Cultural Branding & the Psychology Behind Building Unforgettable Brands

By: Giulia Palombo

How do companies build a brand empire? What makes people wait twenty extra minutes while already late to work for a cup of overpriced Starbucks coffee? What makes young white girls everywhere tredge through the snow in Ugg boots for months until they receive their backordered LL Bean boots? What keeps us from looking away whenever we flip the channel to the Kardashians?

According to our readings, there are many factors of marketing strategy that can be identified as catalysts of this consequence. However, after reading the excerpt from Douglas B. Holt and researching his work, I stumbled across his published book, How Brands Become Icons: The Principles of Cultural Branding. In his book, Holt suggests that iconic brands win the hearts of consumers not only because they deliver innovation, high quality, or clear benefits- they also succeed because they “forge a deep connection with the culture.” Companies do this by communicating through myths that play on symbolism that aims to smooth over social anxieties and target inner aspirations of the consumer (such as work and lifestyle aspirations, gender and sexuality, etc.). Cultural branding creates competitive advantages for companies who can master the art because it varies so greatly from standard marketing practices: the main difference being that the strategic focus is on what the brand stands for, not how the brand performs.

Iconic brands are identity-forging brands worthy of admiration and respect. These brands play on identity myths, or simple fictions that address cultural anxieties from afar. By nature, these myths are more imaginary than they are literal and aim to express an audience’s aspired identity. These myths, usually communicated through advertisements, try to smooth over consumer tensions and create an identity consumers aspire towards in both their personal lives and society’s ideology. They create “ritual action”, or the consumer perception that an experience lies within the brand makers’ name, logo, etc., so they purchase the product to engage in the myth.

The most interesting example I found within Holt’s content was the identity myth consumers associated with Corona Beer in the 1980’s. At the time, Corona was a “basement beer”, sold at $4 a case, and branded as an authentic Mexican beer. The 1980’s were also the time American college students across the country began ‘Spring Breaking.” As more and more broke college students made their way to Mexico to spend a week of binge drinking on a budget, they began purchasing Corona in higher volume. The brand exploded, but not just because college students were buying it to try to save money. Corona found that the beer drinkers did not necessarily value partying as a generic concept associated with the brand. Rather they valued beer brands that were associated with the best partying story that resonated best with American college culture. People bought into the Corona brand because drinking it brought an experience of college spring break on a beautiful Mexican beach. Since then, Corona has harnessed this myth and created very successful advertising campaigns such as “Find Your Beach”.

Creating these myths, however, is no easy feat. As I continued reading about these identity myths, I became curious about the psychology behind what it would take to create such a myth, with the overall question: what is the psychology behind branding? Recognizing cultural branding strays far from the standard marketing strategies by targeting consumer anxieties, I then researched articles on the psychology behind branding. My research noted five general features of branding consumer psychology; Personality, Color, Font, and Social Class Associations.

  • Personality: AMA research (3) suggests that there are five common types of personalities that consumers associate with brands:
    • Sincerity: honesty, genuity, and cheerfulness.
    • Excitement: daring, spirited, and imaginative.
    • Competence: reliable, responsible, and dependable.
    • Sophistication : glamorous, presenting, charming, romantic.
    • Ruggedness: tough, strong, outdoorsy.
  • Color: Communicating through color can provoke different emotions and responses from consumers, although research proves that consumer responses to color depend on their individual experiences and cultural background. For example, red can provoke excitement while green can provoke tranquility.
  • Font: Fonts work similarly to colors, and can communicate different messages and tones as well.
  • Patterns: very simply put, using consistency in communication and design can create a brand personality.
  • Social Class Association: by understanding who the ideal customer is and how your brand fits into their concept of themselves, brands can reinforce the positive traits consumers already believe about themselves.

My general takeaways from my research brought me to this conclusion; marketing has become so much more than just the 4 P’s. In such a highly competitive, overpopulated marketing world, marketers such as Holt are continuously redefining the status quo of marketing to continue to make lasting impressions on already overstimulated customers. Through my research on this topic, it was also interesting to think about all the identity myths of brands that I buy into, such as believing I’m a true yogi while wearing a pair of Lululemon yoga pants, or that I’m somehow more corporate when I come into work holding a Starbucks cup instead of Dunkin’ cup. All in all, I believe through this research that marketing strategies will continue to become more complex and detailed as consumer buying power and competitive options increase.


