FEATURE24 October 2011

The rules of cool


What makes a brand cool? Robert Bain looks at researchers’ efforts to find out.


Defining ‘cool’ can seem like a lost cause – the harder you try, the more elusive it gets.

But that’s not putting researchers off having a go. Voodoo Research has just completed a study on cool brands among UK festivalgoers and readers of Vice magazine, concluding that the coolest attribute is individuality. It’s also important to support alternative culture, to be different and to have a sense of humour.

Voodoo’s study set out to challenge one of the existing arbiters of ‘cool’: the annual CoolBrands ranking from Superbrands, based on the opinions of a group of ‘experts’ and a survey of 2,000 people. Both rankings put Apple in the top spot, but beyond that CoolBrands’ list is dominated by high-end names like Aston Martin and Rolex, while Voodoo’s results include more accessible brands like Topshop, Converse and HTC. Conspicuous consumption was ‘wholeheartedly rejected’ by its respondents, said Voodoo.

Joeri Van den Bergh, co-founder of InSites Consulting, has also been trying to pin down what makes a brand cool. His new book, How Cool Brands Stay Hot, draws on five years of research into the ‘Generation Y’ bracket of 13- to 29-year-olds.

The book, written by Van den Bergh with Mattias Behrer of MTV, sums up the key attributes of successful youth brands as coolness, realness, uniqueness, self-identification with the brand, and happiness.

“Today brands are co-created. It’s the meaning that people give to brands that really defines their value”

Joeri Van den Bergh

But what does this way of understanding consumers and brands mean for research? “One of the things is that the way we do brand tracking has changed,” says Van den Bergh about InSites. “If you look at a traditional brand tracker, it would be divided in traditional parts like knowledge, awareness, image and buying behaviour, and that’s it. That’s a very top-down way of looking at brands, whereas today brands are co-created. It’s the meaning that people give to brands that really defines their value.”

To get at this, trackers need to look at people’s emotions towards brands and how well the brands fit into their lives. InSites’ new approach involves asking survey participants what emotions they associate with a brand, and writing about the last time the brand made them feel that way.

“It’s confirmed by their own stories,” says Van den Bergh. And those stories, rather than focusing on product characteristics or things related directly to the brand in question, tend to be about “special moments, special occasions in life where the brand supported them”. “That is really the value of the brand – supporting life and lifestyle. I think it’s true for all new consumers.”

Another useful technique for understanding the new consumer is online research communities, which aim to gather insight from “the true brand fans” rather than a sample representing a broader audience. These highly engaged fans, Van den Bergh says, “are capable of telling you the most about your brand, because they know the brand better than the marketers do. That’s an all-new business, because research used to be [about] representativeness, you have to ask everyone’s opinion, and you get a lot of average scores. Involving your fans gives you more valuable insight, and I have the feeling that our clients are more helped by this type of research than the traditional brand trackers.”

This shift from representative research towards a focus on “the people who care” is a significant trend, Van den Bergh believes, and one set to continue. “Today it’s only communities and qual research, but I think tomorrow it will also have an impact on the way quantitative research is done.”

He’s not too concerned about these new ways of working posing a threat to the craft skills of research. “I don’t think you can throw away all the research skills, you still need them even if you only talk to certain people. You still need good recruitment skills, good research skills.”
Meanwhile Van den Bergh is excited about techniques that are more enjoyable and get participants more involved. A recent InSites study at the Belgian music festival Rock Werchter experimented with ‘crowd interpretation’ – inviting participants to help organise and analyse each others’ observations and draw out insights.

“If there’s one big challenge with the research industry, it’s to get people motivated to participate in surveys. Surveys are boring and these [Gen Y] guys and girls don’t want boring stuff”

Joeri Van den Bergh

InSites is experimenting further with crowd interpretation, which Van den Bergh believes is well attuned to today’s consumer “because people feel more involved with research, and if there’s one big challenge with the market research industry, it’s to get people motivated to participate in surveys. Surveys are boring and these [Gen Y] guys and girls don’t want boring stuff. It wasn’t more efficient – we’re not at a stage where we can pay for less researchers and let consumers do analysis for us so we can cut costs. But it involves people more and it brought extra insights to the table.”

