You can see it, hear it and chase it. But you can’t fake it.
There’s nothing more uncool than a person or brand trying hard to be hip. Like pushing on a pull door, the harder you try to cultivate it, the more ridiculous you look.
Too many brands spend their time trying to ape more fashionable competitors or piggyback irrelevant trends in the hope of stealing star power. The line between being super cool and looking like a dickheadis a fine one, and the backlash can be brutal. Just ask Crocs, or Chevrolet, or Walsall Healthcare.
Why bother? Instead, brands should think hard about what cool means. In doing so, they can start playing the cool game by their own rules, and to their own benefit.
Let us explain.
How to be cool
‘Cool’ is shorthand for ‘club’. Fashion heads queuing for hot clothing brands belong to a group that knows more about style than you. Teenagers post duckface selfies because their friends do. Insurance brokers order vodka martinis hoping they’ll be lusted after like Bond. Outside their Oxbridge colleges, public schoolboys wear Barbour jackets as a uniform that says I went there too.
Brands – fashion ones in particular – are the simplest signifiers of the clubs we want to belong to: the ‘cool’ we strive to create. This should be a good thing for brands. Find a ‘cool’ customer demographic and attach yourself to it: simple. Not so. ‘Cool’ is rarely – if ever – created on a brand’s own terms.
Consumers decide what is and isn’t cool.
Many ‘cool’ brands started out with a completely different purpose. Timberland workwear earned a second life thanks to New York drug culture, Mexican teenagers favour Polo Ralph Lauren for its narco undertones, and nineties football hooligans loved stealing Stone Island as a souvenir from away games. When brands try to remove themselves from unwanted cult attention, the results can be disastrous. Just ask Cristal – lambasted for racism when then they tried to cut their association with hip hop.
Brands don’t control their own cool. Better to give up trying, and instead reap the equally potent benefits of consumers’ need to belong.
Buy to belong
Belonging is the flipside of cool; an emotional kick which powers purchase decisions.
A music-lover buys expensive audio equipment because other audiophiles do. A gourmand eats at restaurants other food-lovers recommend. A health-conscious person buys the multivitamins advertised in their wellness magazine, designed for people like them.
In each instance, the consumer is buying to belong – even if the brands they are buying aren’t ‘cool’ in the classic sense.
Of course, few consumers would admit to following others in this way – but that doesn’t make it any an less relevant fact for brands, or any less true. In psychological terms, “man is a social animal who remains group-oriented to ensure survival, connection and belonging”. Businesses which can tap into their customers’ need to belong will grow as a result.
As a case in point, take Pampers. Recognising that first-time mothers fear the effects of pregnancy, Proctor and Gamble have spent years building the brand’s parenting club – offering mums support, advice and a forum for meeting other new parents. In turn, Pampers’ target market feel emotionally connected with the brand and other consumers. It might not be cool in the traditional sense, but the sense of belonging is what really matters.
The Pampers club is a transparent example of a brand cultivating community. Others create a sense of belonging more assiduously, by restricting sales to only one group. Luxury goods signify membership of the financial elite, because they are priced beyond most consumers’ means. Many clothing brands produce only a limited number of certain garments, to drive up demand and foster a sense of belonging in those committed enough to queue up for them overnight. Exclusivity is a powerful draw for all brands. Any business with a mailing list can host invite-only events, or deliver exclusive content to their customers. Brands’ ability to create community is endless – and endlessly powerful.
For brands, community is equally powerful as cool. Better still, community is something brands can control.