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Give Your Brand Some �Cool�  

By Mark Levit

With the success of �cool� products in the marketplace� Puma, iPod, and Red Bull�marketing professionals are scurrying to give their brands a cool appeal. But how does one make a product cool?  What does it mean to be cool? As with all marketing strategies, it depends.

The cool factor itself is elusive. Yet most people agree they �know it when they see it.� Cool was wearing designer clothes and shoes, but now it�s walking down the street with an iPod in one hand and a Starbuck�s beverage in the other. What makes the iPod and Starbucks cool brands?

All cool brands are unconventional within their categories. They either transcend the product performance of competitors or predecessors, or the product is delivered in a revolutionary way. Coolness manifests when designers give the product a �new do,� something uncommon for the trade. Advertising can then support the brand as new and cool.

The benefits of a cool brand are enormous�premium pricing, viral marketing, and image enhancements for the company. The CPG (communications product group) industry relies on coolness to market products. Arielle Emmett of Mobile Enterprise magazine calls it �gizmo sex appeal.� The Motorola Razr V3 and the Blackberry are two examples of brand success attributed to trendiness and sleek product design. Whether or not a product can be positioned as cool depends on the category and its customers.

The Corporate Structure of Cool
Innovation breeds cool.  P&G and GE already know this, but now the word is out. In an economy where practically every function can be outsourced, and cost control is on every CEO�s agenda, new methods need to be implemented to boost the bottom line. A company can only outsource so much.  Hence, innovation. New organizational values are imperative for innovation to boost the bottom line. A BusinessWeek special report even suggests that methods such as CENCOR (calibrate, explore, create, organize, and realize), design strategy and innovation metrics are the next �big things� after Six Sigma.

Paradigm shifts are another path to cool brands. Existing products and ideas are re-thought. Essentially, an existing need is addressed in a radically new way. The result is a new product built for the same customer. Example: P&G�s Swiffer has replaced the traditional mop, a product has customers questioning, �Why didn�t they invent this sooner?� It�s unconventional, surpasses expectations and consequently, pretty cool.

Cool Insurance?
How about service categories? Can service brands be cool?

Oozing cool is characteristic of product markets; services are rarely seen as trendy or hip, although The ING Group and Washington Mutual have done a good job of branding themselves as vogue in a sea of similarities. From a bank disguised as a caf� to revamping the teller-customer environment, these financial institutions are changing the perception of such services in customers� minds.

What about other services? Can insurance companies, management and other professional services be cool? Sure they can, but how will clients receive them? There�s a stigma associated with unconventional branding�many companies feel they must conduct business with a certain degree of �professionalism,� which can be perceived as the antithesis of cool.

Start-ups face this dilemma. A client of Partners & Levit Advertising, New York sought to attribute a new advisory services organization with the attributes of fun and cool. The branding process raised the issue of being perceived by customers and investors as unprofessional if presented as cool. In the end, the agency developed a branding strategy that was edgy within the B-to-B health care category � but relevant to the company�s goals.

A �cool services� hit is services for custom �skin� development. Skins are software interfaces that replace the default look. One can change the color scheme and add-ins of popular programs such as Mozilla Firefox or MusicMatch jukebox. Custom skins are cool because it�s solely customer-centric. According to Gordon Paddison, New Line�s VP of Interactive Marketing, �Skinning happens to be one of the few areas where users actually embrace online advertising.�

Who Can Be Cool?
Cool hasn�t been a prevalent strategy in the business-to-business sector to date. Functionality, deliverability, and price are the most important B-to-B considerations. On the other hand, it would be cool to work with a vendor with a funky yet brainy image. 

But times are changin�. Cool is trickling into the business-to-business and service sectors. Marketing professionals in these categories are realizing that people making decisions are just that�people. And these people want cool products and services just like any end user. However, there are B-to-B sectors that appear to prefer conventional branding. As we wait for them to catch up, be aware that a brand can�t change its personality overnight.

Attributing a brand with cool imagery is a laborious process. Sudden branding changes can confuse customers. It runs the risk of turning current customers away, as their needs and wants may become inconsistent with the �new� brand.  Cool branding requires additional maintenance, too, since what�s defined as cool constantly evolves. The real work is in defining what�s cool and to whom.

