By Caleb Warren, Rajeev Batra, Sandra Maria Correia Loureiro and Richard P. Bagozzi
Brands like Off-White, Apple, Instagram and performers such as Beyoncé and Jay-Z have thrived and maintained their longevity at least in part because consumers think they are cool. A non-cool brand like Pabst Blue Ribbon became a hipster icon only to lose its luster soon after. MySpace was once the largest social media platform, but then Facebook stole its thunder. What makes brands cool? And how can managers build and maintain brand coolness to grow their customer base and drive revenues?
New research in the Journal of Marketing explores this important topic and provides managers with a tool they can use to measure their brands’ coolness over times, across segments, and against competitors. They can use this tool to plan how to create and extend coolness for greater business gains.
We find that cool brands have up to 10 characteristics: Consumers perceive them to be extraordinary, aesthetically appealing, energetic, high status, rebellious, original, authentic, subcultural, iconic, and popular. The research, which uses a combination of focus groups, depth interviews, surveys, and experiments, develops a scale to measure each of these ten component characteristics of coolness. Not all characteristics are necessary or appropriate for every brand and consumer segment. Some may even conflict with others (e.g., popularity with subcultural links). We also explore how brand coolness relates to self-brand connections, brand love, brand familiarity, brand attitude, word-of-mouth, willingness to pay, and other variables.
Our tool allows managers to drill down into which component of coolness is a competitive strength or weakness, which components are of greater importance in shaping overall coolness, and how these might vary across geographies, consumer segments, and time (i.e., as brand-health tracking metrics). Our components can also be used for pretesting and evaluating different marketing programs.
Moreover, we examine the subjective and dynamic nature of brand coolness. Brands initially become cool to a small subculture of knowledgeable insiders by being original, authentic, rebellious, exceptional, and aesthetically pleasing. Over time, some of these “niche cool” brands cross over to be adopted by a wider audience, at which point they become mass cool and are perceived to be relatively more popular and iconic, but less autonomous. Companies need to manage these distinctions carefully. As niche brands become better known and more popular, such popularity can make the brand attractively cool to others, but potentially weaken its perceived coolness among those “in the know.” While coolness purists might therefore argue that being mass cool is bad and niche cool is good, we also observe that mass cool brands command higher price-premiums, are by definition larger in sales and market-share, and get talked about more among the general population.
Managers might thus prefer taking an obscure, niche cool brand and transforming it into a mass cool “cash cow.” However, they will need to cultivate the brand’s image so that it continues to seem autonomous (original, authentic, rebellious, etc.) or else it is likely to lose its coolness, at first to the subculture that initially adopted the brand, but eventually even to the masses.
Managers can begin by assessing their brand’s component-level coolness using our scale and then strategize how to increase its coolness. An existing uncool brand might need to first become niche cool, by engaging in behaviors (products, promotions, pricing, and distribution strategies) that make the brand seem creative, original, and rebellious. To become niche cool, brands also need to cultivate a close relationship to a particular subculture rather than targeting the mass market (as Pabst did with hipsters in the early 2000s or as Instagram did with photography enthusiasts). After successfully achieving niche cool status, the transition to mass cool could then follow, but the brand will need to maintain its connection to a subculture (e.g., Nike to its top athletes) and its perceived authenticity to maintain its perceived coolness with the masses.
Generating strategies and tactics to raise a brand’s scores on the characteristic components of brand coolness requires considerable creativity. Creating a perception of extraordinary quality likely requires performance/functional specs that are “next-generation” or that deliver unsurpassed customer experience/service rather than incremental improvements. Aesthetic appeal routes suggest the need for eye-popping design. Both the energetic and originality subcomponents require continuous innovation, dynamism, and momentum. Authenticity may require reminding consumers of the history and deeply held values of a brand and its founders, while avoiding the use of strategies associated with mass marketed brands. A promotion strategy that links the brand with an admired subculture is also likely to make the brand cooler, as long as it doesn’t make the brand seem less useful or too niche. Brands can become more rebellious by hiring spokespeople known to challenge norms. High status comes from associations with glamour and sophistication. Iconic perceptions might be raised by using and publicizing distinctive packaging, advertising style, or telling a brand myth that resonates with consumers.