Cool is notoriously hard to define. One person’s cool is another person’s conspicuous consumerism, another’s try-hard trendiness. Still, the difficulties in defining what’s cool haven’t stopped people from trying. Last week, the annual CoolBrands survey was released, naming Aston Martin as Britain’s most desirable brand. While many might assume being cool is faddish or ephemeral, Stephen Cheliotis, chairman of the CoolBrands Expert Council, outlines a more scientific approach, weighing factors such as style, innovation, originality, authenticity and desirability.
“Cool is a very personal thing, but we took into account these factors, which our research found to be inherent in cool brands,” Cheliotis explains.
Reinforcing the idea that real cool, the bankable kind, has a timeless quality, is that many of the brands anointed in the survey (see far right for the full list) have previously scored well. It reflects, according to Cheliotis, a consumer preference for familiarity in straitened times, for established brands that have carved out a niche for themselves.
“The thing about these brands is that they’ve proved to be relatively consistent over the years – people might assume that being cool is a fad or all about fashion, but people seem to be turning to brands that have been there and done that, but still managed to remain relevant and contemporary,” he says. “There’s no surprise that certain categories dominate – fashion and cars are both pretty sexy industries, so they’re both going to take their branding pretty seriously. And technology is increasingly that way – there’s real pressure on brands in those industries to market themselves in a way that makes them stand out.”
Of course, it’s all very well for the brands at the top end of the scale, those endorsed by the right people and which have slowly become hard-wired into the cultural consciousness as bywords for style, for fun, for success. But what about the brands left behind in this arms race of hipness? What about those that were never cool, simply because they never tried? Or the brands that wanted to be cool, but lost their mojo somewhere down the line?
Cheliotis has no problem rattling off companies which have found themselves on the wrong side of the line between what’s hot and what’s not.
“Take a brand like Lidl – the discount supermarket,” Cheliotis says. “It’s not innovative, stylish or original. It’s a warehouse with loads of boxes. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that or that they don’t have a role – they’re quite useful. But they function manly on the basis of price and, in terms of being cool – no.”
Burberry made its name as a luxury British fashion house, its trenchcoat self-billed as “iconic” – surely the most over-used word in the marketing game. But, through an explosion of Burberry knock-offs on the so-called ‘grey market’, the brand became blighted by its association with chavs: a clothing line that set out to be aspirational and chic instead came to be viewed as common and tacky.
“That was a number of years ago – they lost a bit of focus and weren’t sticking to what they knew, so their authenticity suffered,” Cheliotis explains. “They had the chav label attached to their brand, and that was because they weren’t policing their brand enough. People thought, ‘I don’t want that’ and the brand suffered in the UK. But they refocused under a new CEO and they cracked down on the imitation market so they weren’t being worn by every Tom, Dick and Harry who couldn’t afford the brand in its original form.”
A similar strip of ‘brand hijacking’ afflicted Stella Artois. Ostensibly a boutique Belgian beer, its relatively high alcohol content brought an unwelcome association with incidence of booze-fuelled aggression and binge-drinking in the UK, and the beer subsequently became known as the beer of ‘wife-beaters’. It was a label that prompted Stella Artois to release and market a new line of less-alcoholic beer. “That really doesn’t help your brand, for obvious reasons,” Cheliotis says understatedly. “The difficulty for Stella was that it wasn’t really their fault – they did some fantastic marketing, particularly their ads linked to film. The problem for Stella was the strength of their beer.
“The brand owners looked at it, saw their reputation was being damaged and changed the product. It wasn’t their fault to begin with, but you have to react.”
There are also brands that suffer from over-exposure and, in effect, become victims of their own success, their own ubiquity. Although most companies crave name recognition and familiarity, Cheliotis acknowledges it’s possible for the pendulum to swing too far.
“Most of the brands on our list aren’t massively niche – we’re talking about mass cool – but if brands become too saturated, it can cause a problem, particularly if you’re in a consumer setting like fashion or food and drink,” he says.
“Ben Sherman, for example, probably became too saturated, and people started to turn away from it and try to find something else that helps them stand out.”
More than ever, branding has become a highly conceptual, multi-platform exercise. It’s no longer sufficient for a brand spokesman, as in the days of old-school detergent ads, to simply promise consumers their product delivers ‘whiter than white’ results. A new level of engagement is required to pierce the bubble of indifference towards marketing gimmicks now inhabited by most consumers.
“It’s a lot harder,” Celiotis says. “There are more media channels and different ways for people to promote a brand as well as more expectation from consumers, who are more brand-savvy, more demanding and very cynical. So there’s real pressure to deliver creative marketing. If those detergent ads were on today, consumers would say, ‘You say it’s whiter than white – really? Prove it. I want evidence. I’m not just going to believe this. You’re marketing to me’.”
1. Aston Martin – cool enough for James Bond
2. Apple – is it still cool if everyone has one?
3. Harley Davidson – the Marlboro Man was gutted to miss
4. Rolex – cool in a way you can’t afford
5. Bang & Olufsen – for audiophiles with fat wallets
6. BlackBerry – no wonder people can’t put them down
7. Google – at least it’s free
8. Ferrari – Ferris Bueller couldn’t resist
9. Nike – just buy it
10. YouTube – it has cats playing the piano. Cats!
11. Alexander McQueen – late and great
12. Dom Pérignon – stick to the Tesco-brand sparkling
13. Sony Playstation – should keep the geeks happy
14. Ray-Ban – can aviators be worn non-ironically again?
15. Chanel – keeps Keira Knightley of the streets too
16. Nintendo Wii – is family gaming actually cool?
17. Vivienne Westwood – from Derbyshire, definitely cool
18. Agent Provocateur – Kylie. Mechanical bull. Nuff said
19. Tate Modern – not so cool when full of schoolkids
20. Maserati – whatever, now this list is just showing off