Do you remember the cool kids in school? They always made witty comments with perfect timing. They always had the right clothes and the right look. They seemed years ahead of us! We envied them and tried to be like them. We were either in or out of fashion. Likewise, some brands have it and some don’t. What is the cool factor? How does a brand get an “OMG that’s soooo cool!!!” reaction?
While coolness is an intangible and elusive concept, being a cool brand is lucrative. It means huge economic profits based on premium pricing, insatiable demand, and image enhancement beyond your control. It can also be a major barrier for any competitors. Researcher and blogger Harsh Verma says “Cool is a scarce resource capable of bringing about value transformation.” Stephen Cheliotis, chairman of the Cool Brands Council, says that innovation, originality, authenticity, and desirability makes a brand cool.
Other experts say that cool brands only matter to people who tie their identity directly to that product. To make this relationship happen, a community aspect of interact with the brand is required. It’s easy to understand how high tech (Tesla, Apple, Google, Samsung, Sony) and luxury brands (Gucci, Rolex, Prada, Tiffany) become cool but how do everyday products like deodorant, underwear, shoes, food, or other mundane products become cool?
What is Cool?
Wikipedia defines cool as a word often used to express admiration or approval. The word became popular in the late 1940s by Black American jazz musicians, who were real cool cats.
Things or practices have been called cool to mean superlative, excellent, exclusive, special, original, unique, rare, exciting, and desirable. Like all things we want to know we put questions like this through a vigorous scientific evaluation. But what exactly is cool?
Alan Tapp and Sara Bird in their research paper (2008) defined cool as “the best [word] to describe that elusive, exclusive quality that makes behaviours, objects so hip, desirable and symbolic of ‘being in the know’.”
Clive Nancarrow and Julie Page defined cool in the Journal of Consumer Behaviour as a laid back, narcissistic, and hedonistic attitude and as a form of insider knowledge. In true cult-fashion, everyone wants a piece of your brand until it becomes uncool. Cool isn’t for the masses; it needs to have a distinctiveness and restricted access to keep its cool factor.
According to a Datamonitor (2005) report, the perceptions of cool vary by age. While young consumers often mimic celebrities who are to be perceived as cool, most teenagers and adults view cool as a means to express their individualism. Older customers were found to view cool as synonymous with quality.
Numerous researches and marketers have tried to formulate a concrete description of ‘coolness’. The closest any researcher has come to such a definition has been Sandra Loureiro and Rui Lopes (2011) in their study Characteristics of Cool Brands: The Development of a Scale and a study done by Caleb Warren, Rajeev Batra, Sandra Loueiro and Richard Bagozzi (2019) titled Brand Coolness.
The two studies identified ten major cool characteristics. I took the liberty of mashing the insights together and created some symmetry in their outcomes to develop a coolness brand wheel. Hit all ten characteristics and your brand will be so cool that Oprah Winfrey would need to put it on her “Favorite Things List.”
Cool Brand Wheel
In essence, the Cool Brand Wheel perfectly explains the coolness factors as behavioral, state of mind, aesthetic, social distinction and appropriately autonomous. Coolness can turn a ‘want’ into a ‘need.’
Here are the ten cool factors:
Branding legends Jack Trout and Al Ries said that consumers shop primarily by categories. People can only remember a few brands per category. The goals is to be at the top of that list. Once the category list is full–it’s full. A company can only break that full list if they develop a new, unique category.
Cool brands are either at the top of the list or in a category on their own. They are perceived as the creator of their category. For example, there is a numerous automobile brands, but the most successful ones have built their brand on a unique category (i.e., safety, luxury, speed, quality, etc.). Tesla has recently marketed itself as the electric car company; they created a brand new category. While other well-known automobile companies have electric cars, they don’t own the new category, Tesla does. Being the first in a category helps the brand be unique, distinctive, and autonomous making them cool.
Caleb Warren and Margaret C. Campbell published a paper in the Journal of Consumer Research on how autonomy influences coolness. They concluded that “coolness was a subjective, socially constructed positive trait attributed to cultural objects (like brands) perceived to be appropriately autonomous”. Note the word ‘appropriately’. What they found was that the degree of autonomy was important. They needed to create a sufficient divergence from the norm.
