Most brands would love to be considered cool by their consumers. But what really makes a brand cool? Ask Indian marketers for a list of cool brands, and you are likely to hear names such as Apple, Nike, Google, Flipkart, Paper Boat, Pepsi, Fastrack, Vodafone, Tata Docomo, BMW and Audi. If you ask marketers what really makes these brands so cool, you are unlikely to get a crystal clear response. Because most of us have only a fuzzy notion of what “cool” is all about, and where it originates from.

But what we do know is that being really cool differentiates a brand from the rest of the herd. This is because consumers feel that cool brands are really special – sometimes, so special that users even feel a sense of intense devotion towards them. No wonder names such as Apple, Harley Davidson, Prada and Virgin Atlantic command such rabid fan followings across the world.

To understand what makes brands cool, we should first take a quick look at what coolness is all about. In a research paper titled Social Marketing and the Meaning of Cool published in 2008, Alan Tapp and Sara Bird define cool as “the best word to describe that elusive, exclusive quality that makes behaviours, objects and brands so hip, desirable and symbolic”.

Cool is something people aspire to, something they are inspired by. What is cool and what is uncool changes constantly, based on the latest trends in lifestyle and thinking. Indeed, cool brands help their consumers effortlessly achieve a trendy, desirable way of life.

This leads us to the big question that most marketers grapple with – what exactly is it that makes a brand so “cool” to its consumers? While there are many diverse answers, here are eight possible pathways to cool.

Trendsetting Brands which are trendsetters are generally considered cool, because these trends then help establish a new lifestyle which rapidly becomes desirable. For instance, Nike set a new trend when it brought everyday athleticism into the lives of everyone, through its ‘Just Do It’ philosophy and the excellent sports shoes that help you adopt this active lifestyle. Nike has remained a cool brand since then, because it continues to be the flag-bearer of this highly desirable lifestyle. Similarly, Uber has become a cool brand because it has established a new trend of e-hailing, shared economy taxi rides – a trend which is now called “uberification”.

Technological innovation Sony is a cool brand to many people because it represents the epitome of technological innovation in categories such as television, music and gaming systems. This includes recent technology developed by Sony for new flat panel displays used in television sets, camera sensors for smartphones that produce 4K quality of video, and advanced audio devices. These are only the latest in a long line of innovations which include the legendary Sony Walkman and pocket-sized transistor radio. No wonder Sony continues to remain so cool to Indian consumers, despite the troubles it has been facing in many parts of its business.

Offbeat and edgy Brands which are offbeat and edgy are considered cool by their target consumers. Sometimes, being edgy includes the risky, the rebellious, the controversial and a taste for the forbidden. In treading this path, these cool brands are loved by some consumer segments and hated by others. But they ensure that they are never seen as being part of the boring mainstream. A good example of this is a youth brand which I was associated with for several years, Fastrack. Fastrack is a cool brand for college-going youth in India because it has consistently maintained an offbeat image. Its clarion call of “Move On” is often irreverent, sometimes bold, but always edgy. Fastrack watches come with bold, offbeat designs that are a perfect fit for this cool philosophy.

High standards of design Many people in this modern, hectic, messy age love being surrounded by objects that possess a beautiful aesthetic and design that elevates the senses. As a result, brands that are very well designed are generally considered cool. Sometimes, such design is very stylish. At other times, the product just boasts a high standard of design that sets it totally apart. An excellent example is Apple – a key reason why it has attained legendary cool status is the brilliant, clean, minimalistic design of its iPods and iPhones. Other brands which have achieved coolness on the back of their distinctive, high design standards include Absolut Vodka and Range Rover vehicles.

Doing good Brands perceived as doing good for our planet and humanity are increasingly regarded as cool. Many more consumers are increasingly concerned today about the pressures on our environment, and many more also feel large brands should use their reach and profits to help alleviate these pressures. Hence, brands which are strongly linked to community causes, social and environmental good are likely to be considered “cool to use”. This is why Body Shop is such a cool brand – it is against animal testing, it offers only 100 per cent vegetarian products, and campaigns actively on issues relating to people, animals and the planet. This is also a key reason why Fabindia is a cool brand to many discerning Indian women – it sources ethnic products from craftspeople across rural India, thereby preserving and promoting communities of such craftspeople across far-flung corners of the country.

Age-old recipes for the new age Paper Boat and Forest Essentials are two cool brands in India today, and there is something common to both. Paper Boat offers modern consumers traditional, age-old Indian drinks such as Aam Panna and Kala Khatta. However, these drinks come to us in smart, contemporary packs with evocative new-age branding. Similarly, Forest Essentials offers modern consumers age-old Ayurvedic recipes for hair and skin care. However, these are pleasantly scented and luxuriously packaged, to cater to the discerning new-age woman. This unique combination of timeless “good for you” recipes, wonderfully repackaged for the new-age, has become a winning formula for cool.

Luxury Many people find luxury brands cool. There are two very different reasons for this. First, these luxury brands offer products of unmistakably high quality, which make their users feel pampered and special. Second, because these brands are not widely affordable, the few people who can afford them also feel part of an exclusive set. Therefore, Moët Hennessy luxury champagne is cool. Chanel fragrances and handbags are cool. The Wasabi restaurant in Mumbai, which offers luxury Japanese cuisine, is cool. Rolls Royce and Porsche cars are cool too.

Authenticity A brand that is authentic in every respect is likely to be perceived as a cool brand. To be authentic, a brand needs to have an original story, it needs to be true to this story and heritage, and it should have an unwavering commitment to delivering on its promise, which is integral part of this story. The brand has to be clear about what it stands for, what it does best, and, conversely, also what it is not best at. Consumers need to experience this brand promise at every touch point. Authenticity is what has made Coca-Cola a cool brand for decades. Authenticity is also at the heart of why Levi’s, IKEA and Google are cool brands.

There are many more pathways to cool, in addition to the eight routes I have explored. Cool brands can quickly become uncool if they are complacent, particularly if there are technological or demographic shifts that make the brand old news. If a brand has to remain cool, it has to always be alert and agile, because the marketplace and the competition can suddenly turn very hot.

Harish Bhat is author of Tata Log : Eight modern stories from a timeless institution. These are his personal views. He acknowledges valuable inputs from Sria Majumdar, Tata Sons, in the writing of this article.

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