How to be Cool: 10 Ways ‘It’ Brands Stand Out from Their Uncool Peers

“Cool” is something almost all brands strive for, but only a select few ever achieve. It’s the reason kids mob exclusive Adidas sneaker pop-ups and line up for hours outside of Supreme — but what is it that makes one brand cool and another uncool?

Researchers from the University of Michigan Ross School of Business set out to identify the particular characteristics that vault a brand into the ranks of Nike and Off-White, as well as what happens when they get there.

Through a series of interviews, focus groups and essay prompts with students across the U.S., U.K. and Europe, the study’s authors cataloged 10 key descriptors associated with cool brands: extraordinary, aesthetically appealing, energetic, high status, rebellious, original, authentic, subcultural, iconic and popular. Not every brand has to fulfill every trait. A luxury label might be iconic and high status and not subcultural, but leaning into these qualities does tend to make consumers perceive them as cooler, the study found.

The study also sheds light on one of the trickier transitions a brand can make: from the “niche cool” of early, underground days to the “mass cool” of mainstream success. In the initial phase, brands tend to be more associated with rebellion, originality and authenticity. In the latter, they can become more popular and iconic, but if they don’t hold on to the qualities that made them cool in the first place, they could find themselves falling out of fashion.

“It’s not inevitable, but they can become so widely used and diffused that they lose whatever gave them coolness in the beginning,” said Rajeev Batra, a marketing professor at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business and a former brand manager. “Others have maintained that coolness by staying connected to their niche like Nike has; [the company has cultivated coolness] by staying connected with athletes having a rebellious persona, like Colin Kaepernick.”

While there may be nothing less cool than trying to manufacture “cool,” there are some strategies marketers can look to for success, such as Patagonia’s continued emphasis on the brand’s history and values (a mark of authenticity) and Vans’ ongoing support of the skateboarding and surfing subcultures it has been associated with for more than half a century.

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