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What Makes a Business Cool? Defining the "It Factor" editorial staff editorial staff

Remember when smoking was considered sexy? Smoking signaled that you were a little bit rebellious, perhaps a little more sexual than that other, buttoned-up person. (Cough, cough) LIES!

Setting aside the fact that cigarettes are addictive, consider this: to use them you had to accept that harsh, unpleasant first drag. You had to accept that occasionally you burned your clothing. Oh, and bad breath and stinky hair. All in the name of "cool." Those aspects alone underscore what people are willing to do to be seen as part of the "cool crowd."

The same goes for less deadly but just as coveted consumer products, from status clothing to tech gadgets. Customers don't just shop; they become raving fans. They don't just use your products; they evangelize, share and remix them. They don't just own your product; they use it as an extension of who they are—a solid statement of their beliefs in the swirl of a crazy, mixed up world.

What starts as the foundation of self-image and self-expression grows the moment one passionate customer spots another. Suddenly, the product transcends from consumer widget into something more primal: a tribal connection. Humans yearn for this connection.

How can your business garner this kind of enthusiasm and customer devotion? What makes your business cool? It comes down to how you are perceived. It comes down to branding and sentiment.

Is your company and its products "cool"?

Companies perceived as "cool" attract customers willing to pay a premium. Example A: Apple Computers.

How can you increase the cool factor of your business? What if you don't have the deep pockets of the kings of retail cool? How can you increase the cool factor of your business?

Define Cool

According to Coolfarming—How Cool People Create Cool Trends, a study from the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence, there are four characteristics of a cool product:

  • It's fresh and new
  • It's fun
  • It provides meaning (i.e., makes you feel happy or fulfilled)
  • It is recommended and used by a shared community (i.e., "people like us")

What is novel about my product or service?

Zappos is an example of how a cool business is created even if the widget (shoes) could be purchased elsewhere. Founder Nick Swinmurn's novel idea was an extensive online selection of shoes in the widest variety of styles in the widest variety of categories. He took a mass-produced commodity but offered a dizzying array of choice. From the start customers benefited from quick delivery and no hassle returns. Zappo's combination of choice and service produced a dedicated community of users eager to post detailed reviews about their purchases. Adding to the cool factor is Zappos' culture, which rewards dedicated employees with comparatively generous benefits and decision-making freedom, an approach that cultivates extraordinarily high customer service levels, fueling the cycle. 

Attract the Right Customers

Steve Jobs famously said that people don't know what they want until you show it to them. If something is fun it will be easier to capture and retain their attention. What constitutes "fun" varies considerably, even within the same customer demographic.

Ask yourself:

"How can I inject an unexpected [fun] reward into my product or service?"

The answer could be literal, but it could also be subjective. Did your customers have "fun" handing you their money? If they did they will be your most vocal supporters. Something novel, combined with something fun, immediately sets you apart from the competition.

Is it "fun" to buy caskets or deodorant? No. Not all industries lend themselves to a fun experience. Chances are good that yours does. Use your imagination.

Why the emphasis on fun?

Your best customers are those trendsetting early adopters who are always seeking the experiential and the "new." These are the people who are most likely to try your product (if it is new) or claim to rediscover it (if it lost its luster like PBR). If they like it, they will tell others. Trendsetters are the beacons of cool in a sea of beige followers. Get their attention. Be fun.

Where do you find these people and the trends that inspire them? One place is Coolhunting, which may have taken its name from the market research methodology. "Cool hunters" use social media and are generally a curious bunch. They love to provide their 2 cents -- that valuable feedback that generates product "buzz."

Spread the Coolness

Yawn, we've all heard about guerrilla marketing—for what, 20 years now? While the term has come to mean any kind of non-traditional marketing (which, by definition, should make it cool), it typically means employing a network of people or groups to popularize a product. Examples include:

  • Experiential (i.e., reps at "hip" taverns encourage patrons to try a new craft beer)
  • Undercover (when brand reps pose as regular consumers to facilitate a "buzz" among targeted users—also known as a great way to piss off your loyal base)
  • Flash mobs (might be too 2012, but who's asking?)
  • Graffiti that is actually temporary advertising (you probably have a better idea)

Why rehash all of this? Let's look at what these approaches have in common. They happen in real time, in real life. They involve real people interacting with those who have a genuine interest in, or need of, the product or service. These approaches take a bottom-up, grassroots approach versus a mass-media, blanket-the-message approach.

Exclusivity Breeds Coolness

When Google launched Google Glass–the eyewear computer —it restricted beta users to a fairly small group that had to go through special training before they were allowed to purchase the device. The result was that just having the glasses made you an instant celebrity among your peers.

Recently, Google launched a new email application, Google Inbox, which is "by invitation only." A restricted or exclusive launch provides both the feedback needed to improve a product before wide release, and an aura of specialness due to the limited availability.

When Ferrari introduced a new line of cars this year -- the Sergio -- sales were "by invitation only", restricted to people approached by the luxury car maker, most likely collectors of Ferrari. When you achieve this level of coolness, the price premium you can charge is amazing. Ferrari's new car is rumored to cost over $3 million a pop. Most of that price is due to how cool (and rare) it is.

Friendship is Magic

Make no mistake: you want the cool kids to influence others in a way that makes sense for your business. The problem? If done well, and done right, you have to accept much of it is out of your control. You can control the set-up, but not necessarily the results. Understand this is a good thing.

Ideally the customer community takes ownership of your product. The community takes the lead, infusing your product with meaning that sincerely matters to them. Once linked, keep your audience satisfied and you've got a hit on your hands.

See, as both a dramatic and unexpected example, the seemingly unexplained community of grown men and preteen girls around the My Little Pony franchise. Their slogan: "Friendship is magic!" No one ever said My Little Pony was "cool." In fact, it was perhaps by being so earnestly un-cool that the product merged with meaning.

In this sense the only way to being "cool" is by being brave enough to be different, brave enough to be yourself. However this is expressed, whether through your product, your service, or your marketing, it must be genuine.

Your tribe will find you.

Image Credit: NanoStockk / Getty Images editorial staff editorial staff Member
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