What The Coolest Apparel Brands Teach Us About Being Cool

When it comes to defining personal identity, few brand choices matter more than what you choose to wear.  When students tell me they aren’t into brands, I merely smile and point to the Notre Dame, Nike, and Adidas logos on their hats, shirts and shoes. For Millennials, apparel brands are an important means of curating identity.

For marketers, the challenge is to understand what makes a brand cool enough to wear?

The Coolest Brands

There are many systems designed to tell us which brands have the most equity, are the most valuable or represent the greatest value to consumers. But until today I was unaware of a serious study of which brands are the most cool. Spanish branding agency, Allegro234, recently released results of its Coolest & Gaps Branding Survey.  The study, now in its third consecutive year surveyed 4,200 people in 28 countries.

One of the things that makes it so original is its emphasis on write-in responses. Rather than pre-ordain the coolest brands, they rely on nominations. Each respondent proposes one brand that represents ‘the coolest experience’. Remarkably, of the 114 global brands nominated, 20 represent 60% of the responses.  The top 40 proposed brands are 75%.  This high degree of consensus suggests we know all cool when we see it.

The study went beyond proposing cool brands and also asked participants to rate their nominated brands on ten dimensions of the brand experience. These dimensions included ‘Brand’, ‘Communication’, ‘Place’, ‘Availability’, ‘Related Services’, ‘Tailormade’, ‘Interactivity’, ‘Respect for the Environment’, and ‘Social Responsiblity’.

Of these ten factors, by far the most important was ‘Brand’ – the vision that the brand promises.

The Coolest Apparel Brands

The entire report is well-worth reading, but for this blog I will focus just on the apparel brands. Not surprisingly, apparel brands represent a large proportion of the top 60 coolest brands. They include:

Diesel (6), H&M (9), Gap (12),  Nike (14), Levi’s (17),  Adidas (19), Swatch (22), North Face (23), Hugo Boss (26), Stella McCarthy (31), D&G (32), Patagonia (40), Top Shop (42), Pony (45), Zara (49), and Burberry (51).

Allegro234 observes that cool apparel brands fall into four broad categories. Tellingly, none of these categories has much to do with ‘luxury’:

Masstige: Ex: Stella McCartney, Hugo Boss, D&G, LaMartina, Disiguel

Mass: Ex: Target, Gap, H&M, Top Shop, Zara

Performance Sports: Ex: Nike, Patagonia, North Face

Urban Sports: Ex: Adidas, Pony

One of the most fascinating lessons here  is that ‘luxury is no longer a guarantee of coolness’. The report goes as far as to conclude that ‘luxury brands with some exceptions, are no longer considered cool’ and that a cool experience is now what matters most in the definition of cool’.

A cool experience helps peoples’ referential status and moves away from the traditional idea of luxury. Something luxurious is not necessarily cool. This gives greater weight to trends over more rational shopping processes and the flow of the experience is more important than possessing he product in order to live it.” Coolest Brands Survey, p 13.

I have long said that luxury is not relevant to Millennials. In my experience, young adults have a different metric for determining value, and that metric rarely involves status or prestige. While it’s true that Millennials enjoy premium brands, their affinity has more to do with the experience of ownership than the fact of ownership. A Coach or LV bag for a young professional woman, represents the first step on the path to a professional image or career. It has practical connotations,  an accessory that aids confidence in an interview and suggests you are discerning and willing to ‘invest’ in something of value.

Other related lessons: Mass brands can be just as cool as exclusive brands. Performance brands can be just as cool as fashion brands. In other words, it’s no longer essential to be ‘hip’ to be ‘cool’.

Do Millennials Relate Differently to Brands?

The research on cool brands was not limited to Millennials, but coolness represent a more modern view of brand value than more traditional markers.  In particular, by underscoring the importance of ‘brand’ in the sense of ‘credible promise or vision’, the Allegro study is better aligned with how Millennials choose brands.

New frameworks are needed and have started to appear, that emphasize attributes such as Identity, Performance and Social Responsibility (Future Brands). I like to think of these as  Competence, Caring and Belief. More research is needed before we can conclude that Millennials relate differently to brands, but I am convinced they do.