Defend Truth

Opinionista

The epitome of cool — building brands that become cultural icons in their own right

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Jon Cherry is a business strategist and publisher whose focus is innovation and building better brands.

Cool brands carry enough metaphysical weight to have an influence on culture. They transcend their business classification of ‘brand’ and re-emerge as a meme.

“We need to make our brand cool again,” is the standard hare-brained order handed down by CEOs to marketing teams who have had to navigate this rather loose brief on countless occasions.

It’s not that anyone vehemently disagrees that having a brand that people — perhaps more specifically, younger people — find desirable is a position you would prefer to occupy. But the instruction, which is seldom logically thought through with any kind of intellectual rigour, does tend to generate a significant amount of confusion and frustration within marketing circles.

Frustration, because what exactly does this instruction even mean; and why is “coolness” deemed to be so damn desirable?

In trying to make some kind of sense of this, the first and most obvious port of call is to try and pin down a solid definition of the cultural concept of “cool”.

What exactly makes somebody, or something, cool?

As it turns out, cool is one of those ephemeral social constructs that is impossible to universally define. It’s a phenomenon that is subjective, dynamic, elusive and transitory. To identify attributes that point to the emergence of cool, we are perhaps more ably equipped to fathom its existence by classifying what makes something uncool.

Mediocracy, authoritarianism, systems that are not beneficial to the common good, a certain “fixed” way of approaching things, rigidity, inertia — these are all hallmarks of a fearful, controlling nature of being that can be certainly classified as not cool.

The antithesis of these manifestations is desirable characteristics that would include confidence, uniqueness, flexibility, detachment, relevance and a certain degree of antagonism towards the status quo.

If I was forced, with a gun to my head, to offer an example of somebody who exemplifies cool, I would immediately think of somebody like Dave Grohl from the American rock band The Foo Fighters; or maybe, Trent Reznor who at one stage was the frontman for Nine Inch Nails.

Both individuals are highly skilled, successful in their careers, are unique, don’t appear to be “owned” by the music industry and are comfortable in their own way of doing things. But this is a bit of a cop-out because rock stars are typically created on the ideals of cool and are stereotypically easy to identify as beacons of a cool aesthetic.

But which brands live up to being the epitome of cool?

Cultural influence

If you had to ask the average South African teenager, they’ll most probably tell you that the coolest brand is Nike. Stepping out in limited-edition Air Jordans most certainly carries with it a wallop of street cred if you’re 16.

Nike achieves an enviable level of cool because they drive the cultural narrative forward through their strategic brand associations with carefully selected celebrity sports personalities and the widespread adoption of the brand by other cultural icons that the youth idolise.

They’re actually in the business of setting the tempo of the pop-cultural zeitgeist and pushing the symbolism of cool onto the right audiences. They leave the utilitarian aspects of selling shoes and other sporting paraphernalia to their competitors.

For older generations a brand like Patagonia would probably resonate more as a bastion of cool, but for slightly different reasons.

Rather than attempting to manufacture an alluring aura by influencing fickle youth culture, Patagonia have positioned themselves as an anti-capitalist alternative to “everything that’s wrong with the world”. The brand is seen as the poster child of a class of outdoor apparel manufacturers that purposefully “stick it to the man”.

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It was founded by a hippie rock climber who famously always said that he never set out to be a businessman, but reluctantly took on the duties of running a company in his own irreverent way. Yvon Chouinard took great pride in the belief that Patagonia was creating “more good for the world than harm”, an idea that has led the brand to create significant cultural influence in certain demographics.

Patagonia is typically worn by middle-management employees of large established companies looking for a bit of their own “rock star rebellion” on the weekends, while they potter around in their gardens and throw sticks for their Schnauzers. Wearing a Patagonia tee shirt communicates what they’re really feeling about the world, without them needing to utter anything verbally.

But what is synonymous with these examples is that cool brands carry enough metaphysical weight to have an influence on culture. They transcend their business classification of “brand” and re-emerge as a meme. They confidently stand apart by holding a unique position in the marketplace. They are defiantly creative in the ways in which they see and resolve relevant problems.

Defiance narrative

Far from being faceless proxies for corporations, cool brands are bristling with “humanness” — they are intimately linked to authentic and relatable stories of striving, growth, challenge and defiance. They endeavour to represent the best of what passionate people working together with a dream can achieve, if they just stick with it for long enough.

Coolness itself is a projection of confidence that is not arrogant or all-knowing, but rather a personality characteristic that demonstrates to others that no matter what happens in the world, a path will be found towards a higher state of being. Cool is about holding an intention without being captured by urgency. There is no need to force things when you are cool, it’s as if time itself is under control.

This is not how most brands are built these days.

With a frenetic obsession with short-term results and demanding financial overlords who hold businesses to ransom for their coveted return on investment metrics, it’s no wonder that most brands, wracked by toxicity and an underlying culture of performance anxiety, are so deeply uncool.

In the absence of good strategy, innovation and excellence in marketing, demands for cultural relevance are much like a toddler throwing a tantrum because their dummy has fallen beyond their limited reach.

Only confident marketers with a holistic lens on change can build cool brands – the rest just help paint the backdrop on which their brilliance shines.

Instead of calling for cool, the mission should rather be a heartfelt commitment to practicing the gentle art of simply being cool first. Only when you have found peace with yourself will others be attracted to what you can then help them with. DM

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  • Johan Buys says:

    “Cool” is probably best described as being aspirational to a large segment of the brand’s target audience?

    There is little point to being cool among 90% of all 15-40 year olds but offer $25,000 watches that only 1% of them can ever afford.

    Apple balances this problem well.

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