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.