How do you make a brand cool again?

7 March 2016

London-based agency ZAK has worked with clients like New Balance, Fortnum & Mason and hip sneaker company PF Flyers. It has a history of working with brands to resurrect their “coolness.” How do they do it? We asked ZAK chief creative officer Matthew Bennett to try and tell us.

Making your brand cool again. It is impossible.

Sorry. And there will be plenty of people who may write in (please do, writing in is cool) or comment with anomalies, outliers, and exceptions to my rules. But… as a starter for ten, you cannot regain the consumer perception of cool if you went so far to the other end of the coolometer that broadly speaking, your target market perceived that your brand was uncool.

And I’m “air parenthesising” like mad around the words, cool and uncool. Because that’s subjective in itself right? But let’s start this debate somewhere or we’ll get nowhere.

So. IMHO you can be not-cool (which is vastly different to uncool) and then cool à la Barbour, Pabst Blue Ribbon, New Balance, Hunter, Marmite.

Not-cool is not a bad place to start, as evidenced by the rise and rise of those brands. It’s neutral, vanilla, off the radar. But uncool is a much more troubled destination to end up in. It’s a place of strong opinion. Where people care so much about your brand that they actively reject it.

And you can be cool, then uncool and not quite make it back and I’m talking about you Levi’s, Stella Artois, Jaguar, Old Spice.

But…can anyone really be the coolest in their category, then fall hard and fast from grace but make a graceful, meaningful recovery to their previous perch?

I refer you to my previous doom-mongering. No. Nope. Impossible. Never been done. Prove me wrong, I double dare you. And the reason it can’t be done is reasonably simple. Whilst you are there, agency or client, not only fighting fires but papering over cracks, restoring lopsided halos and patching up the wounded, your energy is waning, being diverted from the real task in hand. Because no one becomes uncool overnight. It may be quicker than you imagined but you will spend a lot of time and resource slowing down the decline, arresting it entirely, and then starting the long slog uphill. And all the while, a more agile competitor is racing up on the outside. Innovating, adopting the latest trends, the latest platforms and engaging the real people who make your brand cool (clue; it’s not your marketing team), those people who stopped listening to you the second you started to stop being interesting to them. The Cultural Influencers…

These are the people and “things” that are connected. And connected in more than the pure followers and likes sense of being connected. They are tuned in to the new and the next because they are responsible for the new and the next. They are making, creating, doing and showing. And once you stopped being new and interesting to them, you stopped riding the cool train.

If you are brilliant, you can be cool and yet mainstream at the same time. Topfilling with content and ideas and NPD and iterations at the cool end of the spectrum and watching all of that lovely newness flow downhill. It takes real effort and vision to do this with any real longevity.

If you are good, you can arrest a decline into uncool and be happy that you were cool once and can now ride a huge and profitable wave of volume sales in my self appointed not-cool category.

If you are not particularly good, you will take your eye off the ball, become complacent and start the slippery, rapidly accelerating descent to brand uncool-dom (again, my piece, my categories, my rules!)

If that happens, but you work hard (and hire brilliant people), you’ll manage to climb out of the Mariana Trench of uncool and regain some pride by investing enormous amounts of time and resource, and patience to re-establish your credentials but I’m sorry, you will never be cool again. That ship has sailed.

So the title of this piece is unapologetically misleading. This is a cautionary tale. One of vigilance, one of vision. Because you need both to keep moving forward. To remain on an onwards and upwards trajectory. You need to retain the hearts and minds of the people who define your brand and its values and communicate for you. Gone are the days of simply broadcasting that you are cool and people having a Pavlovian reaction to your communications. Deference changed to reference years ago. Today’s audience is simply too savvy to believe your hype.

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Matthew Bennett

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