Brand Recognition And The Science Of “Cool”13 min read

by Jan 2, 2020Marketing


Brand recognition and perception is a key part of building your brand story. How your audience perceives you is just as important as voice, logo, or typefaces. Ideally, you define yourself and strategically position your brand in relation to your competition. If you don’t define yourself, your audience will do it for you.

A recent research article from the Journal of Marketing noted that people trying to manufacture “cool” brands have met with mixed success. The researchers conducted a series of studies to conceptualize brand coolness and to identify a specific set of characteristics most commonly associated with “cool” brands.

Brand Recognition and Defining “Cool”

Being a “cool” brand means you’ve got a special something that your competitors don’t have. But what exactly is that something?

Urban Dictionary lists over 300 definitions of “cool”. While not always the most scholarly source, Urban Dictionary offers a great glimpse into how words mean different things to different people: swell, neat-o, awesome, popular, nice, wicked, superior, low-key, mellow, and worthy of approval.

In the study referenced above, researchers were able to nail down 10 specific characteristics of cool brands. They found that cool brands are:

  • Extraordinary/useful: high quality with tangible benefits.
  • Aesthetically appealing: beautiful to look at; sets a standard for the industry.
  • Energetic: active, outgoing, and useful. Able to connect with consumers on an emotional level and help them have remarkable experiences.
  • High status: exclusive, upper class, glamorous, and sophisticated.
  • Rebellious: rule-breakers, irreverent, and revolutionary.
  • Original: creative, doing things one step ahead. Trend-setters.
  • Authentic: behaving consistently and staying true to one’s roots.
  • Subcultural: being associated with a specific group or activity.
  • Iconic: strong meaning and valued among customers.
  • Popular: trendy and widely admired by consumers.

Researchers found that brands described as cool include:

  • Apple
  • Nike
  • Samsung
  • Adidas

Others that are generally seen as uncool:

  • Microsoft
  • Reebok
  • Old Navy
  • Walmart
  • Crocs

The Life Cycle Of Cool

A “cool” brand actually has a life cycle. A brand transitions from one stage to the next as its audience grows and changes. Sometimes a brand moves through these stages purposefully—strategically evolving its image and voice to claim new spaces in the market. Other brands are pushed (or pulled) into a new stage of cool by an audience who defines the market on the brand’s behalf.

Stage 1: Niche Cool

The first stage of “cool” is niche cool. These brands are well-known to a small, but dedicated audience. Customers see themselves as knowledgeable insiders and as being part of an elite subculture. An example of a niche cool brand is Steady Hands, a small independent clothing company based in New Jersey.

Some brands never leave the niche cool stage, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Here are some pros and cons of being niche cool:

  • Loyal, but small customer base
  • Strong brand love
  • Less exposure
  • Low brand recognition

Stage 2: Mass Cool

Some niche cool brands grow and are adopted by a wider audience. These brands become more popular and iconic, but may be seen as less autonomous. Brands who achieve this “mass cool” are in danger of losing their cool and being perceived as normal or undifferentiated from other brands. Mass cool brands also risk losing their original subculture consumers, who may begin to think of them as less rebellious, original, authentic, and extraordinary. An example of a brand that started out as niche cool and became mass cool is Nike.

Some brands successfully balance the precarious position of being mass cool. Here are some pros and cons of this stage of cool:

  • Wider audience
  • Command a price premium
  • High brand recognition
  • Potentially fewer adopters

Stage 3: Uncool

Sometimes mass cool brands become too “mainstream.” Consumers begin to see these brands as normal and undifferentiated from other brands. These brands are perceived to lose what made them cool in the first place. Interestingly enough, a few participants in the study named brands like Nike and Apple, as slowly becoming uncool. While it’s good to remember that “cool” is subjective, mass appeal brands are more likely to be considered “uncool.” Examples of such mass-market brands include: Walmart, Crocs, and Old Navy.

Is “Cool” Necessary for Brand Recognition?

Absolutely not. Being cool isn’t a requirement for brand awareness and recognition. Brands are recognized for all sorts of characteristics (conventional, playful, serious, mature, classic, friendly). The first step to cultivating brand recognition is to know your audience. Without identifying who you are communicating with, it becomes more and more difficult to effectively communicate your message.

Know Your Audience With DVS

Before you decide to position yourself as “cool” take a moment to study your audience. What brand characteristics will form a connection with them? Now think about the people you want to reach, but haven’t been able to. How can you start a conversation with your wishlist audience?

At DVS, we start every marketing strategy by identifying your Who. By understanding a specific person or group of people, we can create a conversation that makes a unique connection and drives your audience to take action.

Your brand is the story that your audience writes—make it a good one.

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