“How Cool Brands Stay Hot: Branding to Generation Y”

I’ve given dozens of speeches in the past few years where I try to to address the question of how Millennials relate to brands.  Are Millennials brand involved or brand impervious? Do they like new brands or old brands? Obscure brands or mainstream brands?  Brands targeted specifically to them or brands that their parents can also embrace? Above all, what does it take to get them to ‘like’ a brand? To buy it? To wear the logo? To talk about it with their friends?

These questions are not easy to answer but very much on the minds of youth marketers and mainstream marketers, alike.

So I was thrilled to be asked to receive a review copy of a new book titled “How Cool Brands Stay Hot” by Joeri Van den Bergh and Mattias Behrer. Rather than simply tell you I think you should buy the book (I do recommend it), here are the facts. You can make up your own minds:

Who Are The Authors?

I had not heard of Van den Bergh or Behrer before, so chances are you haven’t either, but they are far from new to Millennial Marketing. Van den Bergh is co-fouder of InSites consulting and has served many global customers (Lego, Nokia, Sony, MTV Nethworks, Danone, Unilever and Coca-Cola). Behrer is SVP, General Manager of MTV North Europe where he has been since 2005. Before MTV he served for seven years in several roles with retailer H&M.

Where Do They Get Their Data?

The book draws on a variety of sources, many of which I have written about before in this blog, including work by Kit Yarrow (Gen BuY), Pew Research, The MTV Youthtopia Study, Keller Fay’s Talk Track, as well as  mainstream business articles, newspaper articles and case histories.

Why Did They Write It?

Like most business ‘how to’ books, it was written to promote their companies (MTV and InSites Consulting). They also are donating 25% of the royalties to The Staying Alive Foundation, “a global HIV/AIDs Charity empowering young people.”

What’s the Point of View?

The purpose of the book appears to be to document what we know about who Millennials are, what shaped them and what drives them today. They make a special point of setting the record straight regarding a few myths, including:

  • Gen Y only put trust in peers (Not true, they also trust store personnel, parents and the info on commercial web sites)
  • Gen Y rejects global brands and mass marketing (Not true, they have their ‘beloved’ brands that by surviving the test of time provide a safe haven)
  • Gen Y are ethical consumers (Not true, they will try to avoid buying unethical brands, but rarely deliberately choose a brand because of its charity programmes or sacrifice their own convenience to make a difference.)
  • Gen Y is lazy (Not true, they simply see attaing the objective wht the least possible effort as smart. Most express a strong work/reward ethic).
  • Gen Y are multi-tasking wizards (Not true, although they have developed skills and strategies for dealing with information overload like ‘telescoping’ and ‘probing’)

The authors concur with my firm conclusion that brands are important to young adults. Brands provide a means of standing out from the crowd, communicating identity and bringing social acceptance within reference groups. Gen Y demands more of their brands than past generations, especially when it comes to participating in co-creating brand meaning:

“A youth brand will only be a youth brand if Gen Y can participate, co-create and co-shape the brand identity while they receive the most important youth currency: content for offline as well as online conversations…Those companies and marketers that adjust their branding strategies to address the needs of this emerging segment will find themselves better connected with them and thus more successful.” (p. 41)

What Contribution Does It Make?

The book emphasizes the importance of word of mouth in building brands and to that end provides a five point checklist of strategies for building a successful Gen Y brand. The model is dubbed CRUSH and it is backed up by research that evaluates brands based on their strength for each C-R-U-S-H component:

  • C Coolness (Cool status, whatever that means as there are over 39 different explanations, ranging from edgy to luxurious and from hip to ‘sweet’)
  • RRealness (Authenticity attained in another way than the traditional approach of origin, heritage or history)
  • U- Uniqueness (Sustainable brand “DNA” that is not easily copied)
  • SSelf-Identification (Fits with youths lives while embracing diversity)
  • HHappiness (Leverages from positive emotions, ability to avoid negative ones)

The case histories illustrating the CRUSH model are familiar, but well-presented. I especially enjoyed the chapter describing ‘What Cool Means to Brands’. To develop an overall coolness formula, the authors identified six characteristics of cool experiences.

  • Originality – This was an original way to become cool
  • Popularity – Most people would agree that this is in fact really cool
  • Appeal – The whole experience was really appealing to me
  • Edgy – This was a daring approach to become cool
  • Buzz – This is great stuff to talk about with others
  • Effort – To what extent do you think the aim was to be cool?

Across all 375 items, three variables explained nearly 80% of the cool perception – 22% originality +23% popular +55% appeal.  For brands and products, the cool formula is slightly different, with greater importance placed on originality (38%) and less on attractiveness (43%).

While some categories are naturally cooler than others, the authors maintain it is possible for every product or service to ‘cool its brand‘. While the strategies of ‘creating exclusivity and scarcity, regular surprises, novelties and innovations and advertising and selective media usage’ are hardly new, the authors’ fresh examples will help to ignite marketers’  imaginations and open them to the possibilities.

I also appreciated their perspective on authenticity and coolness. In particular, they make a point of  cautioning against the use of ‘coolhunters’ and ‘high priests of cool’, and ‘cool mining’ in favor of more integrated approaches that leverage cool networks, cool farming and co-creation. “Capturing the spirit of an era to help evolve the core of a brand is very different from catching the next trend.”

Why Should You Care?

I was pleased to see the authors address a key question of marketers contemplating ‘cooling’ their brand for  Gen Y – are they worth the trouble? “Why should you freeze your brands until they are cool if tomorrow this coolness will rapidly melt?”  Their answer is direct and clear:

“These stimulus junkies aren’t easily impressed and attaining their fidelity is not an easy job. But it’s your job as a marketer. They are your next generaiton of consumers and for most marketers they are your current consumers. You should grab every chance today to make them stick with your brand.” (P. 77)