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What does it take for a brand to be considered as cool? And can a country do the same?

Can you brand yourself as cool? Japan seems to thinks so; in fact, it’s betting 40.6 billion Yen (about $350 million) on it.

The Cool Japan Fund was founded in November 2013 as a public-private fund with the aim of commercializing “Cool Japan”. Chairman Kazunobu Iijima puts it this way: “It is becoming more necessary to reconstruct Japan’s brand status in the world….The Cool Japan Fund is most active in supporting companies in industries such as audio and visual media, cuisine, and fashion, where such support is expected to induce a ripple effect overseas.”

Some of the companies that have received a windfall from the fund include retailer Tokyo Otaku Mode and the ramen chain Ippudo.

There’s even use of the phrase “gross national cool” (this would be more convincing if the proclamations of cool weren’t accompanied by saturnine executive headshots). If it seems modeled on Blairite London, you would be correct.

But that model is as much cautionary as instructive: Cool Brittania as a phrase seemed to have purchase worldwide in 1996 but was an eyesore by 2000 – a totem of trying too hard. The Guardian even published a takedown called ‘The Myth of Cool’, claiming it was a marketing conspiracy dreamed up by the UK record industry and Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream.

Of course, all of this would be mere dinner party conversation if countries and companies weren’t spending hundreds of millions of dollars to cultivate the concept of cool.

How do you define the concept of cool?

So, the big question is whether anything – a company, product or a person — can be branded as cool. The Oxford dictionary defines cool as the quality of being fashionably attractive or impressive and also as a state of calmness and composure.

All true, but the concept of cool for the purposes of branding is more elusive.

It is sang froid and self-possession to be sure but it is also inwards looking and unaffected (in every sense of the word).

Philosopher Thorsten Botz-BorNstein says “Cool resists linear structures. Coolness is a nonconformist balance that manages to square circles and to personify paradoxes.”

The book Cool Rules by Dick Pountain and David Robins does an extraordinary job of describing it: “This attitude is in the process of becoming the dominant type of relation between people in Western societies, a new secular virtue. No-one wants to be good any more, they want to be Cool. Cool is an oppositional attitude adopted by individuals or small groups to express defiance to authority.

Put more succinctly, we see Cool as a permanent state of private rebellion.Permanent because Cool is not just some ‘phase that you go through’, something that you ‘grow out of’, but rather something that if once attained remains for life; private because Cool is not a collective political response but a stance of individual defiance, which does not announce itself in strident slogans but conceals its rebellion behind a mask of ironic impassivity.”

Exactly.

In branding terms, the concept of cool is one of the class of emotional or irrational brand benefits (the other two classes are functional and societal benefits). We respond to the concept of cool in a brand because we want to be conscripted into its ranks, to feel affiliation with an exclusive society of tastemakers and iconoclasts. And we will pay a serious premium for it.

The concept of cool goes back much further than we think (most people think it begins with 30s jazz). In fact, we find it as far back as the great epics and Stoics of Greece and India (Achilles and Arjuna were both equally self possessed) and certainly in the 19th and 20th century when theorists like Charles Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin wrote about a new figure that was emerging in urban life – a cool cat who was hard to pin down. This is Baudelaire’s 1863 description of an urbane subject in “The Painter of Modern Life” and in it we can tease out some of the best descriptions of cool ever articulated:

“To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world…a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito. Or we might liken him to a mirror as vast as the crowd itself; or to a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness, responding to each one of its movements and reproducing the multiplicity of life and the flickering grace of all the elements of life.”

So, let’s take a look at one such person. Here is a photograph of Albert Camus, the legendary French-Algerian novelist, journalist and philosopher.

concept of cool

With his upturned collar and the dangling cigarette referencing everyone from Humphrey Bogart to Jean Paul Belmondo to James Dean, there is no question that Camus had designs on creating a concept of cool.

But what made him the genuine article rather than a poseur is that his cool was organic to who he is.

In his life, he was bold and intrepid and entirely sui generis – from being a pied noire and an intruder in French literary circles to writing brilliant, bristling books about disaffection to defending anarchists to pillorying Stalin to claiming that Sisyphus might be happy.

This was an original and this cocktail of audacity and aloofness defines almost everyone who can convincingly claim the mantle.

What does this mean to branding?

When you construct your brand architecture – your vision, mission, brand idea, positioning statement, brand values, brand personality and brand promise – you need to be true to what your company or product is and what it isn’t.

You cannot superimpose the concept of cool on top of who you are.

If the registers of reserve and rudeness don’t exist within you brand, you can’t impose them convincingly. It’s why so many fashion and car ads seem so banal and barely distinguishable.

Look at these two ads for Hugo Boss and Express.

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One can imagine switching the logos without anyone noticing. And rather than cool, the subjects invariably seem like ciphers, a thin facsimile of self possession.

This is the most vapid type of branding and it carries real risks.

Pountain and Robins, writing about the shrinking relevance of the Levi’s brand in 2000 put it this way: “It doesn’t take too much investigation to understand that Cool is not something that inheres in the artefacts themselves, but rather in people’s attitude to them. Levi Strauss found out the hard way that Cool is not an intrinsic property woven into the blue denim of its jeans: it was the way that their wearers perceived Levi’s that made them Cool, and within a few years that perception would be imperceptibly seduced away by Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger.”

Brands that have been successful at creating a concept of cool over the long term have done one of two things: they appropriated it from people who already possessed the grail – Apple, for example, with its Think Different campaign cribbed from Picasso and Dylan and Muhammad Ali (it helped that the mercurial Steve Jobs was cool as well); or they leveraged the natural qualities of a product to evolve the concept of cool. Consider two examples:

Guinness did a beautiful job with this series of nocturnal print ads.

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Created by the firm, Robertson Partners, each one had a striking image with a painterly chiaroscuro and a tagline like “stout as authentic as you are”.

What makes it cool?

The campaign could have easily tried the usual mimesis of cool (one can imagine a lesser agency using models wearing leather and straddling motorcycles) but rather it stole its gorgeous color palette from its product.

That smoky, textured duotone is entirely organic to the storied company and its product, and the look naturally indexes all the things we think of as cool – dark nightclubs, black leather, even a touch of Lou Reed.

A very different campaign but one that gets it just as right is the campaign for Celine, the French luxury brand.

 

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For one thing, the ads avoid proper three point lighting in their portraits, opting instead for the look of a tossed-off, disposable camera snapshot.

The subjects are also similarly unappointed and authentic, often wearing no makeup and looking decidedly haggard.

Most memorably, Celine featured the extraordinary American writer, Joan Didion in an ad, wearing large black sunglasses that obscured half her face.

The approach works well for the brand because the unproduced look short circuits our smooth bourgeois impulses and taps into much more human, unruly experiences – exhaustion, boredom, even grief (Joan Didion famously wrote a memoir of sorrow called The Year of Magical Thinking). This is original and unapologetic.

Will Japan create the concept of cool?

For Japan, the task to be cool is driven by a desire for soft power.

The idea, coined by Harvard professor, Joseph Nye articulates how a country, rather than appealing to militarism or economic pressure, can win influence through the attractiveness of its culture, political ideals, and policies.

America remains the supreme example.

For Japan, cool power will be a tall order. The nation’s creative output has much to recommend it (think of the writer Haruki Murakami, the rock band Shonen Knife or the eternally fashionable Rei Kawakubo) but it’s also a jumble of kitsch and infantilizing imagery that creates a lot of confusion.

Japan will need much more than a ministry and proclamations of cool.

It will need to understand the soul of its own brand in order to unearth the registers of authenticity, resistance, bravery and brazenness that can inspire the world.

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