Too cool for school: Brands and the art of authenticity

In the wise words of Andre 3000, what’s cooler than being cool? Sam Hollis, Senior Brand Strategist discusses.

Yesterday CoolBrands® released their annual survey charting the 'official' coolest brands in the UK.

The results come from a poll of 2,500 British consumers and a panel of 36 key influencers including musicians, entrepreneurs, fashion elite, and prominent members of the media and publication world.

The list has caused a lot of debate, primarily around the crowning of tech giants Apple as the king of cool for the fourth year running.

Apple's reincarnation over the last decade from rebel upstart to corporate goliath has led many to form new perceptions of its brand, and some of the backlash on social media reflects this.

Where once choosing Apple products signified a bold free-minded creative independence, it is now seen by some as the ubiquitous choice of the unenlightened – held back as we are by the monopoly their connected products have over our digital lives, and by not knowing any better.

It seems things have gone full circle. The free-minded independents have turned insurgent while the masses are firmly entrenched. And the masses have voted.

Their status atop the list does seem contentious given the lukewarm response to their big product launches this year, Apple Watch and Apple Music, but they’re clearly not yet ready to relinquish the title.

While attention will be given to the podium positions, there are some interesting developments overall.

14 brands retained their Top 20 status from last year – a stat clarified by Stephen Cheliotis, CEO of The Centre for Brand Analysis (TCBA) and CoolBrands® spokesman: "Attaining top 20 CoolBrands status takes time and isn't the result of a one year fad or flash in the pan."

In a list traditionally dominated by luxury brands, it's interesting to note that among the 6 casualties were Dom Perignon, Rolex, and Stella McCartney – a recovering economy apparently not enough to keep them in favour.

Other top 20 dropouts were Sony and Bose, losing out to disruptive digital brands Spotify and Sonos who are riding a wave of popularity with music consumers due to their understanding that more than revolution, consumers are looking for liberation. Tweet this

A personal point of satisfaction is the noteworthy addition to the list of The Royal Albert Hall, debuting at no.13.

Why you ask? Two reasons.

Firstly because the fact that a much-loved British institution that's nearly 150 years old is perceived as 'cool' goes some way to restoring confidence in the list (as well as humanity).

Secondly, because it follows a year in which they drastically overhauled their visual identity in order to contemporise their brand while retaining its heritage and unique history. And yes, that was BrandPie’s work (I did say it was personal).

So what does it mean for a brand to be cool?

The debate is inevitable and invited. After all, the concept of 'cool' is about as subjective as it gets.

Its precisely because of its indecipherable formula that being 'cool' is perceived as the Holy Grail for many brands. In the wise words of Andre 3000, what’s cooler than being cool?'

So in an attempt to codify and bring consistency to the judging process, CoolBrands® asked participants to consider style, innovation, originality, authenticity, desirability and uniqueness.

Of these, the one that got us talking is authenticity.

For a brand to be considered authentic it has to have meaning for consumers, a clear purpose behind it Tweet this - one that not only drives strategy and decision-making internally, but also manifests itself in a rewarding customer experience externally.

Authenticity is crucial to maintaining a coherent brand position in a cluttered consumer world. Tweet this

In an environment of unprecedented visibility and interactivity, the temptation is for brands is to become reactive – to desert their heartland in favor of what's in fashion or on trend. To pursue short term favorability over long term loyalty.

Brands that have a clear and authentic purpose don't do this. When an organisation is clear on it's purpose and has an authentic and compelling story to tell, it can create connections with consumers that transcend fashion and trends and achieve longevity.

In the case of The Royal Albert Hall, it's taken a lot more than a stylish and contemporary redesign of their identity.

The CoolBrands® recognition is in no small part due to their commitment in balancing their traditional classical arts alongside newer contemporary programmes (such as singer Emeli Sande and DJ Pete Tong).

This approach has allowed them to remain relevant alongside modern venues such as The O2, connecting with younger and more diverse audiences and encouraging new artists and visitors to be part of their history.

This is deliberate, and at the very heart of their purpose. Throughout its 150-year history the Royal Albert Hall has strived to remain authentic and true to this.

Which sounds pretty cool to me.

And I’m not the only one – the people who work at The Royal Albert Hall are among the most engaged and passionate clients I’ve ever encountered.

They intuitively understand the vision of The Royal Albert Hall, are committed to what it's trying to achieve and proud to play a part.

Authenticity is behind all the other criteria In the CoolBrands® voting system. It is the platform for originality. The formula for uniqueness. The engine for innovation. The substance behind style. The key to desirability.

The organisations that have made it onto the list have successfully elevated themselves above just products and services. Tweet this

They have forged meaningful connections with their consumers by being authentic and playing a relevant part in their lives. And they continue to reward those consumers with products and experiences that live up to their promises.

As well as desirability and loyalty, it’s not a stretch to assume being recognised as (and being) a cool brand lends various talent advantages, from engagement to attraction and retention.

So whether being recognised on a list of cool brands is something your organisation aspires to, it’s difficult to argue that it’s not a substantial validation of business and brand strategy.

We all have our own ideas on which brands are cool, as we all have our own ideas on what cool actually means.

Those that manage to tap into a more universal appeal are clearly doing something right. And, as in the case of The Royal Albert Hall, it starts with being authentic.

If they can stay authentic, there’s no reason why The Royal Albert Hall won’t still be cool in another 150 years.

What are your thoughts on the CoolBrands® list? What makes a brand cool for you? Who’s doing it right?