Creating a coolness strategy for your brand

July 17, 2019
Written By:
Greta Guest

Graphic on 10 characteristic for brand coolness. Illustration credit: Ilma Bilic

ANN ARBOR—We all think we know what helps to make a brand cool—from popularity to aesthetic appeal—but do we have a complete understanding, and can we actually measure what a specific brand needs to become cool, and stay cool?

Researchers have validated a structural model of brand coolness, and a scale, that incorporates 10 characteristics including being energetic and exciting, and connections to a subculture. Brand managers can use this scale to create a coolness strategy.

Focus groups, depth interviews, an experiment and multiple survey studies indicate that cool brands are perceived to be extraordinary, aesthetically appealing, energetic, high status, rebellious, original, authentic, subcultural, iconic and popular.

“Brands initially become cool to a small subculture by being original, authentic, rebellious, exceptional and aesthetically pleasing,” said Rajeev Batra, a marketing professor at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business and a former brand manager. “We refer to these brands as niche cool.”

The study, forthcoming in the Journal of Marketing, was co-authored by Richard Bagozzi, a U-M professor of behavioral science in management, Caleb Warren of the University of Arizona, and Sandra Maria Correia Loureiro of the University Institute of Lisbon.

The research details how brands can go from niche cool to mass cool, in which they are perceived to be more popular and iconic, like Apple. But the research could also be used by people trying to market social issues or causes like how to make recycling more cool for wider adoption, Batra said.

It’s the first study to identify and validate the 10 components a brand can use to be considered cool by consumers. It can help brands diagnose their strengths and weaknesses, and figure out they need to do to correct their coolness weaknesses.

“Our structural model allows managers to drill down into which component of coolness are of greater importance in shaping overall coolness and how these might vary across geographies, consumer segments and time,” Bagozzi said. “Our components can also be used for pre-testing and evaluating different marketing programs.”

Not all of the characteristics are necessary for every brand and every consumer segment, but increasing any of these characteristics tends to make a brand seem cooler. For example, Nike is widely seen as cool because its shoes are highly desirable, look good, signal energy and have extraordinary quality. Apple shows positive autonomy by being original and authentic, even as it has grown to become very popular. Harley-Davidson became cool when a subculture of outlaw bikers, who lent the brand a rebellious, iconic image, adopted the brand. BMW, conversely, is cool in part because it has become a popular status symbol.

“We also talk about brands that are about to lose their cool. It’s not inevitable, but they can become so widely used and diffuse that they lose whatever gave them coolness in the beginning,” Batra said. “Others have maintained that coolness by staying connected to their niche like Nike has by staying connected with athletes having a rebellious persona, like Colin Kaepernick.”

Others, though, lose their cool. As brands such as Quicksilver, Rocawear and Supreme expand from a fringe group of outsiders to mass-marketed magazines and suburban shopping malls, they start to seem less rebellious, original, authentic and extraordinary—and less cool—to their original subcultural consumers of surfers, rappers and skaters.


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