Khalid Naseem, Head of Strategy, Firebolt63, on why cool brands always win.
Pakistan is one of the world’s few countries with an overwhelmingly young population. The 2017 Census has estimated the population to be around 207 million, of which nearly 42% (87 million) fall in between the ages of 13 and 35. These are the people who have a kind of magnetic attraction towards brands that are ‘cool’. However, given that cool is a quality that defines people and not brands, brands can only be said to be cool in as much as cool people use them.
Cool is what makes or breaks brands. Cool is the currency that brands, particularly those targeting the young, can profit from when they trade in it. The profits are high for brands that are considered both cool and meant for conspicuous consumption such as fashion, cold drinks, electronic gadgets, etc.
What is common among brands such as Adidas, Coca-Cola, Converse, Levi’s, Nike, Pepsi and Reebok is the cool factor. These brands have either been persistently cool or are known for their ability to regain their lost cool. Big brand manufacturers such as P&G, Sara Lee and Unilever have all managed to get their taste of cool as well.
So what is cool? The common belief is that cool is beyond analysis. Cool is obscure. It can be described but any attempt to develop a strict criteria is futile. However, we support the contrary claim that cool is open to analysis.
First, let’s trace the origin of the word ‘cool’. The word emerged in the 20th century; it is an Afro-American phenomenon as expressed by Peter N. Stearns in his book American Cool: Constructing a Twentieth Century Emotional Style. Cool entered the common vocabulary around the Second World War. It was a predominantly jazz term; saxophonist Lester Young is credited with coining the term’s use in jazz circles. Miles Davis called his greatest album Birth Of The Cool in 1957.
However, more important than the use of the word is the pervasiveness of the attitude the word describes. Cool is sometimes defined as ‘ironic detachment’, meaning the attitude one adopts when one cannot confront authority because the consequences of doing so are too high, but at the same time, one does not want to willingly submit to it either. This attitude is termed cool. To illustrate the point, consider two overlapping circles. One circle denotes ‘rebellion’, the other ‘submission’. The overlapping area denotes a mixed reaction – signs of rebellion as well as submission – and is the area that signifies cool.
Brands become ‘cool’ when they project their consumers exhibiting such behaviour (streaks of rebellion mixed with bands of submission). Pepsi’s advertising in the late 80s featuring Junaid Jamshed’s Dil Dil Pakistan and a band of westernised youngsters, in the context of an establishment headed by a military dictator (General Ziaul Haq) using Islamisation to legitimise an unconstitutional rule, accompanied by a disdain for pop culture that didn’t suit his political purposes was ‘cool’ and made Pepsi a cool brand overnight.
Marlene Kim Connor, in her book What is Cool: Understanding Black Manhood in America, is explicit in connecting a cool attitude to the Afro-American experience. She states that cool is the silent and knowing rejection of racist oppression, a dignified expression of masculinity developed by black men who were denied mainstream expressions of manhood.
Although cool has its roots in the Afro-American experience, it is wrong to confine it to a purely historical moment. It would be equally wrong to confine the term to a particular ethnic group or gender. The fundamentals of a cool attitude can be distilled beyond any specific cultural or ethnic roots. Cool is concerned with practical responses to a situation – for example, how to react to the day-to-day indignities of oppression and keep one’s dignity intact. Cool has thus, gradually moved from being an attitude for the marginalised to an attitude adopted by ‘lifestyle outsiders’ (people who don’t conform to mainstream ways of living in a society and its prevalent values).
Brands become ‘cool’ when they project their consumers exhibiting such behaviour (streaks of rebellion mixed with bands of submission). Pepsi’s advertising in the late 80s featuring Junaid Jamshed’s Dil Dil Pakistan and a band of westernised youngsters, in the context of an establishment headed by a military dictator (General Ziaul Haq) using Islamisation to legitimise an unconstitutional rule, accompanied by a disdain for pop culture that didn’t suit his political purposes was ‘cool’ and made Pepsi a cool brand overnight. Pepsi’s later advertising featuring cricket stars breaking the team’s discipline to sneak out of their rooms to grab a bottle of Pepsi was also ‘cool’. It helped Pepsi continue to rise in its stature. Mountain Dew is also ‘cool’ when it features its users exhibiting extreme behaviour. Available in a bottle that looks more like a beer bottle than a soda and the tagline Dew Na Kiya Tou Phir Kia Jia, it connotes resistance against authority but not quite rebellion. Dayfresh flavoured milk is another brand that features extreme behaviour by respectfully disobeying authority making it ‘cool’ and appealing to today’s young.
Once cool people adopt an idea, a chain of events unfolds with the rest of us eventually adopting it as well. Naturally, by the time the un-cool public adopts the idea, the idea itself becomes un-cool; what is cool today becomes un-cool tomorrow. This means there must be universally shared goals that both the ‘cool’ and the ‘un-cool’ respond to.
The un-cool are driven to adopt cool behaviour when dealing with a universal problem cool people have already solved.
The status of cool people depends on their authenticity, an authenticity that can only be proven by self-expression. The value of this self-expression is eroded when its ways are adopted by the public at large.
This adoption does not and cannot make them cool, but it does spread the trend. And what we see around are lots of ‘wannabe cool’ people imitating cool behaviour rather than being real cool people.
Cool people need to be outwardly expressive and socially engaged. This is true of teenage and twenty-something audiences. These life stages are pre-eminently about social engagement and the kudos necessary to achieve successful and fulfilling engagement with one’s peers while commanding their respect.
Malcolm Gladwell writes that the nature of respect has shifted: “It has to do with personal influence within specific social networks. It has to do with the influence held by those who have the respect, admiration and trust of their friends and not with a kind of status envy, which is, to me, a notion that comes from the 50s. It’s a notion that’s not relevant today and also happens to be a notion that I find personally distasteful.”
This is true. Status can only be derived by conspicuous consumption if one can have more than the others. It used to be cool to be the first to own a TV, then a colour TV, then an LED and so on, but no more. Goods have become so ubiquitous and of such consistent quality that the notion of ‘mine being superior to yours’ is not true anymore. Social status no longer comes from ostentatious consumption but from how one consumes.
The status of cool people depends on their authenticity, an authenticity that can only be proven by self-expression. The value of this self-expression is eroded when its ways are adopted by the public at large. Men and women exhibit their cool attitude in different ways; for example, courage finds a different expression among young men in their twenties who follow cricket teams than it does for teenage girls interested in fashion. What brands need to consider is how they can reflect the way their target consumers express virtues such as generosity, bravery, truthfulness, standing up against what is wrong and so forth. The more a brand helps them do so, the cooler it is.
Khalid Naseem is Head of Strategy, Firebolt63.