'Chasing Cool'? Take a Look in the Mirror

If You're Seeking to Stand Out, Look In

By Published on .

Think back to the days of high school dances and college mixers. Ever feel surrounded by people much "cooler" than you? Not wealthier, more talented or prettier -- but cooler. What made them cool? Were they decked out in clothes with exotic, unknown origins, the lot of which you could never pull off? Maybe they were a posse of artists whose techniques you never had the time or courage to master? The coolness was something you lacked, making the source something to lust after. But you're forgetting the other half of the equation: You're in the room, too.

Brand (self-)awareness lies at the heart of "Chasing Cool: Standing Out in Today's Cluttered Marketplace," a very enlightening conversation of insights into why company mission, moreso than strategy, is the key to finding relevance with your desired consumer. Authors Noah Kerner and Gene Pressman forgo metrics for a salon-like exchange that praises unhindered creativity and frowns upon the fleeting effectiveness of brand ambassadors, celebrity endorsements and "ethnic shoplifting" (read: when "bling" gets banal).

Their guests in the forward dialogue are entrepreneurial vets who have long pioneered cool -- Vera Wang and her haute wedding designs, Ian Schrager and his boutique hotels, Amy Sacco and her legendary nightclubs, Russell Simmons and his music and apparel empires. While each of the 70-plus contributors recount strikingly different paths to the top, all lips are pursed with the following words: definition, moderation and, yes, risk.

You see, "Chasing Cool" is a red herring; finding cool, the authors explain, doesn't happen by following the bread crumbs. It begins and ends with harvesting and exploiting your best assets. Radio-listener research doesn't cultivate musical personalities, socialites don't sell burgers and bottle service does not a Studio 54 make.

Before beginning the Chase, I doubted a common voice could be heard beneath the singular shouts of Kerner and Pressman. Pressman's 27 years as co-CEO, creative director and head of merchandising for Barneys New York nearly match the number of years his colleague has been on this planet. Kerner, a former DJ and CEO of Noise Marketing PR, was recently named among Billboard magazine's "Top 30 Under 30" list of influential business execs.

To my surprise, their words of wisdom are quite complementary. Kerner culls much from his DJ years, namely observations about the magic of alcoholic beverage packaging and presentation. Grey Goose founder Sidney Frank's engineering of authenticity by way of a frosted bottle -- nay, the very adoption of Goose's tagline, "The World's Best Tasting Vodka" -- is a fantastic example of cool that kicks off the authors' crash-course on becoming the "iPod of your industry."

While Pressman's rehash of the Barneys story glitters like a fairy tale (discount Chelsea retailer + handful of Michael Jackson sightings + epiphanic buying trip to Paris = Mad. Ave. megabrand), his urge to maintain a personal aesthetic at the grassroots level and beyond rings crystal clear. Almost a century after its 1923 founding, following the highs of expansion from LA to Tokyo and the lows of a 1996 bankruptcy filing, Barneys finds itself at the top of the world: Dubai-based Istithmar and Japan's Fast Retailing Co. are boxing for the brand's third buyout . . . with $900 million on the table.

True cool only increases in value.

Still, finding a balance between what your business and your consumers want can be elusive advice. After reading through nearly a century of brand impressions, I emerged from the rabbit-hole starry-eyed and inspired, but empty-handed. If competitor outlets, fan bases and survey research aren't enough to go by, what's the modern measure of success? After all, coolness in this millennium doesn't last longer than an opening weekend or a first-day queue for some geek gadget like Apple's iPhone. I doubt seriously any marketer could refer to a product as "cool" that's received lukewarm response on YouTube and zero hits on Technorati in the last three months.

I voiced these frustrations to Kerner and Pressman over Bombay gin and tonics (a cool enough choice?) during the release party for "Chasing Cool" last month, co-hosted by Amy Sacco at her zebra-clad New York hotspot, Bungalow 8.

How can young entrepreneurs map their investments with only one eye on the metrics, I asked. How will you know when you've become cool? Or, more frighteningly: What if you don't have the creativity it takes to envision an archetype-free path to coolness?

Kerner explained that while cool is relative to all audiences, it takes introspection, experimentation and a willingness to share equity -- to benefit the culture that's benefiting your brand -- if you want to reach that loyal consumer who's perfect for your product.

Pressman's response reflected the book's push for individuality:

"There are enough how-to's in marketing today. I'm waiting for the how-to-not."
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