In today’s marketplace of constant change and technological advances that flatten society, many consumers want to “be cool.” Being cool offers a way for them to impress and interact with others and to define and feel good about themselves.
In other words, coolness affords social status and serves as a tool for building a favorable identity. So it’s little surprise that consumers often value and buy brands that they perceive to be cool.
As consumer psychologists, we’ve spent a lot of time asking consumers about cool brands. It was easy for consumers to tell us what brands are cool, but it was much more difficult for them to tell us what makes a brand cool. In other words, consumers know what is cool when they see it, even though they can’t explain why.
From our research, we’ve identified five critical elements of coolness.
1. Coolness is socially constructed: Cool is not an inherent feature of an object or person, but is an attribution bestowed by an audience. Brands and people are not inherently cool; they are cool only to the extent that other consumers consider them cool.
2. Coolness is subjective and dynamic: What consumers consider cool change over time and across consumers. The extent to which a particular product or brand is cool can vary depending on when and whom you ask. What you think is cool is likely to be different from what your kid thinks is cool and what your mother thought was cool when she was your age.
3. Coolness is desirable: Despite the variation in the objects considered cool, coolness is perceived to be a positive quality; people like products and brands that are cool. The reason people seek cool is that it is valued, by themselves and others. Coolness provides social status and identity.
4. Coolness requires more than mere perception that a product is positive or desirable: Not all products and brands that are liked are considered cool. Consumers perceive some quality that sets cool things apart. And, whereas there is agreement that some particular quality makes something cool, it is hard for people to pinpoint what this additional quality is.
5. Coolness expresses autonomy: Most important, what makes a product or brand cool, rather than just likable, classy, or fun, is that it expresses autonomy. Cool people and brands go their own way and do their own thing. To be cool, a brand needs to follow its own path, regardless of the norms, beliefs, or expectations of others.
How To Make A Cool Brand
While a cool brand is not bound by convention, it is also not different just for the sake of being different. It is different because it is true to its authentic self. And in order to be true to its authentic self, a cool brand will often need to ignore mainstream norms.
Importantly, a cool brand is not antisocial or deviant; it is different yet still enables achievement of the purpose of the product. A cool brand isn’t afraid to break the rules, but it also knows when to play nice, and it stays within bounds.
Also, being more autonomous doesn’t continuously make brands cooler. There is a curvilinear relationship between autonomy and coolness such that autonomy first increases but then decreases coolness. When a brand is extremely autonomous, it isn’t cool; it’s just weird. Nike scored cool points by advocating a personal revolution in its 1987 ad campaign for Nike Air. Had the brand instead advocated an actual revolution, complete with violence and a toppled government, it would have seemed destructive or insane rather than cool.
One way that a brand can become cool is with innovative products. Creating products that are new and different is inherently autonomous. Our research finds that even packages that are part from the norm, like a triangular water bottle, can create a sense of autonomy and lead to perceptions of coolness.
Another way that a brand can become cool is by portraying an independent or rebellious image through its marketing communications. For example, we found that ads for a retailer that positioned it as breaking a fashion norm made the retailer seem cool, as long as the norm wasn’t highly valued.
A third way that a brand can become cool is by being scarce. Scarcity creates autonomy because scarce products cannot become the norm. Introducing its shoes with planned undersupply helped Buscemi become a cool brand.
Associating with other cool people and things is yet another way a brand can become cool. When choosing a cool spokesperson, it is essential to pick someone who is perceived as autonomous by your target market. Saint Laurent helped solidify its status as a cool fashion brand through endorsements by rebellious musicians, including Courtney Love, Marilyn Manson, and Daft Punk.
A Path To Cool
When we ask consumers which brands they consider cool, one name comes up over and over again: Apple. So how did Apple become cool?
First, Apple has always had a strong focus on product innovation. Apple began by developing products that were truly different, both in function and style. Apple then communicated that it was independent. It has a story based on rebels in the garage. It famously differentiated itself from more mainstream competitors with the 1984 ad introducing the Mac. IBM was implicitly compared to Big Brother, while Apple was the independent, free-thinking rebel. Apple continued to emphasize being appropriately autonomous by linking itself in ads to artists, such as Isadora Duncan, important rebels, including Nelson Mandela, and creative thinkers, such as Mark Twain.
Its Mac vs PC campaign, where, again, Apple is independent and individualistic, while Microsoft is corporate and mainstream, continued this approach. In one ad, poor PC tries, and fails, at being cool because he is so mainstream. Even now, when Apple is a leader in a number of product categories, it is still widely considered a cool brand by emphasizing autonomy and one-of-a-kind creativity. For example, ads for the iPad and iPad Mini state “two of no other kind.”
Apple also has an apparent strategy of having somewhat limited supply when introducing new products. This creates initial scarcity and long lines of desirous consumers. We also see Apple purchasing Beats by Dre, which can be seen as a way of associating itself with a cool product and an autonomous, cool person.
In short, Apple has done each of the points our research suggests can create cool. It has developed innovative products. It has worked hard to communicate that it is autonomous, breaking from the mainstream. It has limited supply, creating some scarcity under certain conditions. And it has associated itself with autonomous others to transfer the others’ cool to itself.
Cool brands and products are those that are appropriately autonomous through innovation, a little rebellion, or, sometimes, scarcity. Cool brands are independent but within the bounds of providing value and meeting values of their target consumers.
Coolness is meaningful to consumers and can be an important way of differentiating a product or brand. This can help to increase product acceptance, particularly in getting early adopters, but also, importantly, in crossing the chasm to more mainstream consumers, which, of course, is essential for success.
So, be innovative, be independent, be autonomous--and be cool.