How can brands journey from being symbols to cultural icons?


Lessons to learn from Mani flags

Mani flags and Mani stones get their name from the Buddhist mantra – Om Mani Padme Hum. This mantra is believed to convey the essence of all Buddhist teachings. In English, it means – The Jewel in the Lotus. Across all faiths and philosophies that originated in India, the lotus holds a deep significance. The lotus plant grows in still or slow-moving waters, these waters tend to be murky and not so clean, yet the lotus remains untouched by all the dirt around it. The lotus thus communicates an ideal. One must live in this not-so-clean world, engage with it yet remain untouched by it. The Jewel in the Lotus roughly communicates this very thinking. It is associated with Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Infinite Compassion.

What makes Mani flags interesting from a branding and communication point of view is not the philosophical or theological message that it conveys but the secular and cultural message it conveys. And the pertinent question to ask is how Mani flags came down from the high Himalayas and into cars, SUVs, and bikes all across India. And the answer comes from Ladakh. Ladakh is one of the key centers of Tibetan Buddhism in India. For a long time, Ladakh has been the holy grail of all road trips for most Indians. So, when someone puts up a Mani flag in their car or bike, they are telling the world about the trip that they have just been on or the trip that they would love to go on. Either way Mani flags today communicate a love of the roads and a love of adventure. Its secular and cultural meaning comes from the message it sends out to the whole world – I belong to the tribe of road adventurers.

The journey of Mani flags from the religious and philosophical to the secular and cultural is in essence the story of how symbols evolve into cultural icons.

For a symbol to become a cultural icon it needs three key factors

  1. Awareness: It is widely known that Mani flags are found in Ladakh 
  2. Significance: Ladakh is seen as one of the most exciting road trips one can be on
  3. Meaning: A Ladakh road trip says something about the kind of person I am. It says that I belong to the tribe of road adventurers.

This journey – symbol to cultural icon, ought to be the goal of all branding and communication. And the key question that brand owners need is to ask is – how can I convert my brand from a symbol to a cultural icon? The most consequential brands are those that have become cultural icons. The road to becoming a cultural icon is an open road. Your category or the size of your business does not really matter. What matters is the size of your ambition.


About the author

Suresh Mohankumar

A seasoned strategist with 28 years of experience conceiving, launching and growing some of India’s biggest brands, Suresh, has worked as the head of Strategic Planning in large advertising agencies.

He is known for breaking down complex situations to bring meaningful insights to the surface in order to arrive at a water-tight strategy.

He has handled a variety of categories like Automobiles, Jewelry, FMCG, AlcoBev, Leisure, Food, Fashion, Retail, Technology, New Media, etc.

By Suresh Mohankumar

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