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. Cook kids 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 enormous economic profits based on premium pricing, insatiable demand, and image enhancement beyond your control. It can also be a significant barrier for any competitor. Researcher and blogger Harsh Verma wrote, “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 make a brand cool.
Other experts say that cool brands only matter to people who tie their identity directly to that product. To build this identity, a community aspect of interacting 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 term became popular in the late 1940s with Black American jazz musicians, who were cool cats.
Things or practices labeled ‘cool’ means superlative, excellent, exclusive, exceptional, original, unique, rare, exciting, and desirable. Like all things we want to know, we put questions like this through a rigorous 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 a form of insider knowledge. Everyone wants a piece of your brand in true cult fashion until it becomes uncool. Cool isn’t for the masses; it needs 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 cool, most teenagers and adults view cool as a means to express their individualism. Older customers were found to see cool as synonymous with quality.
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 consumers shop primarily by categories. People can only remember a few brands per category. The goal is to be at the top of that list. Once the category list is full–it’s done. A company can only break that full list if it develops a unique category.
Cool brands are either at the top of the list or in a category alone. They lead and create the category. For example, there are 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 an electric car company; it 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 significant. 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 powerful graphic software like PageMaker, Photoshop, Illustrator, QuarkXPress, and Adobe. According to Columnist Charles Pillar, the famous 1984 ad helped portray Apple as a symbol of the counterculture: rebellious, free-thinking, and creative. Apple 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 smartwatch, or the tablet, they made the best products. These innovations 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 positioned itself as a brand that thinks differently and stands out. Apple has purposely associated itself with independent rebels and artists such as Picasso, Einstein, Nelson Mandela, and Mark Twain to emphasize being autonomous.
Brands must be authentically autonomous; otherwise, they are perceived as arrogant. Tesla owner Elon Musk has faced this problem. To be authentic, a brand needs to have a unique story and reason behind its brand. A brand must be true to its heritage, deliver at every customer touchpoint, and walk the talk. To be cool, a brand needs to follow its path, regardless of the norms, beliefs, or expectations of others.
In a world where we have difficulty concentrating, brand memorability is challenging. Havas (2018) found that brand campaigns impact consumer behavior only after 60 days. They discovered that memorable campaigns had a higher 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 don’t remember the messages….” The stickiness of the message is just as important as awareness.
There are many ways to make your brand memorable or sticky. If humor fits your brand personality, it can be beneficial. Old Spice understood the importance of entertaining its 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, including being rebellious, risky, and controversial. This direction can quickly fortify a stronger bond between a brand and consumers and repel some 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 are attracted to beautiful aesthetics and expensive things. Highly exclusive and costly 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. Found in functional, sound, touch, and visual manifestations. Apple has perfected a clean and minimalistic design in 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 entry price shouldn’t create buyer’s remorse but a belonging that should keep giving. Extra attention to detail and little things make a brand stay cool.
Brands that ‘do good’ are 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 is becoming an integral part of a brand’s business strategy as they actively engage in communities and social and environmental causes.
For example, TOMS started as a shoe company with a one-for-one promise: for every pair of shoes purchased, a pair was donated to needy children. Today, other brands 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 the 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 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 need admirers, desires, and dreamers to be part of your tribe. Brands that build healthy communities help the brand evolve and 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 huge tribe.
There is something special about being part of an exclusive club. Harley-Davidson motorcycles understood 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 and showcase new motorcycles. It was a win-win. The cult-like Harley Nation formed with over half a million participants. “I’m very into the Harley myth,” says Alvin LaSalle, a 63 electrical contractor from California. He proudly displays Harley’s trademark wings tattooed on his arm to prove it. The Hell’s Angels are loyal fans who supposedly use the Harley owners’ manual as a bible at wedding ceremonies. Their challenge today is to make the H.O.G. 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 wrong to remind your customers what you stand for.
History legitimizes the core brand values and how they became who they are today. Standing still isn’t an option. Brands must 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 essential to remain true to your roots and keep the course. Timeless brands are consistent in look and style. Coca-Cola is an excellent sample of a brand true to its roots with decades of steadfast positioning and looks. However, the brand isn’t entirely unchanging. The brand must be continuously tweaked over time without fanfare. Being discrete and real is also cool.
In connection with being authentic, cool brands must also be contemporary, which means always reinventing themselves in a progressive, natural fashion that strongly ties back to the brand’s purpose and vision. Apple is a master of morphing from iMac to iPod, iPad, iPhone, and Apple Watch. What’s next? The autonomous iCar?
Old Spice is a compelling case in point. It had been around for over 70 years and was starting to become an older 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 1970s, their slogan was “Mark of a Man” and targeted dads and grandfathers. Today, they focus 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 sailboat. The packaging has also evolved. Initially, the bottle was clay (something you would find on a sailing vessel in the 1930s), then it became a cream-colored glass bottle that mimicked pottery design; finally, it evolved into a plastic bottle.
The fundamentals of the Old Spice brand 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 created 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) discouraged vendors from selling Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, they retaliated with an ad campaign, “What’s the Doughboy Afraid Of?”
- Back in 1988, their three missions were progressive:
- 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, 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 communicate at this level. If you join, the risk will be well worth the effort. If you don’t, you’ll have an 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, A Brand with Feelings.
A ‘cool’ brand has energy and excitement. I don’t mean loud and always on, more like wise and with it. 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 express their language and engage in 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 include 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 your product, you can only interest them into buying it.” There needs to be 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 several 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 hurt a brand when people only remember 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 a collection of attributes. A brand is a narrative that people want to embrace and buy, while a cool brand is a mythology, faith, and desire. Cool brands give us meaning. They make us feel happy and proud. They make us cool.
Coolness must seem effortless, not forced or manipulated. It isn’t just a smart 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 a significant impact on what defines coolness. There was a day that cigarettes, especially Marlboro, were sexy and cool. Remember the Hummer vehicle? Also 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 happened 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.