Brand Recognition And The Science Of “Cool”12 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, your audience will do it for you.

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

Brand Recognition and Defining “Cool”

Being “cool” means you’ve got something special others 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. Some entries for “cool” include swell, neat-o, awesome, popular, nice, wicked, superior, low-key, mellow, and worthy of approval.

In the study referenced above, researchers came up with ten characteristics of cool brands.

  • 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.

Examples of cool brands (according to the study):

  • Apple
  • Nike
  • Samsung
  • Adidas

Examples of uncool brands (according to the study):

  • Microsoft
  • Reebok
  • Old Navy
  • Walmart
  • Crocs

The Life Cycle Of Cool

A “cool” brand has a life cycle. It 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 the life cycle is “niche cool”. These brands are well-known to a small, but dedicated audience. Customers see themselves as knowledgeable insiders and as members of an elite subculture. Steady Hands, a small independent clothing company based in New Jersey, is an example of a niche cool brand.

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. However, brands who achieve this “mass cool” are in danger of losing their uniqueness 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. Nike is an example of a brand going from niche cool to mass cool.

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.” Losing what made them cool in the first place, consumers see these brands as normal and undifferentiated from other brands. Interestingly enough, a few participants in the study named brands like Nike and Apple, as slowly becoming uncool. While “cool” is a subjective term, 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?

No, being cool isn’t a requirement for brand awareness or recognition. Brands are recognized for all sorts of characteristics (being conventional, playful, serious, mature, classic, friendly). The first step to cultivating brand recognition is to know your audience. Effectively communicating your message is impossible without first knowing who will be receiving it.

Know Your Audience With DVS

Before you decide how to position yourself 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 create unique connections with your audience and inspire them to take action. Contact us about how we can help reach your target audience.