  • Holt, Douglas. (2004). How Brands Become Icons: The Principles of Cultural Branding. Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business School Press.
  • Jennifer L. Aaker. (1997). Dimensions of Brand Personality. American Marketing Association. Journal of Marketing Research. Vol. 34, No. 3 (Aug., 1997), pp. 347-356.
  • Odjick, D. (2014, February 1). Why Brands Are Lovable: A Crash Course in the Psychology of Branding. Retrieved September 27, 2015.

6 thoughts on “Cultural Branding & the Psychology Behind Building Unforgettable Brands

  1. Ashleigh Sargent November 8, 2015 / 10:39 pm

    After reading your post, I agree that it’s interesting to think about the myths I follow when choosing specific brands. One example is from my college basketball team. We had no rule about what socks we were supposed to wear, but we all only wore Nike. We collectively bought into the myth that these socks would be better or make us better. There was also definitely a status concern at play with wanting to wear a product associated with elite athletes. Similar to your feelings about Starbucks versus Dunkin Donuts, I definitely feel differently when I put on a pair of Nike crew socks versus any other pair I own. In such a competitive market, brands like Starbucks and Nike are able to evoke certain associations that cause consumers to want to be part of a certain culture. It was also interesting to me to think about the psychological aspects of branding. As the world becomes more connected and consumers continue to be oversaturated, I am interested in the ways that marketing campaigns will continue to develop and whether the science behind branding, as presented in this research, could be incorporated even more into the development of advertising and branding.


    • Bharat Mahajan December 7, 2015 / 9:11 pm

      It’s a very interesting subject and all the more interesting on how companies create the myths and the myths get associated with their brand image. Nike, Apple, Tesla, Ferrari etc. all have banked on some myths to create a brand image. On the flip side we can also say that consumers are buying these branded products for their personal branding as well. The brands are riding on some myths and the consumers are using the same myths to transform their personal brand.


  2. Melanie Barbarula December 8, 2015 / 5:00 am

    I found the concept of identity myths intriguing. Identify myths are a marketing tool that uses simple fictions to address cultural anxieties through an imaginative expression of an aspired identity. A consumer is easily persuaded when they are presented with their desired identity. Through the use of the 5 personality traits discussed above: Sincerity, Excitement, Competence, Sophistication, Ruggedness an identity myth can be established and be identified as residing in the brand. Therefore, making the brand an icon for the identity myth.
    I found this so intriguing for the fact that this is something that we all do whether we know it or not. For the most part we subconsciously associate brands with a certain type of lifestyle or identity and it is our perception of this identity that persuades us to purchase the product, not necessarily the product itself. My mind has officially been blown!


  3. Alicia March 10, 2016 / 5:42 pm

    Reading this article made me really think about the bands I tend to gravitate to when shopping. I love Nike and pretty much only wear Nike sneakers and workout clothes, simply because I think the band is great quality. All of my nike apparel has lasted me a long time, proving to be worth the price. All of my favorite brands I love because they are well known, established brands within the community of their respective industry. There certainly is an identity myth with certain brands and I strongly believe that it is a huge reason why people by specific brand’s products. I also think that the psychological aspect of branding is becoming increasingly more important and plays a massive role in marketing campaigns today.


  4. Megan Lac May 5, 2016 / 11:36 pm

    As a psychology and marketing major I enjoyed this article and how you added ideas from psychology into the marketing process. I agree completely with the statement that consumers buy things that “forge deep connection with the culture.” It’s another way to say that customers buy what a brand/product stands for and not what the brand or product necessarily does.
    However, i agree that you do still need to market the product/brand and show people what the brand entails and thats when you take into account personality, color, font, and social class associations in order to attract people to your brand. These things can be used effectively to sell people on a brand experience such as they did with Corona Beer.


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