As for research clients, they will be required to be more open with consumers about what they’re doing, Van den Bergh says. “The way we used to do research was that we don’t tell the participants why we’re doing the research, because the client says it’s confidential. You participate and you never see any results. I think that type of research will disappear because the consumer of today is not happy with that type of research. They want to know why they’re doing it.”

But how do clients feel about being more open? “At first they are a bit afraid, especially of the amount of time it will take in their job. We say, we want your face and videos to be on the research community and ask questions, so that they see who’s responsible for the brand they love. People like it but on the other hand they’re afraid that they’ll spend the entire work week on a research community, when mostly it’s only a small part of their job.”

In this way, the task of getting people involved with research extends to include those who are paying for it. “It’s co-creating research, not only with participants, but also internally. We have the challenge of motivating brand managers who normally think research is boring.”

How Cool Brands Stay Hot by Joeri Van den Bergh and Mattias Behrer is published by Kogan Page at £19.99.

Watch out for November’s issue of Research Magazine for more on InSites’ work at Rock Werchter.


13 years ago

The Superbrands "Coolbrands" survey is the most overhyped piece of fluff ever. As far as I can see its sole purpose is to drive publicity for an associated book (nice glossy hardback, £40), not to mention publicity for the "Expert Council" who seem to be an arbitrarily chosen selection of fashion designers and journalists. They have a good PR team behind them though: plenty of national news coverage taking things pretty much at face value (Marketing Week fell for it as well). Aston Martin won't be complaining either! It reminds me of the only page worth reading in Kevin Robert's execrable book "Lovemarks" which really is vacuous rubbish: hidden away in the middle is a lovely graph which sums up the whole point of the book better than the rest of it put together. On an X axis plot consumers' "love" for a brand, and on the Y axis plot "respect". In the "low love, low respect" quadrant you have "commodities"; in the "low love, high respect" quadrant there are "brands"; "high love, low respect" equals "fads"...and then the place to aim for is "high love, high respect" which are what Roberts calls "Lovemarks" - and what might be what makes a brand truly cool.

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13 years ago

Good point about getting people involved in surveys. That's why we keep the members of our Toluna community socially engaged instead of only providing monetary incentives.

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13 years ago

Hi Eoghan, Thanks for your reply. Do know that my book has NOTHING to do with the Superbrands "Coolbrands" survey or book... Sorry for the confusion. My book How Cool Brands Stay Hot. Branding to Generation Y, published by London based business publisher Kogan Page, is entirely based on 5 years of primary market research experience among Millennials by InSites Consulting (www.insites.eu) and so I'd like to point out that despite of the title, our work is completely differing from Superbrands approach... Kevin Roberts was one of the people who has made a reader's blurb for my book by the way :-)

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13 years ago

Coolbrands is referenced in the opening of the piece, Joeri – which is what Eoghan is referring to in his comment.

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13 years ago

This is a really interesting article. We have recently been doing some research at The Pineapple Lounge about the meaning of cool amongst 8 - 14 year olds. To kids cool isn't just about how you look and what you buy which many assume is all kids think about, but to them, cool is an emotional mind set that encapsulates confidence, authenticity and stand out and those brands that are truly supercool reflect these values. The importance of design was also incredibly important to kids, who after growing up with innovative technological devices, expect things to be packaged in a contemporary, sleek manner with attention to detail whether that's a mobile phone, chocolate bar or website. We fully agree that the research approach needs to reflect the collaboration that makes brands cool and we worked closely with young people to come up with our final 'formula for cool'. As a taster of some of the stats emerging from the final phase here's one: if you can make your consumers laugh, you are 60% more likely to be a supercool brand amongst 8 -14s'. So it's not all about high end designer gear, humour and friendliness are key cool drivers. We will be presenting this research at the MRS kids and youth conference if anyone is interested in hearing more!

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