Yet L'Oreal, Nike and Levi's are megamasters that have managed to keep their edge with consumers despite continual competitive challenges in the highly mature categories of beauty and fashion.
There is no pat answer to how each has done that, although they share an uncommon aptitude for self-examination and reinvention.
"Our race isn't with other companies, it's with people's incredibly high expectations of us .
. . and our own expectations," says Geoffrey Frost, director of global advertising at Nike.
hotness like happiness
For Mr. Frost, whose company has $9.2 billion in global sales of footwear and apparel, "Hotness is like happiness-you don't get there by trying, but by way of something else. What's something else? A teen-ager told us he hoped Nike would be 'the first big company that stayed real.' "
That may be the answer, believes Mr. Frost. "If our brand is hot or our stuff is cool, it's because they are real. Sure, we do more R&D than any company in our industry. But beyond that we focus more genuine insight and more creativity and inventiveness and sheer competitiveness on what we make . . . and being as inventive and creative and genuine in our communications product as in every other product."
The road isn't smooth. Nike recently found in scrutinizing its advertising that resistance was building up outside the U.S. to its brash and edgy lifestyle approach. So it's adjusting the campaign to focus more on product and less on personality.
In pursuit of genuineness, Nike has turned down some of its agency's more daring creative concepts for '98, according to some agency execs, instead encouraging creatives to think more reverently about the trinity of athletes, sports and product.
WANTS GENUINE FEEL
Carol Hamilton, 45, senior VP-marketing for the L'Oreal retail division of Cosmair, also places a premium on genuineness but thinks coolness is not the sole province of the young.
"You have to connect with the audience in ways that are not so obvious and make everybody feel special. That they are discovering your brand rather than you reaching too hard for them," she says.
While L'Oreal is willing to constantly reinvent itself by entering new categories and revamping existing categories, "it's important to know what to keep and what to change," Ms. Hamilton notes. "We have been very consistent over the years and that has been appreciated because it is really cool to know who you are."
One bit of continuity has been L'Oreal's retention of its "because I'm worth it" tagline. Coined in 1973 to showcase L'Oreal Preference hair color, under Ms. Hamilton the tagline is being extended to all L'Oreal cosmetics and skincare products, following the unification of all those businesses within the L'Oreal retail division earlier this year.
The merging of the three businesses "allowed us to realize the potential of the brand name and utilize the clout of 'I'm worth it' in all our businesses," Ms. Hamilton says. "That phrase allows us to create real magic around the brand."
L'Oreal also is looking at its cool quotient among coming generations with the recently developed L'Oreal Kids haircare line using a "because we're worth it, too" tagline.
Like the people at Nike, Steve Goldstein, 57, VP-marketing and research for Levi Strauss & Co.'s Levi's brand in the U.S., believes that cool essentially "resides in the minds of kids, not the corporate world, not the minds of marketers. The challenge is to keep a pulse on it."
The problem is the current crop of teens, part of the echo boomer generation, is very different from the boomers. Although 70-million strong they are not as monolithic, with many of Asian, Hispanic or African-American backgrounds.
"As such they are a lot harder to read. You have to read them in segments," Mr. Goldstein says.
As might be expected, the "They go on" campaign for Levi's is itself a paean to individualism.
"There is no promise you will be something [other] than who you are . . . every rip, every worn spot tells your story rather than our story," he says.
To reach them, Levi's has also been experimenting with media. One innovative use of interactive is its NBC.com projects in which characters from the "They go on" series are chronicled in stories written for the site by network writers.
Two key areas in ad agencies that are useful in reaching these consumers, he says, are the media department and the planning department, which brings studies of the target audiences to "almost a psychological level."
Contributing: Alice Z. Cuneo and Jeff Jensen