Apple was initially highly autonomous due to its obscurity and association with the graphic design community. They allied themselves with strong graphic software like PageMaker, Photoshop, Illustrator, QuarkXPress, and Adobe. According to Columnist Charles Pillar, the famous 1984 ad help portray Apple as a symbol of counterculture: rebellious, free-thinking and creative. They became synonymous with desktop publishing, photography, creativity, and design industries.
Over time, Apple continued to redefine itself and its marketplace. While Apple didn’t invent the MP3 player, the smartphone, the smart watch or the tablet, they made the best products. They also made them cool. Apple designer Jonathan Ive said, “Our goals are very simple—to design and make better products. If we can’t make something that is better, we won’t do it.”
Apple has clearly positioned itself as a brand that thinks differently and stands out. To emphasize being autonomous, Apple has purposely associated itself with autonomous rebels and artists such as Picasso, Einstein, Nelson Mandela, and Mark Twain.
It is hugely important that brands be authentically autonomous, otherwise they can be perceptive as conceited. This is a problem that Tesla owner Elon Musk has faced. To be authentic, a brand needs to have a unique story and reason behind their brand. The brand needs to be true to its heritage. The brand promise must be clear and delivered at every customer touch point. The brand must live the talk. To be cool, a brand needs to follow its own path, regardless of the norms, beliefs, or expectations of others.
In a world where we have a hard time concentrating, brand memorability is a challenge. Havas (2018) found that brand campaigns have a direct impact on consumer behavior only after 60 days have passed. What they discovered was that memorable campaigns had a greater chance of recall after 60 days. Nigel Hughes, managing director of Havas said “There is a significant gap between being aware of a campaign and remembering it. With so many channels broadcasting, respondents are initially aware of many campaigns, but they don’t remember the messages…” The stickiness of the message is just as important as the awareness.
There are a number of ways to make your brand memorable or sticky. If humor fits your brand personality, it can be very useful. Old Spice understood the importance of entertaining their customers. They took an old brand and “Swaggerized Their Brand” into one of the top brands in its category. Landor, a leading brand consult and design company said “Old Spice’s business has grown by double digits every year since the new positioning went to market.” For more on using humor check out this blog post.
Pulling consumers heartstrings can also attract massive views and social engagement. Every holiday season airline companies, department stores, and tech companies try to bring out the holiday spirit, hoping to transfer the warmth onto their brand. But, be careful, too much love isn’t cool.
Being offbeat and edgy can also get a brand noticed. This generally includes being rebellious, risky, and controversial. Taking this direction can quickly fortify a stronger bond between a brand and consumers but can also repel a portion of consumers. Nike’s support of Colin Kaepernick’s racial injustice cause is a case in point. As their ad said “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything. Just do it.”
People have always been attracted to beautiful aesthetics and expensive things. Highly exclusive and extremely expensive brands are historically cool. Diamonds have continuously been cool. Just ask my wife.
In contrast to today’s crazy world, simple, sleek, modern designs seem to elevate the consumer’s senses. These design elements are seen in functional, sound, touch, and visual manifestations. Apple has perfected a clean and minimalistic design in of all of its products including packaging and advertising. As Dan Frommer said, “Apple products are cool because you don’t have to figure out how they work—they are natural and human.”
In their book Rethinking Prestige Branding: Secrets of the Ueber-Brands, Wolfgang Schaefer and JP Kuehlwein coined the phrase Ueber-Brands. For Ueber-Brands, prestige is less about high prices and more about provoking pride and aspiration through mythical storytelling.
Paying a hefty price of entry shouldn’t create buyer’s remorse but a belonging that should continue to keep giving. Extra attention to the details and the little things makes a brand stay cool.
Brands that do good is not a new concept. But its popularity has increased among Millennials. Millennials have become socially conscious; they buy brands that demonstrate their commitment to changing the world. The extreme weather conditions and devastating consequences of climate change have created a highly-sensitive consumer base that appreciates corporate social engagement. Caring for our planet and humanity are becoming an integral part of a brand’s business strategy, as they activity engage in communities and social and environmental causes.
