|Armies of volunteers prowl their local culture and report back via the Internet.
The network is a Web-linked weave of nearly 10,000 14- to 30-year-old volunteers and part-timers, recruited over several years at clubs and hangouts around the country from New York to Los Angeles and points in-between to report on their world.
"The Christiane Amanpours of youth culture," said Ms. Lee.
"They upload photos, send e-mail reports and use message boards on our Intranet," added Ms. Lee, who co-founded the firm in 1999 to find whatever makes the cultural spider-sense tingle -- music, shoes, clothes, games, makeup, food, technology. Look-Look's correspondents -- some armed with digital cameras Look-Look buys them -- might snap anything from a rave to their bedroom walls. Look-Look relies on "early adopters" and "influencers" to provide the layers of information that traditional research only skims.
Look-Look, and similar firms such as Ad*itive and Cornerstone Promotion, are cool seekers, paid by major marketers to get the first bead on what's next on the horizon. Silence is the rule when it comes to naming names (Ms. Lee allows that "some [clients] are Fortune 500" companies) who can seem as lost as Guy Lombardo-listening parents were over the Beatles nearly 40 years ago. But with a cool seeker's expertise, even the most staid company can be on the razor's edge: Look-Look has ferreted out then-uncharted popularity of under-a-dollar stores, fold-up scooters and over-the-shoulder bags.
Conversely, a client might ask Look-Look to check the coolness quotient of a product. After the small army is canvassed with online polls and surveys, the results are arranged into categories such as eating and drinking, fashion, mood and even spirituality. "The turnaround," said Ms. Lee, "can be as little as 48 hours."
What is cool, anyway? "It used to be a personality-based, James Dean, hepcat, anti-establishment attitude in denim," said Ms. Lee. "For young people now it's pure raw emotion -- it's anything that inspires you to think 'I want that ... because it fits me so well.' It can be a person, a product, a place, anything."
"We define it as any form of self-expression that starts you asking 'What if...'" said Que Gaskins, chief marketing officer for Ad*itive, a multicultural marketing firm of self-described "people scientists" with offices in New York, San Francisco, London, Tokyo and Sao Paulo, Brazil. "'What if I wore that hat or that jersey?' Then you give it your own twist, the way African-American males sport Asian tattoos or middle-class white kids wear dreadlocks or cornrows. But there's just no formula for cool."
Likewise, it's hard to define the cost of cool. None of the firms tracking it will discuss how they are paid, although they earn fees and work either on a per-project basis or on long-term retainer.
Using focus groups, one-on-one interviews, and shadowing (trailing people to see where they hang and shop), Ad*itive digs deep for the cultural context of, for example, what Mr. Gaskins called the "Liberace Thing," where African-American teens might adorn themselves with splashy jewelry. "The message underneath the flash is 'I am somebody.' All cool has an emotional connection you have to dig out."
Still, cool is as hard to pin down as a weather forecast for next week.
Fast burn out
"Cool burns out so fast that by the time companies know it's cool, it's not cool anymore," Ms. Lee said. "The old-time corporate methodology was to treat it like the annual report for shareholders -- going out and testing a sample size of a few hundred people, then retesting it again the next year. ... But a year in youth culture is like a year in dog years."
Six-year-old Cornerstone, with a blue-chip client list that has included Nike, Coca-Cola Co.'s Sprite and Powerade, Levi Strauss & Co., Sega and major record labels, is a hybrid of researcher and promoter of the cool it researches. Like Look-Look, Cornerstone uses a matrix of about 300 teens between 18 and 20 years old in 50 major markets, including New York, Los Angeles, Boston and smaller ones such as Memphis and Austin. Eighty captains run teams of three to five in-the-field reporters. The captains devise a plan to market anything from soda to video games by looking for local influencers to help spread the word.
In September of 2001 Cornerstone began working with the Xbox video-game system from Microsoft Corp. "to light the fire early," said Rob Stone, co-president of Cornerstone. Stuck with a humorless, school-principal-like corporate image and rivals like Sony's PlayStation and Nintendo's GameCube, the software giant turned to Cornerstone.
"Seventy kids got units," said Mr. Stone. "They were plugged into the local clubs and set up gaming parties with music giveaways from our record label clients. They'd do it in campus rec centers or at night clubs or on radio shows." By the time Xbox made its debut Nov. 15, "we created a huge frenzy."
Two-step and tea parties
What's coming on the cool front? Jon Cohen, Cornerstone's other co-president, said: "Two-step, a musical style from Britain mixing rhythm and blues and drum and bass." Mr. Gaskins sees "Tea parties -- clubs open during the day for music lovers -- catching on." Ms. Lee found "a growing use of 'multiple identities' where kids use e-mail addresses and screen names to create different personas for each of their interests."
But the real arbiters of cool are those who can afford to lead. "Ultimately," said Mr.Gaskins, "the future of cool belongs to whoever has the most buying power."