What is cool?

The recent Cool Brands index listed Aston Martin as the UK’s top brand, with Apple, Blackberry and Bang & Oulfsen also being heralded as amongst the nation’s coolest brands. As many brands actively pursue a ‘cool’ strategy, Sholto Lindsay-Smith, managing director at strategic brand and communication consultancy Uffindell, explores why brands are so obsessed with the quest for cool and considers the dangers this can pose to a brand’s longevity.

The pursuit of cool is a potentially lucrative, if not short-lived, brand play. Cool is the subject of desire: it has the power to make products fly off the shelves and can instantly transform a product or service into the subject of envy. As a toy of the ‘in-crowd’, it needs no salesman.

But in turn, this begs the question of what is cool? Cool is a heavy mix of attitude, style, design, innovation and exclusivity. It’s about self image, admiration and approval, and can be both precious and pretentious. Cool has a magnetic allure but is often a fickle friend – effectively, it says to the masses ‘you can look but don’t touch’.

Sholto Lindsay-Smith
Sholto Lindsay-Smith

By definition, what is cool today will not be cool tomorrow; as cool cannot be mainstream. Instead cool is changeable, ephemeral and short-lived. As the saying goes, today’s news is tomorrow’s fish and chip paper.

As appealing as cool is, it is only for the few – not everyone can be cool. But, there are other ways that brands can command a premium. Offering something that is luxurious and elite is arguably a more enduring and sustainable approach to building a strong emotive brand, which focuses on the psychographic profiles of a particular audience and meets their needs and desires. Innovation to satisfy the gadget fiends and early adopters; exquisite luxury to treat the elite; sleek design to address the aesthetic of the ‘in’ crowd; or street attitude to draw in the trend setting youth. Finding a degree of ‘cool’ to appeal to particular consumers is often the key to success.

The Aston Martin design studio in Gaydon, Warwickshire
The Aston Martin design studio in Gaydon, Warwickshire

So why then, did Aston Martin emerge as the UK’s coolest brand this year?  It has attitude, style and panache borrowed from associations with 007, but it is not cool in a hip and trendy way. Indeed, Aston Martin could be viewed as more of a classic luxury brand rather than a cool brand, in that it has qualities that are not only timeless and enduring but highly compelling.

Cool is an accolade not a strategy. It is wrong for any brand to blindly embark on the pursuit of cool. After all, the definition is an ever moving target which makes it hard for a brand to be built around and sustained over the long term. It is better for brands to view cool as an accolade which defines them as a brand of the moment, rather than a strategy they adopt. Ultimately cool has to find you.

Hide Comments (6)Show Comments (6)
  • DP November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Many years ago I worked with Levis whilst at BBH/Tango and there was regular conversation around how ‘cool’ can kill. Success brings mainstream recognition + Jeremy Clarkson – which is OK if you are Aston Martin but not if a style/fashion brand – so unfortunately and ultimately ‘cool’ becomes lukewarm – and no longer hot.

  • Tyler Büblé November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    isn’t the cool brand list basically just paid advertising? I mean, there’s always a LOT of debatable inclusions. And things that are truly cool (not Aston Martin) are just too niche to be included.

    Anyway, cool is not necessarily the newest, most innovative thing on the block. What are all the cool kids into at the moment? Heritage.

  • Ali November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Is Lindsay-Smith going for the Pulitzer for statement of the obvious?

    Simply repeating the word “cool” over and over again does not really represent analysis; in fact, it feels a bit like your dad at your 18th birthday party trying to be down with the kids. Not cool.

  • Jon Watt November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Tyler Büblé
    “And things that are truly cool (not Aston Martin)…….What are all the cool kids into at the moment? Heritage.”

    Hi Tyler
    Quick guide, Aston Martin is perceived as cool because it has what?

    That’s right HERITAGE!

    You may not think they are cool however I think the “cool kids” would tear your arm off if you offered them the keys, once the lovely calf skin leather upholstery had cradled their bare arse exposed by the “cool” jeans with the waistband swinging around their knees, you would never get them back in the velour hell which is most likely their car.
    The jeans brings me to the main point cool is subjective & like beauty, in the eye of the beholder, while I don’t think the Aston is the coolest brand around I also buy jeans that fit my body & that I am able to walk in.
    What I’m trying to say is your cool is just that, your cool & mine is, you got it, mine.

    Ps just to clarify I am in my 30’s wearing a fabulous pair of Nudie jeans (which cover my underwear) & yes god damn it I AM COOL

  • Shamus McGurk November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    The definition of cool that I would really like to understand is that used by Cool Brands. How do they measure coolness? Is their cool the same as my cool – or anyone else’s cool.

    I don’t think cool is always as ephemeral as Sholto implies, but sometimes it is. Kieth Richards has always been cool, Mr Jagger however, in my opinion, is not. I can’t remember a time when wearing a pair of Levis was frowned upon – unless they were elasticated and stonewashed – but again that’s just my opinion. For me, Aston’s have always been cool, even though early DB7s were cobbled together from the Ford parts bin. My daughter thinks Hello Kitty and Build-A-Bear Workshop are the coolest things on the planet, I am obviously missing something, but then I’m supposed to.

    Cool is fickle and it’s not controlled by the individual, brand or organisation in question. Other people determine whether you are cool or not. If you try to be cool, or declare yourself to be cool, you patently are not.

    For me, cool brands are those that understand what they are about and stick to their guns. They may go in and out of fashion, be more or less popular, they may make mistakes, but hopefully they’ll always be cool to someone.

  • lionel November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    The authority on cool – thecoolhunter.net view on cool http://www.thecoolhunter.net/article/detail/1717/the-anatomy-of-cool

  • Post a comment

Latest articles

Upcoming design books to look out for

Spotlighting marginalised women designers, “heads on” design solutions to environmental issues and more – these are the anticipated design books we think you should read.