For example, TOMS started out as a shoe company with a one-for-one promise: for every pair of shoes purchased, a pair was donated to needy children. Today, they have expanded into one-for-one spectacles that provide ophthalmic treatment to the needy, one-for-one coffee where each cup sold provides clean water to the poor, and one-for-one bags that help save lives of birthing mothers and their newborns in developing countries. Very cool!
Patagonia scores big in this area as an environmentally and socially responsible company. Their mission statement clearly states, “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.”
According to the Ueber-Brands concept, there is a precarious balance between longing and belonging. While the goal is to acquire as many customers as possible to maximize profits, you must be careful to balance inclusiveness with exclusivity. To be cool you always need the admirer, desirer, and dreamers to be part of your tribe. Brands that build strong communities help the brand to evolve and also fulfill peoples’ needs.
Remember the day when it was cool to wear white iPod earphones. Now, it’s the white earbuds. I’m not sure if this qualifies as being cool today. But Apple has sold over 2 billion iPhones & iPads since 2007. They continue to introduce a new model every couple of years to create exclusivity and to keep their loyal tribe happy and wanting more. And they have a very big tribe.
There is something special about being part of an exclusive club. Harley-Davidson motorcycles understood the idea of building a community by setting up the Harley Owners Group H.O.G. across North America. Chapters popped up everywhere and the company started sponsoring rallies, showcase new motorcycles. It was a win-win and the cult-like Harley Nation was created with over half a million participants. “I’m very into the Harley myth,” says Alvin LaSalle, a 63 electrical contractor from California. To prove it, he proudly displays the Harley’s trademark wings tattooed on his arm. The brand has always been associated with the Hell’s Angels, who supposedly uses the Harley owners’ manual as a bible at wedding ceremonies. Their challenge today is to make the HOG cooler for Millennials whose parents are still driving them.
Reflecting on the past and reinventing oneself in a familiar, but unconventional way accentuates coolness. Many of the world’s luxury brands like Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Hermes, Gucci, Cartier, and Tiffany perpetuate themselves by highlighting their history, and craftsmanship. It’s never bad to remind your customers what you stand for.
History legitimizes the core brand values and how they became who they are today. This doesn’t mean that the brand fails to change, but that they continue to evolve while maintaining their ultimate goal of surpassing customers’ expectations.
Classically cool individuals stay away from trends and so do trendy brands. It can be important to stay true to your roots and stay the course. Timeless brands are consistent in look and style. Coca-Cola is a great sample of a brand true to its roots with decades of steadfast positioning and looks. However, the brand isn’t entirely unchanging. The brand should be tweaked constantly overtime in a natural fashion without fanfare. Being discrete and real is also cool.
In connection with being authentic, cool brands must also be contemporary. This means reinventing itself in a progressive, natural fashion that strongly ties back to the brand’s purpose and vision. This is how Apple was able to morph from iMac to iPod, iPad, iPhone, and Apple Watch. What’s next? The autonomous iCar?
Old Spice is an interesting case in point. It had been around for over 70 years and was starting to become an old man’s product. It wasn’t on my shopping list, but it was on my dad’s. In 2010 that all changed when they launched one of the most successful rebrands with the “Old Spice Guy”.
They spiced up the product line and attracted a new customer-base; now their product is very cool. There is a fine line between timeless and contemporary, but Old Spice navigated the waters with skill.
Back in the 1970’s their slogan was “Mark of a Man” and targeted dads and grandfathers. Today, their focus is on young men with the slogan “The original. If your grandfather hadn’t worn it, you wouldn’t exist.” The nautical theme is still present, but the colonial sailing ship is now a racing sail boat. The packaging has also evolved over time. Initially, the bottle was made of clay (something you would find on a sailing ship in the 1930s), then it became a cream-colored glass bottle that mimicked pottery design, finally it evolved onto a plastic bottle.
The fundamentals of the Old Spice brand still remain the same: nautical theme, cream color bottle, and red top. What’s different is its coolness.
Cool brands march to their own drum.
Recognize these names: “Cherry Garica, Chucky Monkey, Phish Food, The Tonight Dough, and Americone Dream?”
These are Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavors. Two Vermont boys, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield ignored conventional wisdom and built an ice cream business worth $326 million (Price sold to Unilever in 2000). Here are some of the unconventional ways they built the brand:
- Instead of using venture capital to expand their business, they sold shares door-to-door shares ($126 each). They raised $750,000 for their first expansion efforts.
