‘Cool’, Branding and Marketing

The word ‘cool’ has entered in currency of language, especially that of young people. The term enjoys a distinct and well defined meaning in dictionary. It implies a state when something is ‘neither warm nor very cold or is moderately cold’.  Coo’ is also used in contexts other than relating to temperature. Many times cool is used to signify character of a person, place or brand.  Anything that is considered to be cool enjoys attraction and hence enjoys customer following. On the other hand, a perception of ‘un-cool’ has a value robbing effect from a product, place or phenomenon. 

Subversion: The term cool in marketing has gained currency by an act of subversion. Cool brands appropriate a property appropriated independent of their product attributes. Rather this property is acquired from culturally created symbols. Cool is an acquired or instilled property into a brand which makes it dear and liked. Being a cool brand can reverse the effects of free market enterprise system and provide escape routes to monopoly creation by abstracting a quantifiable value into a symbol of expression and identification. The outcomes that can be obtained by Cool phenomenon are tangible but the term itself remains elusive and fuzzy. But it is a precious resource which can be leveraged to create superior market results. Grossman called Cool as the ‘most precious natural resource’ which can make an otherwise substitutable product ‘fantastically valuable’. Cool in this contextualization assumes position like a marketing resource.

Genesis: One of the parallel words that can be traced in a dictionary to the cool is calm. Calm state implies freedom from agitation, excitement and disturbance. Cool psychologically is about reining emotions and thereby controlling physiological and physical response to internal or external stimuli. The term cool is therefore traceable to groups like slaves, prisoners and others on the fringes of society. During the periods when slavery characterized a dominant Western practice, slaves were forced into developing a psychological state of being able to detach from the oppressive surroundings as it was the only way to survive. Cool is about disguise and deceit. A deeper and more profound connection can be drawn between the terms cool and equanimity.Equanimity is one of the core tenets in Buddhist philosophy. The state of equanimity implies that one is not ruled by passion, desires, likes and dislikes influence of passion, desires, likes and dislikes. In Hindu philosophy ,transcendence from attachment to joys and aversion to misery is cultivation of equanimity.

Cool and consumption: The term cool it seems has been exported out of its original context to mainstream popular culture. Miles Davis is known for his jazz music, a form of music has an element of confrontation of blacks with European music. Jazz has a strong connection with the time of slavery in the United States. Jazz evolved in twenties and was perceived by older generations as something hostile to old values and culture and promotion of decadent values associated with twenties. Two facets of coolness are social desirability and rebelliousness.  Cool has also been linked with a category of people called ‘hipster’.  Their ideology was based on the rejection of what was common and adoption of the bohemian, juvenile delinquent and the Negro. Hipster subscribed to an alternative lifestyle that ran counter to the mainstream ideology, it was their own liberal sensibility.  . The hipster phenomena can be seen as a quest for an alternative meaning in life through rejection of the establishment through non-conformity. 

Cool and marketing: Cool is a scarce resource capable of bringing about value transformation. Heath and Potter observed that the phenomenon of cool as counterculture has been imported into common consumption culture. The core ideology of counterculture has been appropriated by consumer culture in that capitalists sell cool as a mark of distinction to status seeking affluent people.   Brands lose appeal when they become un-cool. Brand like Levis seem to be going downhill. Many causes are attributed to its declining fortune. The blue double seamed riveted jeans become cool during fifties and sixties for associations and imagery that Levis acquired with working class typically defined as blue collar workers.  At the heart of this un-coolness was the question, how can a brand which is worn by parents be cool for the young generation? A pair of blue jeans symbolized conformity not a challenge. The brand perceptually represented the system, and new generation was looking for its own rebel identity. The jeans brands were inventing new cool which enjoyed resonance with the youth of nineties. Accordingly new cool was found in brands like Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger.

 Cool is an exploitable commodity. Brands succeed by appropriation of the ideas that are considered to be cool.  The journey to becoming a cool brand necessarily has to begin with uncovering what is cool in a given customer group. 

