Converse is an example of a basketball shoe that rocketed in popularity. What characteristics do such successful brands have? Researchers at BI try to provide an answer. (Photo: Stein Bjørge, Aftenposten, NTB scanpix)

Eight strategies behind successful brands

Why do some brands become bestsellers while others bite the dust? Top brands manage to strike a chord in in the public or gratify our “internal snob”.

The creation of strong brands can lead to riches. Millions of entrepreneurs, IT developers and aspiring students of business hope to create brands that sell and make them wealthy.

But what is it that successes such as Coca Cola, Apple, Moods of Norway, Salma-laks (inner filets of salmon), Onepiece, Helly Hansen and Danish designer furniture?

Good brands manage to reverberate with some part of the psyche of consumers or attain the approval of the snob we have inside us, according to the researchers Knut Kolnar and Morten William Knudsen at BI Norwegian Business School. They have looked into the characteristics of successful brands.

Identity, diamonds and snobbery

At a BI breakfast meeting the two explained their ideas about the founding of a strong brand.

Identity, values, symbols, uniqueness, design and “theft” are all characteristics that can be in play when creating a good brand.

Kolnar and Knudsen assert that cultural and sociological insights can contribute in building popular brands.

“It is often our inner snob, working subconsciously,” explained Associate Professor Knut Kolnar of BI’s Department of Communication and Culture.

Sending signals about identity

Since World War II Norway has gone from being a needs-driven to wants-driven society. We don’t really need most of what we buy, but we purchase things that attract and fascinate us.

“Our consumption constructs and stabilizes our identity. At the same time, we are bolstering our arsenal in the struggle for status,” says Kolnar.

“A key question in consumer society is: How do you get people to work more than they have to so that they can afford things they don’t need? The answer is to create a continuous deficit of identity,” says Knut Kolnar.

Insatiable need to stand out

In consumer societies the individual is nearly always one step behind himself or herself. We try to shorten this distance through a consumption which builds and stabilises our identities.

Most people can’t help from doing this unnecessary shopping, and for some, the luxury trap really grabs hold. It’s because the acquisition of things is so gratifying, for a while at least.

This consumption also helps in the ego arms race ― the daily struggle to be equal to, or preferably better than, the others.

“Brands exist in the heads of customers. The represent metaphysical values, usually through social and cultural mechanisms,” explains Knudsen.

“And we are insatiable when it comes to buying things which symbolically make us stand a head taller than the common masses,” claims Kolnar.

How diamonds became a symbol

An attractive brand has to create an attractive symbolic universe, claim the researchers.

“This tends to be lifestyle oriented and it acts as the science fiction of identity. You can dream you are someone else.”

Kolnar explains this with the way diamonds became a status symbol:

“Diamonds are really just hard rocks. In a stroke of genius, the 1930s the advertising agency Ayers came up with the pitch ‘Diamonds are forever’. They linked these rocks to human emotions and changed diamonds into a symbol of eternal love.”

Making others envious

What makes a brand attractive is not necessarily the thing itself, but how much other people desire it.

Consumer society feeds and depends on people lusting for things that others want.

This copying of the presumed desires of others will inevitably lead to rivalries and escalation.

Why do some women want expensive diamond rings? Because they achieve status among certain other women if they have a large glittering diamond ring. The others will be envious.

“It’s the desire of female rivals which gets its grip on a woman, softening her up, and the man is a useful tool who also gains from her status,” asserts Kolner.

“If he’s lucky he might just manage to pay off the last instalment on his consumer loan before the divorce,” he jokes, getting chuckles from the audience.. 

Coca Cola and Pizza Grandiosa

“Another important tool is to study the brands that have done well already. Democratisation of consumption explains the success of Coca Cola,” claims Knudsen.

“Andy Warhol once said: ‘What’s great about the USA is that we all can drink the same cola’. The President drank Coke, Liz Taylor drank Coke; even bums drank the same Coke. Think about the feeling this gave the average Joe on the street?”

Norwegians’ favourite frozen pizza, Grandiosa, has some of the same impact.

“Grandiosa strikes this chord in our national soul. I can imagine that even King Harald enjoys a Grandiosa on occasion, a few hours after a royal banquet,” joked Knudsen.

Other brands win out by delineating boundaries between social classes.

Creating differences

A table or a chair is just pieces of wood. But with a particular design it can become a status symbol, such as Arne Jacobsen chairs. Even the Danish designer’s elementary steel-legged table chairs, with their characteristic wood seats and backs, cost over a $100 apiece.

“They act as a vehicle which elevates the buyer above the common man.”

It also shows they are in a group which others admire – the significant others. Behavioural research shows that marketers can get an enormous boost if they can get trendsetters to buy their product first.

Or, in a twist on the same idea, some clothing producers even pay certain actors to not use their clothes in TV series.

Abercrombie & Fitch paid to get a star on a TV programme to refrain from wearing their products, as it would be at tangle with their image.  

Dried fruit goes for millions

Knudsen is particularly concerned about good design, and brought up the example of how some entrepreneurs made a fortune selling healthy snacks for children.

“They designed bags that appealed to children and their parents.”

The paper packaging featured a picture of a bear that worked well with children. These bags contained dried fruit and they had a message that assured the buyer the fruit contained no unhealthy additives or preservatives.

“A couple years later they sold their firm to a Belgian company for £70 million. Just think, dried fruit!”

Small brands sell more

Even if you learn from the best, it’s important to stand apart.  Moods of Norway was tough enough to use a bright pink tractor and waffles as icons of what could be deemed as primal Norwegian, and combined that with their line of colourful clothing.

It’s also important to remember that people differ and don’t all have the same taste. Some have red refrigerators studded with fridge magnets; others have matt burnished steel ones with ice cube machines. Others still have fridges that are built-in, merging almost invisibly with the rest of the kitchen with, for instance, oak front panels. Then there are those who have a simple standard white model with a bottle opener hanging from the fridge door handle. 

“It’s hard to appeal to every one of these people simultaneously,” says Knudsen.

Similar findings have been made in other studies. A previous doctoral dissertation at BI showed how brands aimed at narrow associations and particular situations can sell better than ones trying to appeal to a wider public in any situation. Norwegian examples are Ms (think M&M chocolate coated peanuts) as a must-have treat at the cinema and Norway’s equivalent of a KitKat, Kvikk-Lunsj, as a chocolate that belongs in a rucksack when cross-country skiing or hiking in the mountains.

Another study has found that many Norwegian producers fail to capitalise on the inherent values there might be in manufacturing something in Norway. If a connection were made between Norway’s famously splendid nature and other conditions of the country, they could sell better.

Eight characteristics of successful brands
  1. Identity: Give the buyer some kind of identity which the significant others in their lives will appreciate.
  2. Values: It is positive if a company can represent strong basic values. Virtues such as valour, moderation, justice, wisdom, faith and love are strong attributes. In recent years, social responsibility has become another strong point to emphasise.
  3. Look at the winners: Learn from the best. It is important to study those who have succeeded.
  4. Design: Excellent design can be invaluable.
  5. Symbols: Create an attractive symbolic universe.
  6. Dare to be unique: Avoid karaoke design ― in other words don’t just copy others.
  7. Take aim: Decide what type of people you want to reach as customers.
  8. Theory: Mastering theoretical knowledge can be strategically useful.

Morten William Knudsen and Knut Kolnar: Suksesskriterier for å lykkes med merkevarebygging. Lederens verktøykasse, BI Norwegian Business School. 26 August 2016.


Read the Norwegian version of this article at


Translated by: Glenn Ostling

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