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What makes a brand cool?

Can you remember when Levi’s was a cool brand? Well it isn’t now, and that’s because brands and perceptions of them change over time. CoolBrands tracks these changes and each year it announces the UK’s most successful brands and companies.

This year (the 11th), the Centre for Brand Analysis, publishes its latest findings and tells us which brands have succeeded in their PR and advertising efforts to charm us in 2012.

The annual Top 20 CoolBrands list shows us which brands are the most stylish and maybe original, and the one thing they all all have in common, is they want to sizzle.

This year there are quite a few new entries; in fact 15 of the top 20. It may be due to the prevailing financial climate, but technology and affordable, but luxury brands are the new cuckoos in the nest. YouTube is at number two, Twitter appears in fourth, Virgin Atlantic is eight and Nikon is 20, whereas, top-end luxury brands, like Dom Perignon, Rolex and Vivienne Westwood, have all dropped out of the top 20.

Supercar Maserati was at number 20 last year, but this year the more attainable Mercedes-Benz replaces it,in at 16. The BBC iPlayer has jumped back into the top 20,at number six; head, Dave Price, said: “BBC iPlayer had a record-breaking 1.9 billion TV and radio requests in 2011 and is now available on more than 550 different types of devices, including mobiles, games consoles and connectected TVs.”

Twitter is the highest new entry into the top 20, at number four, which is described as a ‘coming of age’ for the social network. Stephen Cheliotis, says:”We now have a number of tech brands all in there together, including Skype and YouTube, which is quite significant. Using this kind of technology has enabled us to enjoy ourselves in different ways, whether it’s through speaking to friends or catching up on entertainment we’ve missed.”

It is commercial success that companies want,so can being cool,help? Callum Negus-Fancey, of the CoolBrands Expert Council says yes. “Cool brands have more people talking positively about them than talking negatively. In a world where word of mouth travels quickly and is more effective than any other form of marketing, it will affect your bottom line and increases your margins.”

There are two ice cream brands in the top 20; Haagen Dazs (at 13) and Ben and Jerry’s (in 15th), The two brands market themselves differently. Rhodri Morgan, a Ben and Jerry’s brand manager, says: “Fans have always loved us for our rich ice cream, but at our heart we have always had a strong social mission.”

Ed Culf, marketing director of Haagen Dazs’s parent company, General Mills UK, says its place is justified by a focus on good ingredients: “We refuse to compromise on quality, which has made the brand an icon for indulgence. Unmistakable quality will always be cool.”

Cheliotis says: “These brands are not luxury, like Rolex or Vivienne Westwood, but they’re not a supermarket own brand either. They are premium accessible pleasures that we can all have, and in tough economic times, something we all appreciate.”

The Top 20
1. Apple
2. YouTube
3. Aston Martin
4. Twitter
5. Google
6. BBC iPlayer
7. Glastonbury
8. Virgin Atlantic
9. Bang & Olufsen
10. Liberty
11. Sony
12. Bose
13. Haagen-Dazs
14. Selfridges
15. Ben & Jerry’s
16. Mercedes-Benz
17. Vogue
18. Skype
19. Nike
20. Nikon

It is hard to define cool; it is a nebulous quality that we can all recognise; it is product of the zeitgeist, yet something that never goes out of style. Like beauty, it is probably in the eye of the beholder, and is something personal, or possibly tribal.

Despite being hard to define, cool is something people and brands aspire to. Brands want to be cool, because people buy cool brands to be cool by association.

Cool can be attributed, but never claimed; it is the receiver who defines it, not the transmitter, so how can a brand achieve it? Simon Massey, ceo of the Gild, a company that specialises in brand strategy, says; “The first thing I would say is that the pursuit of cool should be subtle.”

“Given that the label of cool is attributed, the first step in pursuing it, is not to pursue it at all.The key is to understand the receivers, the audience, the culture, ther zeitgeist.” He says that this is not done by focus groups, but by immersion in the culture.

Massey says: “It is about understanding the hopes, fears and dreams of the people around us and the world they live in. Cool is an emotion, so we need to know how they truly feel.”

Once a true understanding of the zeitgeist has been grasped, it is time to turn inwards, The element that many brands lose, is their roots. What was it that sparked the original idea? What was the original mission of the business? What made the founder special and in turn, made the brand special? Steve Jobs had to return to Apple to remind them and Howard Shulz to Starbucks.

Massey says that this is not enough; there has to be something ‘more’ and that ‘more’ is something many brands are afraid to embrace. “It’s an opinion, an idea, a vision. Too many brands think that the consumer alone can answer all their questions, tell them the right route and remove the risk. But they forget that the founder took the risk, had an idea and that’s what made the brand succeed.”

To be cool, a brand must stand for something and continue to stand for it; it must keep moving and stay relevant, connecting with the culture or zeitgeist. The audience may then attribute ‘cool’ to the brand, and the key thing then is not to recognise this, a brand that says that it is cool, has already lost that ephemeral quality.

Nigel Phillips

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