How to be cool. Andy Barker, director at Engage Research,asks what makes a brand cool

Whether it’s the iPad, dual touch-screen laptops or simply Michael Buble, there is no doubting that achieving cool status is the ultimate aim for many brands, and for their agencies sent off in search of it. But cool status can be transient and it's easy to slip effortlessly from cool to uncool without passing Go. So what constitutes cool brand positioning, what does the consumer understand by it and how can brands achieve it?

Engage Research conducted qualitative research recently into the issue of “cool”; how cool can be defined, whether we as individuals yearn to be cool ourselves and whether, as consumers, we can spot what cool is. The research found the following:

Certain things are clear: no matter what the era, the sub-culture, the tribe or the country, being cool has historically been an aspiration of not just the young. But now, being cool has become so mainstream that it has lost its edge; perhaps cool is no longer as cool as it used to be. Cool has always been about detachment, about opposition, about NOT being mainstream. It has also been characterised by a certain apparent lack of effort – to be cool is not to (appear to) try too hard.

However this “refrigerating” quality has been leaking – now, everyone wants to be cool, and the increasing access to cultural capital means that more and more people can apparently gain the trappings of cool. But this presents a contradiction – at what point does cool become so mass that it becomes uncool? Can you (as a person or a brand) put so much effort into being cool that you are no longer so?

We found that consumers draw a distinction between what it means to actually BE cool (inner cool) and what it means to ADOPT the signifiers of cool (outer cool).

Being cool is not something everyone can achieve – cool is, by definition, a minority thing – and it is exclusive, maybe even excluding. On the one hand they want to say that everyone could potentially be cool yet on the other they admit that not everyone has the assets (the attitude, the knowledge, the confidence, the individuality) to actually achieve coolness themselves.

Cool is often defined by what it is not as much as what it isn't. Linked with this is the idea that cool can’t really be part of the mainstream, so a cool activity can’t be what everyone else is doing, cool clothes can’t be worn by everyone else, a cool attitude should be somehow at odds with the world – so while anyone can be cool, everyone can’t be!

Interestingly, some consumers feel that coolness is related to your social group so what’s cool in one sub-culture might not be in another, but they agree that regardless of the tribe, one of the least cool things around is trying too hard (or at least to be caught trying too hard), and this goes for brands as much as people.

What is also clear is that cool has a shelf life – things are rarely so cool that they will keep indefinitely. The “lifecycle” of cool might fall into stages: creation – opposition – recognition – dissolution. To create cool takes real individuality and confidence and once created cool should stand out from the crowd – it should maybe do more than contrast, it should oppose in some way.

Cool, it seems, is now so mainstream that even though not everyone can BE cool, most people can recognise it when they see it – they can say that something is or is not cool, for their social group at least if not for others. For brands and agencies, establishing what consumers in your sector regard as cool and how cool they already perceive your brand to be can be critical to the plausibility and acceptance of any campaign you run.

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