Too cool for school

I met Stephen Cheliotis, chief executive of the Centre for Brand Analysis, at its Soho HQ a few weeks ago for an exclusive briefing ahead of the release of this year’s CoolBrands list.

It’s a list of 500 brands deemed to be Britain’s coolest by a specifically chosen “expert council” and a YouGov survey of 2,100 consumers, evaluated on style, innovation, originality, authenticity, desirability and uniqueness.

The final list is whittled down from an initial 1,250 nominated brands. Note that contrary to what some might think, I’m told that brands can definitely not pay to be nominated, but that this is in the hands of the expert council, which comprises the likes of Sadie Frost, Nadja Swarovski from the Swarovski house of jewels; Newby Hands, associate editor of society bible Harper’s Bazaar and radio DJ Trevor Nelson, to name a few on the expert council.

I put a few questions to Cheliotis about what it means to be cool and why the list is relevant. You can see more in a supplement in this Sunday’s Observer newspaper.

MW: How is a brand’s “cool” ranking important?
It’s important that it’s not the brands themselves saying they are cool, it’s an independent thing. The fact the brands aren’t involved is important. And two things are happening. The brands are ticking the boxes with the opinion formers who will be talking about the brands in the media, and these people are influential. It’s important to be seen to be cool by these individuals. And then we bring in the British consumer, looking for their recognition of cool brands.
And there is a strong link to “coolness” in the ability to drive a premium, and therefore, profitability – a CoolBrand ranking can be translated as a benchmark for brand success.

MW: Why have an expert council and consumers – why not just have consumers?
The results can be different across the two groups. Some brands might be too niche to have a wider consumer recognition even though they score well with the expert panel. A brand like Soho House will do better with the experts than consumers. The challenge is to have the two meet, at a high point. In having both perspectives you combine the views of the early adopters and the general public.

What happens is that some brands really split opinion. A brand like Aston Martin has done well with both groups. But a brand like Harley Davidson has traditionally seen split responses – consumers have traditionally been very enthusiastic and the council has been less so. It has managed to break into the top 20 this year because it is now turning some of those experts into enthusiasts.

MW: What do you think are the most interesting results in this year’s list?
From my perspective the most interesting is the top and bottom end. Unless you are someone like Apple and you have the budget to make a big splash like it did with the iPhone to debut at number two last year; a fast debut like that generally doesn’t happen and brands have to slowly build their way up.
When we first started in 2001, the expectation was that brands would come out of nowhere, it would be really faddy and the top 10 would be different every time. That hasn’t happened. The same quality brands keep rising to the surface. So brands that aspire to be here, unless it’s an exceptional thing like iPhone, will generally start at the bottom and slowly rise up.

BBC iPlayer is like iPhone where it came straight in, debuting in the survey last year at number 20 and continuing to rise to number 11. But if you look at the traditional route for a Coolbrand, they tend to be owner managed, founded by an entrepreneur, and tend to be grown organically. So the rise in revenues and awareness is fairly slow, and in terms of marketing and branding, have been learning on the job. But something like BBC iPlayer has the benefited of being connected to BBC so overnight everyone knows what it is.

MW: What sort of big brand trends do you see in this year’s list?
In terms of the top 20 probably the biggest thing that has happened in the past year is the slight drop in techy, accessible brands, and the return of high end luxury brands. It’s interesting that you do have two different strands of cool that are polar opposites. You have those with the limited distribution, the higher price point, strong heritage, very aspirational. On the other hand – very accessible, very democratising, fun brands that don’t take themselves too seriously and trying to distribute themselves as far and wide as possible.
Brands like Chanel though have managed to stay cool over the years thanks to the passion of the founder and the legacy they have left. It’s a very classic brand and most people appreciate this. If you look at the criteria we look for in Coolbrands – authenticity, and style, etc – it has all those factors in abundance.

MW: How does CoolBrands reflect British culture?
If you think about the attitudes of British consumers generally, it comes across in shopping patterns, where something doesn’t always have to be expensive to be cool, like you might find in a lot of other markets. Here you will see someone with an Alexander McQueen jacket but underneath wearing a TopShop t-shirt and happy to do that.

MW: What predictions do you make for future CoolBrands lists?
We can safely predict a lot of similar brands, proving the difficulty of breaking that hold that those top brands have.
Facebook was in the top 20 in 2008, then slipped out and slipped further this year. I don’t think it will come back. Maybe brands like Spotify or Last FM will get up there. I don’t think Twitter will because for the bulk of people it’s not that exciting.

Mobile phone brands like HTC using Android will continue to gain momentum but I don’t think Android itself as a platform will become a CoolBrand.
Online retailer Asos is in the wider list, but the problem it will have is as it becomes more established and performs better, is that it may struggle with the influencers as it loses its edge. My gut feel is that it will break into the top 100 but struggle to get into the top 20.

MW: How does the CoolBrands list itself evolve?
The list is constantly evolving and we start it afresh each time, with new brands being considered for the first time and others dropping off as they lose their momentum. Entire categories come and go, some are new because product areas are created. Ten years ago a service like Spotify didn’t exist. We will continue to see brands from non-traditional categories entering.

The careful balance we have to tread with Coolbrands is to find a range of sources…we don’t want to put 100 bars or hotels in the list because those categories may have an advantage over others. We don’t want this to be the Time Out guide because that already exists. It is about brands.
And, in a way it is more important for a brand to beat other brands in its category than to get into overall top 20.

MW: What about adding people as brands?
We’ve resisted in adding personalities as a category because then you will end up with just a list of popular celebrities. Granted, personalities are acting more and more like brands – David Beckham makes more money from his branded ventures than football. But if the personality ends up becoming a legitimate brand then we will consider them, for example Gordon Ramsay is in the top 500 list because of his restaurants. Dragon’s Den contestant Levi Roots is also in the top 500 being recognised for creating a product range (Reggae Reggae Sauce). And brands like Alexander McQueen and Vivienne Westwood obviously stem from a person so personality clearly is important.



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