Effortlessness, authenticity and confidence – factors that most commentators agree are constituents of cool – can apparently be bottled up and sprayed on dowdy brands that are willing to be transformed.
This is the rather high-flying claim of the “cool” marketing agencies that are starting to appear on the landscape. Cool, the term that originated in America’s jazz clubs and has its roots in counter-culture, anti-establishment and rebellion, is apparently up for sale as a commodity.
Yet it is doubtful whether a brand can ever really be cool. Being cool is not about “increasing shareholder value”, “growing the bottom line” or “evaluating lifetime value” – the usual purpose of brands. The term cool may be vague, but its origins are in a youth counter-culture that has always been anti-establishment and views the consumer society in general (and brands in particular) as just another adjunct of oppressive capitalist power, ripe for subversion.
Consequently, there is a contradiction; even an element of hypocrisy among those brands that claim to be cool. They superficially adopt a rebellious stance towards power, while actually trading on the very values their consumers despise.
But moves to catch cool are, to a certain extent, unsurprising. Nike sells more than sports gear, L’Oréal more than cosmetics and Coca-Cola more than soft drinks – they sell an image and attempts to capture cool are just an extension of this.
US businesses have long sought the services of “cool hunters”. These are people tasked with scouring the streets in a bid to find out what is hot and, of course, what is not. The logic behind it is clear. A brand manager who is told to inject some attitude into the product but who has long since been divorced from the trends of the outside world is ill-equipped to go it alone.
In a move that reinforces the growing profile of this concept of cool in the UK, Superbrands, a branding organisation, this week launches Cool Brandleaders, its first book on cool brands. It features a range of brands from fashion company Diesel to computer giant Apple. Coolness, it seems, may yet establish itself in marketing as a key brand indicator – after all the word emerged relatively unscathed after being used in Prime Minister Tony Blair’s cringe-worthy and ultimately ill-fated Cool Britannia project.
Arguably, marketers have been here before. It’s just youth marketing, which hit the streets in the Nineties, by another name. However, these new proponents of cool claim the
y are offering something more. They say they are not just youth marketers attempting to stand out in this crowded arena.
Frankie Burstin is the founder of Offspring, a three-month-old self-styled “cool consultancy” owned by PR agency Cohn & Wolfe. She claims that, using an army of cultural anthropologists, trend-spotters and a panel of fashion industry insiders, her consultancy is able to make just about any brand cool.
Burstin rejects the notion that what she does is just youth marketing with a new name: “Offspring was set up as a youth marketing agency, but the more we looked at it the more we felt that it was something that didn’t exist in the way it did a few years ago.” Youth marketing, she claims, is “over-exposed and has reached its peak”.
“You need only look down the high street to see that the use of youth as a metaphor for cool has reached fever-pitch. How can youth be cool when brands merely badge it?” she adds citing recent link-ups such as Ericsson at the music festival Creamfields and Mastercard at the Brit Awards.
To Burstin, one of the major differences between cool and youth marketing is the difference between “whispering and shouting”. She identifies brands such as Absolut, Dunlop and Muji as cool brands that must plot a way to become “immortal cool brands” such as Jack Daniels, Adidas and Volkswagen.
Becoming cool can be a money-spinner but the trick is to escape becoming just another a fad. Burberry, which after years of being seen as a staid British brand, pulled out the stops and launched ad campaigns featuring work by photographer Mario Testino, using the models Kate Moss and Stella Tennant. Over the past three years, the company’s worth has risen from &£200m to &£1bn. But Burberry now faces a fight to avoid becoming passé. Puma may fare better as its renaissance has been more gradual, but the sportswear company must now find a way to move into the big league to sit with Adidas and Nike, and still retain credibility.
This is the problem that Piaggio, the maker of Vespa, is trying to come to terms with. Between 1993 and 2001 sales of the scooter brand went from 600 a year to 30,000. Vespa marketing manager Costantino Sambuy says the brand rode to popularity on the back of an interest in retro and the Sixties, which sprung up in the mid-Nineties.
An oasis in the desert
Sensing the mood, the marketing merely needed to tap PR and events to get opinion-formers on side. “We did a few parties and associated ourselves with a few fashion designers,” he says. The result was that celebrities such as Liam and Noel Gallagher were pictured on scooters and the craze exploded. However, Sambuy describes the boost in sales as a “pin-prick” when compared to the car sector and wants to increase sales still further.
He has his eye on the forthcoming congestion charges for London as a marketing opportunity as scooters will be exempt from the scheme, and he plans an advertising campaign around the issue. “It’s not cool because we will be talking about prices,” he says, adding that he may lose a lot of the brand’s initial adopters.
Pushes towards cool, as opposed to youth marketing, are undoubtedly linked to demographic changes. Martin Hayward, chairman of strategic marketing consultancy the Henley Centre, says: “It used to be very easy to predict what somebody’s lifestyle would be like by looking at their demographic. Young people were interested in fashion, old people weren’t, men did one thing women another. Everybody was easy to segment and it was a nice easy, tidy world.
“But what’s happened over the past few decades is that people are not acting their age, not acting their gender and not acting their class. This means the rules of targeting consumers are different to what they used to be. Marketers are finding that they have to target across much more difficult attitudinal lines instead of age.”
Working up a fever
Jason Gallucci, managing director of WPP Group-owned Piranhakid, describes what his company does as helping brands become “relevant, different and desirable to a contemporary audience – in short cool”. Despite being largely a PR agency, Gallucci says his company is a “strategic brand planner”, which is far more than just “coming in at the end to send out a press release”. One project Piranhakid advised on was Ford’s sponsorship of Kylie Minogue’s Fever tour using its StreetKa model.
He says: “The youth market is governed by the demographic and cool marketing is governed by attitude. You can have a 16-year-old nerd who’ll never be cool. Youth marketing is a term that is misunderstood. It’s still applicable, but it was a catch-all for anything and everything trendy.”
However he admits that using the term is riddled with difficulties: “Cool is complicated. Cool is actually an accolade awarded by an individual when they have judged something to have met an unwritten, extensive and changeable criteria.”
Some are aghast at the whole idea of trying to capture cool, claiming that such artificiality can never be cool. Carlos Fitzpatrick, account manager at creative communications agency Third Planet, says he is sceptical of cool consultancies. “It’s an odd way to talk about yourself,” he says.
Third Planet’s activities include organising and marketing skateboarding and break-dancing events, and the agency has involved its client Olympus over the past three years, largely through sponsorship. The goal, he says, was to make the brand “acceptable and credible” to these communities. He argues that this differs to the work of a cool consultancy, because people who work at the agency are actually involved in the skate scene, making what they do “natural and authentic”.
Bruce Crouch, partner and creative director at advertising agency Soul, says of “cool”: “I don’t even like the word. It’s the most overused one in advertising. I don’t find it very cool to use the word cool.”
He adds there are many brands, especially in the alcoholic drinks sector, that “try to add cool to something that doesn’t want to accept it”.
Soul may have found the formula with the new Fanta ads. The backing track used has been taken up by underground DJs, a move that cool consultancies would surely class as a positive hit. But Crouch says there was no rigorous scientific formula behind Soul’s approach to Fanta and admits the latest campaign’s flavour and tone was one that “we felt was right”.
Marketing, by its very nature, plays on consumers’ hopes, fears and desires – as opposed to their actual needs. Whether there is anything more cynical than playing on their wish to be cool rather than younger-looking, a better parent, or any of the usual themes that are routinely exploited is questionable. Youth and cool, once signifiers of rebellion, independence and innovation, may be for sale, but brands seeking to buy into the phenomenon must be sure they can afford the price of failure.