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Levi Strauss, Growth, Brands and Architecture

Every marketer must walk through market to reach profit goal. Revenue is essential for profit, the surplus left after deducting costs. The revenue goals and profit targets necessitate participation in market or markets. The growth imperative manifests in targets related to market share, sale and profits. Firms pursue their growth differently, a choice involving considerations of horizontal and vertical participation in the market. Branding and brands are important in this context.
Levi Strauss & Co has come a long way since 1873 which invented riveted tough denim wear (‘waist overalls’). The leather patch with an image of two horses pulling the jeans apart was used to demonstrate the pant’s strength. Within the rough jeans wear the company went on to increase its market participation by launching products meant for different segments like ‘Koveralls’ (one piece play wear for children), 501 (made exclusively from 10 oz. red selvage denim), jeans for the ladies by the name of Lady Levi’s, Lighter Blue line (sportswear), Preshrunk and STA-PREST (wrinkle free), wear in corduroy and polyester (to keep up with style changes). This way the brand went on to expand its reach to many jeans consumer segments. In 1996 LVC was introduced based on the reproductions of clothing from the Levi’s Archives. Then came super low waist jeans for women.


In early eighties the Company in an attempt to expand its footprint in upscale dressier clothing market created Levi’s Tailored Classics (LTC) line. The purpose was to tap ready to wear formal wear segment. But the brand failed to appeal to the sense and sensibilities of the target customers. The obvious question was what credibility a hard core denim wear brand has got to offer a classic range of suits which can be picked off the racks. Second if these were tailored then how these are available pre-fabricated off the rack? Levi name did not make sense to this segment and the line was discontinued.


With the progression of time, the concept of dress further fragmented from the binary classes of formal and informal wear. The dress besides operating at the functional level also functions at the symbolic level. A lot about a wearer is expressed by what he or she wears in terms of class, affiliation, personality, attitude and life style. The highly formal dipped in the starch formal clothing was pushed aside by a new generation of entrepreneurs and professionals (25-45 years baby boomers) who were free spirited white collar workers and wanted clothing to reflect their orientation (relaxed not tensed). Dockers brand was introduced in 1986 making company’s foray into what is called Khaki (non denim) market. This sub brand was created to take a plunge into emergent business casual clothing which young people wanted. It was a segment in sandwiched in between highly formal and highly casual jeans wear segments. This brand saw innovation such as StainDefender, Never Iron and Thermal Adapt. The brand was later extended into sunglasses, bed linens, & bath categories.
The Company’s portfolio was further expanded in 2003 with the launch of ‘Signature by Levi’ brand. The idea was to reach out to men, women and children with a product denim and non denim casual range of clothing. In terms of price this was an attempt to capture value conscious customer who aspired to own a Levi. The brand ‘Signature’ sought to appropriate style, quality and fashion and affordability and the words ‘by Levi Strauss’ directly supported it by making an explicit endorsement. Signature promised ‘Superior Fit, Comfort and Style’ to its customers. This move of the certainly allows the company to expand its presence by going out of its top end niche (minimum price 2200 rupees) which contributes to top end metrics like sales and share. But this strategy has its own risks. This kind of reaching out to the lower price points (between Rs. 799 and Rs. 1,499) can harm the mother brand by diluting its equity (exclusivity and class connotations). Titan reached out to economy segment by ‘Sonata’ brand with endorsement coming from ‘Tata’.
Later in 2006, the Company made a course correction by changing the Signature brand into ‘dENiZEN’ this was probably done to protect the Levi brand from potential image dilution harm. The dENiZEN brand was also a response driven by a strategy to fight local brands like Killer and Flying Machine. This brand was slightly differently positioned as a younger brand. In the visual communication ‘dENiZEN’ name stands dominantly out signifying something independent and different which supported by words ‘from Levi’s’. Unlike in its previous avatar as which used the expression either ‘Levi Strauss Signature’ or ‘Signature by Levi Strauss’ the identity of two brands were merged which signified a ‘different kind of Levi’ . But dENiZEN’s branding seeks to reconcile two opposing ends of belongingness and un-belongingness. When one sees the signage of dENiZEN, it signifies there is somebody new and different (denim and non-denim, trendier, young, economy and gender neutral) on the block but it comes from the house of Levis (credibility and trust).
In a new brand consolidation exercise, Levi Strauss & Co is in the process of phasing out its dENiZEN brand from markets other than North America. The Company will instead focus on its core Levi’s brand.

