Manufacturing Cool

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As designers we are taught... well forced... to avoid the use of the word cool. Apparently, it is vague and meaningless. It means something different to everyone. It lacks value in a deep conversation. Yet, in the American lexicon, cool is the the word Americans use to describe the things they want or are proud to have.

Cool has become synonymous with desirability, though it’s definition goes farther than that. It implies something that is on the leading edge of cultural trends. In a 1997 article in the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell asserts that cool is a real, but unknowable property.

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In his article, Coolhunter, Gladwell gives cool three characteristics:

  • "The act of discovering what's cool is what causes cool to move on"
  • "Cool cannot be manufactured, only observed"
  • "[Cool] can only be observed by those who are themselves cool".

If you are familiar with Gladwell’s work (Tipping Point, Outliers), you understand that he has a unique and deep understanding of the way society actually works. Those of you who are not familiar with Gladwell, you should be.

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Gladwell gives cool three characteristics. Two of which I believe are accurate. "The act of discovering what's cool is what causes cool to move on." "[Cool] can only be observed by those who are themselves cool."

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It is the third point with which I disagree. Here Gladwell asserts that “Cool cannot be manufactured, only observed.” I believe cool can be created. There is a reason why companies like Apple, Nike, and even Vans are able perceived as cool year after year while their competitors lag behind.

Based on my observation, there are four ways to manufacture cool: Next, Irreverent, Contrast, and Exclusivity. This obviously represents a simplified view of the topic, it is necessary to move the conversation forward.

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Next is the most obvious, but difficult way to manufacture cool. It requires a deep, innate understanding of a particular user group. Further, it requires the courage to predict what these individuals will perceive as cool in the future, not today. This requires an agile brand with it’s finger on the pulse of cultural trends. It is for this reason that small brand like Supreme, Huf, and Mystery are the masters of this variety of cool.

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The second category of manufactured cool is Irreverent. Like Next, it requires a deep understanding of cultural trends. Instead of relying on them to predict what will be next, Irreverent cool ignores trends. To do so in an authentic way, a brand should look into themselves to find what ,makes them different. When done poorly, this results in something “retro” or “heritage” (think Chrysler PT Cruiser). When done well, something entirely new is created that leverages a brand’s history and values with a forward looking perspective (the New Mini Cooper).

When Apple is called cool, they are being Irreverent. They understand their customers well, but are not reacting to what they “want.” Instead, Apple has a established a set of consistent core values that they continuously reinterpret to create the future version of Apple cool.

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Contrast is the third category of cool. It is similar to Irreverent in that it requires both understanding cultural trends and ignoring what will be cool. Instead, in Contrast, as the name implies, a brand does the exact opposite of what they expect to be cool in the future. It is through this contrast, that a brand becomes cool. This approach may be counter-intuitive, but it works. You often see this approach in high fashion and, in the end, results in the cyclical nature of the fashion industry.

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The final way to manufacture cool is probably the easiest. This is through Exclusivity. Essentially, the harder it is for a customer to obtain a product, the cooler it is. Exclusivity can be attained either through a high price point or through artificially limiting availability. Either option makes a customer feel unique, special, and, ultimately, cool.

While cool through Exclusivity is the easiest to achieve, Exclusivity cannot be employed without first establishing a brand as cool using one of the other strategies. Being expensive or limited does not make something cool without delivering an additional value to the consumer.

 

Obviously, being cool is a risky proposition. It involves looking into the future with an understanding of the past. In order to manufacture cool successfully, a firm must wholeheartedly invest themselves in the pursuit.

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A firm cannot try to be cool selectively, cherry picking a few products (See Dell XPS). Instead, the entire brand must be invested in being consistently cool across every touch point. Ultimately it involves taking chances that may or may not be successful.

While this approach is undeniably risky in the short term, it is better than the alternative in the long term.

Patrick, The Modern Industry

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