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What is ‘cool’ and is it possible to manufacture cool brands?

Apple has been voted the coolest UK brand for the fourth year running in this year’s CoolBrands list, but so what? Does being cool really matter? Well, not surprisingly, Steve Cheliotis, chairman of CoolBrands Council, says yes, it really does: “Being cool has a massive impact on a brand. It is very easy to dismiss ‘cool’ as a bit of fluff, but it adds a lot of value. It means people have a higher perception of the brand, they talk about it, advocate it and are willing to pay a premium for it. Being cool makes a brand highly desirable. You can see that with the Apple brand, when other new phone models are launched, you don’t see long queues winding down the high street ...

Okay, so if it makes such a difference, how do brands become cool? According to to Cheliotis, being cool should never be an aim in itself: “Brands should not set out to be cool. Instead they should be obsessive about what they do and make sure their brands are better than the competition. If you look at cool brands they have a heritage and a founder of the brand who is passionate about their products and want them to be the best. If you try to follow specific guidelines to become cool, you could come a cropper.”

Official Rank 2014-15 Brand Official Rank 2015-16 Brand
1 Apple 1 Apple
2 Aston Martin 2 Ray-Ban
3 Nike 3 Glastonbury
4 CHANEL 4 Nike
5 Glastonbury 5 Netflix
6 Google 6 Alexander McQueen
7 YouTube 7 Instagram
8 Dom Pérignon 8 CHANEL
9 Rolex 9 YouTube
10 Netflix 10 Aston Martin
11 Bang & Olufsen 11 Spotify
12 Ray-Ban 12 Google
13 Alexander McQueen 13 Royal Albert Hall
14 Instagram 14 Sonos
15 Bose 15 Whole Foods
16 Liberty 16 Bang & Olufsen
17 Selfridges 17 Ace Hotel
18 Sony 18 adidas
19 Virgin Atlantic 19 Virgin Atlantic
20 Stella McCartney 20 Liberty

Being cool matters, but you can’t just become cool because you want to. Louise Goulden, social media director at agency Blonde Digital, says: "As we all remember from the playground, anyone who tries too hard to appear cool automatically isn’t, making it incredibly hard to manufacture.

“Whilst there’s no checklist a brand can tick off to be cool, the cool club do share certain attributes, the three most important being authenticity, clear values and a constant striving to be the very best. The top four brands voted coolest in the UK – Apple, Ray-Ban, Glastonbury and Nike – bear this out perfectly. They all have a strong core identity that’s impervious to fickle changes in fashions, and their ethos runs through absolutely everything they do.

“But whilst I don’t believe coolness can be cultivated – not above being a temporary fad, anyway – it can be reinvigorated. Just ask Burberry, the British label whose reputation took a nosedive when it became the go-to brand for Daniella Westbrook and co. Through a combination of a refocused product strategy and a marketing campaign it turned the brand’s fortunes around and ended up in a stronger position than ever, now widely regarded as one British hottest luxury brands."

‘Being cool is like trying to get a marshmallow up a cat’s bottom’

 In complete agreement that you can’t be cool just because you want to, is Andy Barr, head of PR agency 10 Yetis: “Being cool is like trying to get a marshmallow up a cat’s bottom, something that you just can’t force.” Barr says you have to earn being cool through your actions: “You cannot just declare yourself as ‘cool‘. I would say that achieving cool status nowadays is a bit easier than days past, essentially because you can speed up the process of being labelled cool by those with ‘influence‘. Being cool is not enough, you have to work hard to keep it. We can all list brands who have earnt and then lost the title. Kangol earned it through being on the bonces of people like The Beatles, Samuel L Jackson, and Run DMC, and then quickly lost it through being acquired by Sports Direct in 2006.

“For me, the three mantras of being cool are, be mysterious, be aloof, but have focus. A brand such as Airbnb would like you to think that it was born cool. It worked hard to get that title, but the reality is that in the early days, no one really knew what it did – all the cool kids were talking about it, hence it became cool. For me, the key is to skip the usual stage one of launching a business which is rush out to the press, and instead have the most elite influencer outreach (horrid term) campaign that you can put in to place.”

What does it take to be cool?

Steph Burke, associate director, at agency Ketchum Sports & Entertainment:

“Trying to present certain brands as ‘cool’ can be a bad move. A common mistake is assuming that cool means the same thing to everyone and over-valuing the importance of ‘cool’ to your success.