Brands, Time, Dissociative group, Core Customers and ‘It’s not for me’

Branding is an exercise in perpetuity.A good brand achieves timelessness by a transformational process by which a product is converted into a ‘construct’ of an eternal appeal.  Anything that exists in physical form or in imagination cannot afford to be a constant, for change is the only constant.  A product is pushed into obsolescence with the arrival of new products which embody superior functionality. Consumers switch to a new product for it offers better solution to their problem. Consider how long playing records gave way to cassettes which later were overtaken by compact discs. The new storage devices like pen drives are making CDs obsolete. This is due to progression of technology by which the old one is rendered inferior in solving a consumer problem (consider progression from manual typewriters to electric to electronic to computers).

Brands developed on functional identity appeal to consumers primarily for their ‘problem solution’ capability. This is particularly true in a business to business and technology centric scenario (Intel marketing its processors to different computer makers or a firm specializing in demolition of old skyscrapers).  The challenge for the brands in this category is to keep climbing up the technology ladder and updating the functionality of the brand. The latest ad of Colgate Sensitive toothpaste is built on the appeal of ‘two times faster’ relief. Apple has been moving up on the functionality dimension with its different generation of iPhones (thinner, lighter and faster). This has been true for top German cars like BMW (improvement that they introduced to make it the ‘ultimate driving machine’) and Mercedes.

There are brands which operate on emotional and expressiveness plane. This is especially true for conspicuous products which help a person express what the kind of person he or she is. In this sense brands act as conveyors of meaning. The boots of Woodland express the ‘outdoorsy and adventurous’ streak of the wearer and Nike (based on the goddess of victory in Greek Mythology) reveals a winning attitude (grit and determination).  Brands that derive their success from their expressive symbolism operate in the realm of imagination with very little connection with functionality.

Even for brands with emotional and self expressive propositions staying in sync with the socio-psychological realities is a great challenge. The ‘hip and happening’ (values in vogue) keep changing with each generation. The values that define consumers and drive their buying evolve with time. Accordingly the brands which succeed by ‘value appropriation’ need to evolve their proposition subtly. For instance Bata’s durability may not go down well with new consumers’ desire for style. HMT (‘Time keepers to the Nation’) reigned supreme for middle class for their ‘accuracy and reliability’ but Titan stole the show with ‘design’ appeal (watch became a means of expression) in eighties.

Some values appear timeless like rebellion, liberty, honor, beauty, peace and happiness. Values become timeless when people subscribe to them generation after generation. There are two challenges for managing value centric brands. First, the icon (person) used by the brand to represent its value must be changed with time. This has been very successfully done by Lux which is built on the value of ‘beauty (we have seen its endorsers changing from  actresses like Leela Chitnis to Wahida Rehman to Babita to Hema Malini to Aishwarya Rai to Kareena Kapoor). The icon representing the core value of Lux has been changing with time.

Second, social brands succeed by conspicuousness. People use them for their ability to express a given value meant to construct a social identity.   Brand’s core consumers who fuel its success can also become reasons for its failure. This happens when brand’s core consumers graduate on to a different class (non- core) but continue to use the brand or peripheral segments use the brand. This way the brand develops association with a dissociative group breeding seeds of disconnection with its core customers. Consider the following ‘the brand is not for me’ situations:

  • Fiat and Ambassador cars got inextricably linked to a group that new car buyers do not relate well with
  • Louis Vuitton’s bags with conspicuous branding encourages some customers but also discourages many
  • The aggressive marketing of a sports shoe brand like Reebok to non-sportsperson can diminish its appeal with hardcore sportsmen
  • Hawkings and Prestige pressure cookers which girls have grown seeing their mothers cooking with
  • Even a brand like Nirma is perceived to be undesirable by new generation because of its ‘Hema, Jaya, Sushma’ connotations

The latest reported disconnection like this is the case of Levis and Wrangler. Both  the brands are struggling to cut ice with Indian youth who perceive these brands to belong to ‘ fathers’ generation’ (which is obviously old and not so stylish according to their standards- dissociative group).

Symbolic brands are intended to negotiate meaning either for self construction or social signification. Two way interactions characterize this consumption:  meaning transfer from brand to consumer which is followed by a reverse transfer from consumer to brand. This renders meaning in a constant state of fluidity. The reverse transfer or pollination can alter brand meaning subtly rendering it inappropriate for the core consumer. This calls for a tight control of meaning by enforcing a stricter regime of endorsement and reach.

Symbolic brands therefore are faced with twin challenge of building acceptance and at the same time erecting barriers to consumption.