- When Pillsbury (owners of Haagen-Dazs) was discouraging vendors from selling Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, they retaliated with an ad campaign “What’s the Doughboy Afraid Of?”
- Back in 1988, their business was ahead of the times based on three missions:
- make fantastic ice cream
- build sustainable growth by respecting the Earth & Environment
- make the world a better place.
As the franchise development manager for Ben & Jerry’s, Eric Thomas said, “You really can change the world through ice cream.” One cool scoop at a time.
Harvard Business School professor Gerald Zaltman says that 95 percent of our purchase making decisions take place in the subconscious mind, a place where emotions are king. Activating an emotional connection can be very beneficial, but you will not connect with everyone. You must clearly understand your customers’ needs and wants to connect at this level. If you connect, the risk will be well worth the effort. If you don’t, you’ll have egg on your face.
Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner protest commercial was a great example. Somehow, the public couldn’t buy the concept that Jenner could stop hatred and tension with a can of carbonated sugar.
For more on this topic check out my blog article called A Brand with Feelings.
A cool brand has energy and excitement. I don’t mean loud and always on. More like smart and with-it. These are brands that are current. They don’t just follow current events but make things happen. They are rebels with a cause. They think and act as if the world is their oyster.
Energetic cool brands also speak to youth. They speak their language and engage in the conversations on their terms. Participation is key to building a mutual relationship. Over the last six years, Moosylvania has surveyed Millennials to track their brand preference. Unsurprisingly, top brands always includes Apple, Amazon, Nike, Samsung, Target, Wal-Mart, Sony, Microsoft, Google, and Coca Cola. If you look deeper into the list, you will see brands that make them look, feel good, and keep them entertained.
As the iconic David Ogilvy said, “You can’t bore people into buying you product, you can only interest them into buying it.” There needs to be a level of fun and fascination to keep customers engaged with the brand.
Can you think of a cool brand that isn’t fun in one way or another? I can’t.
Another Cool Factor – Sexy
‘Sexy’ doesn’t fit easily onto the Cool Brand Wheel, but it can be a powerful branding tool. Sexy is a primal instinct. A sensual attraction, excitement, or even ecstasy. ‘Sexy’ branding can be a risky business.
Bad-boy brands like AXE, Calvin Klein, Abercrombie & Fitch, and Playboy built a tribe based on selling sex, and all of them were super cool at one point. Sexy people are notorious for making brands cool like Kim Kardashian, Paris Hilton, Marky Mark Wahlberg, Jenna Jameson, Justin Bieber, and a number of Victoria Secret models.
While sex and sexy can attract attention and help create coolness, they aren’t a sustainable factor. Other factors of the Cool Brand Wheel must be present. Overtime sexy can also have a negative effect on a brands when people only remember the attractive bodies and not the brand.
The cool brand wheel is a great way to move a brand from functionality to coolness. A product is built on attributes. A brand is built on a narrative that people want to embrace and buy. A cool brand is built on mythology, faith, and desire. Cool brands give meaning to our lives. They make us feel happy and good. They make us proud. They make us cool.
Coolness must seem effortless not forced or manipulated. It isn’t just a clever or sexy advertising campaign. Many cool brands’ origins are associated with being non-mainstream, controversial or sub-cultural, almost cult-like. Growing into a massive brand or becoming part of a multinational enterprise can easily affect the coolness factor.
Cultural shifts and demographics shifts can have significant impact on what defines coolness. There was a day that cigarettes, especially Marlboro, were sexy and cool. Remember the Hummer vehicle? Now known as the gas guzzler. Then there was Krispy Kreme, the cult-like doughnuts. As one customer said, “Fresh Krispy Kreme is the food of the gods.” What happen to the once cool brands of Gap, MTV, Nokia, Dr. Martens, and Playboy? They failed to stay cool.
Cool brands aren’t built, they are cultivated. Customers determine if a brand is cool. A brand can continue to emulate coolness if they carefully balance the ten cool factors and stay in the lead by turning customer’s wants into needs. The benefits of being a cool brand are enormous: fame and fortunes beyond your control. Be cool.