“To be cool brands need authenticity. They need to appear to be themselves and something distinct. Not faking a brand attribute alien to their product or service.Working in the field of sports and entertainment, we often work with ‘cool’ ambassadors. So, all that’s needed is to sign them up to a brand and automatically their cool factor rubs off on your brand, right? Wrong.

“It’s vital that brands understand the importance of tying ambassadors to their brands in authentic ways through well thought out communications plans and messaging. Consumers are well informed and sometimes fickle, they need and expect more than brands that just borrow ‘cool’ without a genuine link.

“Brands must also rank the relative importance of ‘cool’ in the first place. We work with a lot of brands that are trying to engage people aged 16-26, where arguably cool is of the upmost importance in some product categories, but not in all of them. Do you really want your deodorant to be cool? And even if you do, how important is that objective relative to performance and increased advocacy and recommendation?

“Cool is not always the Holy Grail to drive business results and increase the popularity of your brand. Sometimes brands just have to be themselves.”

Chris Owen, director at PR firm Grayling:

"The key question here is the definition of 'cool' – for many this might be synonymous with 'zeitgeist' and thus be a passing, transient stage of a brand's journey, but to others it may be the defining ethos. Anthropologist Mary Douglas once suggested that 'goods are neutral, their uses are social', and this perhaps explains cool. The item might not be cool in and of itself, but its social application and context sets it out as being so. The big mystery is the social/contextual element underpinning it. In this regard, defining it is like nailing jelly to a wall – it’s such an esoteric concept which groups people into those who agree, and those who don’t; and it’s an indeterminate lifespan. Few brands are eternally cool, although some – through reinvention, innovation, heavy marketing and branding investment – have managed to stay one step ahead and a part of this social construct which defines cool.

“Many brands may begin as being perceived as cool (and perhaps inherently niche), but the majority will – in true 'tipping-point' style – become mainstream and in doing so lose some of the kudos and uniqueness which sits at the core of ‘cool’, in terms of the latter being aligned to elitism. Exemplars of this can be found in music. For many of their fans, Oasis were cool before they got too big and started playing stadia; and the number of people who claim to have been at the Pistols' legendary 100 Club show could probably now fill Wembley Arena.

“From a practical perspective, the journey towards cool can often be driven by a ripple effect led by the influencers at the epicentre; those uber-influential beacons who create change and tip little known brands over the edge, and higher into the public eye through their own circle of influence, and subsequently into intermediary spaces with secondary degree influencers before finally going mainstream. But often, through going mainstream, they lose their ‘cool’ moniker – or at least do so in the eyes of the early adopters.”

Five rules of cool brands

From Ian Whiteling, co-founder of digital consultancy

1: Don’t try too hard

Forget about being a cool brand, and instead focus on the following traits that each cool brand has in isolation. Assume them all, and you have the basis of a cool brand. Example: Apple. Never set out to be cool – it’s a geek after all.

2: Be your own person

Being told what to do is certainly not cool. Cool is not following others, but getting them to follow you. Independence is the essence of cool – being autonomous and brave enough to strike out alone while paying lip service to no one is the way to go. Build in a whiff of rebellion, without going too far, and you’re on to a winner! Example: Virgin. Embodies Branson’s personality, not matter what the function.

3: Be an original

Copycats are not cool. But daring to be different certainly is. Look, feel, act and exude originality, and cool with follow. Example: British fashion designer Alexander McQueen.

4: Embrace innovation

Cautious. Safe. Traditional. Do they sound cool to you? Of course not. To be cool you need to take chances, to break new ground, to push the boundaries, to innovate. Throw a sense of danger into the mix and you’ll have them swooning. Example: Aston Martin, Jaguar: Groundbreaking engineering with a hint of menace.

5: Be authentic

Finally, to be truly cool you have to convince the world you believe wholeheartedly in what you do by not only having a dream and pursuing it, but living it too. Any hint of insincerity and your cool is blown. But keep it real and ideally underpin your mission with a strong vision and even a cause – without over-egging it – and your brand will be cool. Example: All of the above.


CoolBrands is an annual initiative to identify and celebrate the UK's coolest brands. Since 2001 the survey has been canvassing the views of opinion formers and consumers to produce an annual barometer of the nation’s coolest brands. This year’s survey sought the opinion of 36 independent influencers and 2,500 British consumers. Brands do not apply or pay to be considered. For more information go to

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