Age Ain�t Nothin� But a Number
Contrary to popular belief, not just young adults want to be cool; people of all ages do. According to a 2005 DataMonitor report, perceptions of cool vary by age:

  • Young customers mimic celebrities; advertising for this market segment involves celebrity endorsements. Their definition of cool is imitating their favorite celebrities.
  • Early mid-lifers and Baby Boomers like unique, innovative and stylish products. Cool to them means embracing their individualism.
  • Older customers buy products that are high quality and authentic with a level of sophistication. Cool to this group means quality.

Really cool products, such as the iPod, fit the definition of cool for different age groups. However, marketing accordingly doesn�t guarantee a brand�s success. According to Malcolm Gladwell�s The Tipping Point, brand success is determined if and when the innovators and early adopters in the market embrace it. These two groups are the �cool leaders� that influence and determine how quickly, if at all, the marketing message is dispersed.

The Early Birds of Cool
Innovators are trend spotters and are visionaries who welcome change. They want products (or services) that set themselves apart.  Even though a very small section of the population comprises this group, it has tremendous influence over the rest. As rebels by default, these cool customers are the first �wave� to embrace new product hits.

The second wave is early adopters. According to Gladwell, this group is similar to the Innovators, but with a less adventurous streak. They see what the Innovators are doing and mimic it.  But Early Adopters are opinion leaders. Innovators can be radical when assessing trends. The Early Adopters, watch, evaluate, and make a decision as to whether or not the Innovators have a trend. They, essentially, deem a product cool.

How do you reach them? Advertising hits the third and fourth wave of customers, the masses. Innovators and Early Adopters pay special attention to categories in which they�re interested by frequenting websites, attending expositions, and other means. One can even sign up for Early Adopter e-mails about new products from sites such as or by visiting blogs like Early Adopters want to be found, their coolness depends on it.

The Cost of Cool
One of the most powerful benefits of a cool brand is added value, enabling marketers to charge premium prices. The value added by the customer can be rational or emotional. Rational added value includes trust and confidence while emotional added value encompasses social acceptance and being perceived as cool.

Think about it. What exactly is the difference between a polo shirt from the Gap and another from Barney�s other than $300? The difference is added value. Barney�s can charge premium prices because its products gives the customer added emotional value�prestige. If your brand is position as cool, you too, will be able to charge premium prices.

It�s not so easy. Ultimately, it�s the end user that decides whether or not a product is cool. A marketing professional�s job is to give the brand attributes their segment perceives as cool. Gerard Kleisterlee, CEO of Philips agrees; smart innovation makes happy customers�and boosts the bottom line, according to an article on

Losing Your Cool
Your brand is cool and sales are skyrocketing. How do you keep things rockin�? Unless you�ve found a way to reverse the Product Life Cycle, losing cool is inevitable. Brands lose cool when there are improvements in their categories or competitors preempt them. Or, the brand�s been mass distributed and is no longer trendy. The Innovators and Early Adopters move on to something new, fueling the cool cycle just because they don�t want to be like the masses.

Sometimes it�s not how many customers have your product, it�s who owns it that drives popularity down. President Bush received an iPod last year from his daughters and since, the youths that embraced their $250 bundles of joy now shun them and are looking for the next cool thing. The brand itself is no longer as cool because someone the market perceives as uncool owns one.

Sometimes when a product looses cool, the maker develops an adaptation. Sony introduced the Playstation 2 when sales of the original Playstation were slowing. They added innovations such as the DVD player. Also, the Playstation 2 could play original Playstation games, so the user didn�t have to buy a whole new game library. Gamers raced into stores!

Bottom line: cool will never have definitive characteristics except for innovation. Perception of cool is always changing. C-to-B and B-to-B marketers alike always need to know what appeals most to their markets. Whether they�re looking for social status or just some edgy packaging, it�s the customer who owns the cool factor.

Cool, huh?

Explore the attribute of cool and how it can propel your brand.  Call our managing partner Mark Levit at 212.696.1200 to arrange a consultation. 

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