illegal. That they wanted to move off this strategy was insane.

While mistakes were made, thankfully, Maytag held on to dependability and the Lonely Repairman.

same icon, new repairman.

We often talk about change in the ad game. With a new CMO comes change. With flat sales. With a new agency. Like in politics, change is always perceived as improvement.

But it’s not. Lois’s statement about the New Yorker is dead on. Hopefully, my examples are valid as well. How about you, Gentle Reader? Have you any examples to share?


6 Responses to “Icons are like aces. You hold on to them for as long as you can.”

  1. Andy Webb said

    This one involves your favorite medium, radio. A Massachusetts ski area named Wachusett Mountain has had a distinctive signature musical tag for many years. Sing it now: Wo-wo-Wa-chu-sett. Mountain skiing, minutes away.

    Most of you will just have to imagine a really decent melody here. Not aggravating at all. Easy to take.

    The owners had heard it so many times they started conducting yea/nay surveys in the lodge.

    Although it wasn’t my account, I called them up and told them they were nuts to abandon something that was so immediately identifying. They told me to get the hell off the phone and stop bothering them… no, actually they said “thank you for the advice.”

    Clients are often too close to campaigns and forget that for consumers, the campaign is one tiny voice among the din of everyday life. If it’s heard at all, praise the Lord.

  2. Voice of Reason said

    The ultimate example was New Coke. Moving away from the iconic formula and classic positioning was the biggest blunder in recent marketing memory. It would be like Obama becoming a Republican!

  3. mexi said


    New Coke was an attempted improvement over an original, tried, true and time-tested formula.

    Interestingly, the only formula I see Obama representing was also time-tested, but it failed miserably. See Soviet Union, Maoist China, North Korea, Cuba…

    A better Coke analogy would be if America were to walk away from our Capitalist formula on November 4, lured by the false promises of a fancy new Socialist product of hope and change.

  4. bernsie said

    I think VOR only was making a point about brand changes and the consequences, etc…
    The plug for McCain vs. the pseudo-socialism of Obama is a whole other story!
    Mexi, even if you’re right, there is NO chance for the Republican ticket. McCain has backslid and Palin is an abortion.
    Obama is charming all the undecided and clinching based on old Republican (Bush) baggage. even you have to admit Bush and all he did was devastating to the country.

  5. Jason Fox said

    As much of a beating as they could sometimes be to produce (having done a couple dozen myself), I don’t think Wal-Mart should have walked away from their real people spots. Maybe I wouldn’t be saying this if they had eventually landed upon another iconic campaign, but they haven’t. And I find it hard to believe the fault lies in Richmond and not Bentonville. Of course, this is the same company that ditched their “Buy American” campaign as soon as Sam was out of the picture and forced so many manufacturers to move production to China. But that’s another topic, now isn’t it?

  6. Mexi said

    I agree with the coke example just not with the obama analogy.I stated why. As far as holding on to icons I prefer Reagan over che Any day.

    Yes I know, bush is hated by many. But only history will truly judge his presidency. McCain may very well lose and if he does I will accept and respect obama and pray that he keeps us as safe as bush did for the last seven years.

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