UVA Scholars Define "Cool"

Dec 6, 2017

Buying holiday gifts can be a chore, especially if you’re getting something for people who want something cool.  That’s an elusive quality. It is constantly changing. But a professor at the University of Virginia recently published a case study on the subject, working with her students to identify the essence of cool.   

Just in time for holiday shopping, a professor at UVA's Darden School of Business and her students define "cool."
Credit UVA Darden School of Business

It was the mid-80’s, and air travel had lost much of its early luster.  Consumers had begun to think of flights as a commodity – choosing a brand based solely on price when Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Airlines, decided to shake things up.  On Virgin flights customers could have a massage or a manicure, order tasty snacks and watch free satellite TV. The planes were clean, the flight attendants friendly and the safety video featured Motown style singers and dancers.

At the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, Professor Lalin Anik took note.  She thought Virgin was cool, and with the help of her students she set out to explain why. 

“We brainstormed for a few weeks.  We looked at brands and how people talked about them on Instagram, on social media, on Google,” she says.

They concluded that cool brands had three key attributes. The first was autonomy.

“Sort of being independent, being your own person, individuality, rebellion," Anik explains. "It’s often deviating from the norms.” 

Next, they said, cool brands were authentic.  To illustrate, Anik cited a company she discovered online.  Topo Designs makes equipment for the outdoor enthusiast.

“They have very bright colors, and they are from Colorado, so just by being there they’re perceived to be authentic.  For me discovering them felt very cool, because I was able to understand what they stand for.  They do a lot of environmentally conscious, green campaigns, but they’re not loud.”

And, finally, she and her team concluded cool brands have attitude.

“You might not be the most hip looking or best looking person, but you carry that air of coolness," says Anik. "You do things with confidence, but it looks effortless.  You are not trying hard, and I think the air of  confidence sort of tells us that the person or the brand has what it takes.  They know that they have it, and they don’t have to try hard.  As a result they make us believe."

There are, of course, plenty of caveats.  Products can’t, for example, be cool if they don’t work.

“There were spherical water bottles released a while back," she recalls.  "They never caught on, because they didn’t serve the function.  People didn’t know how to hold and carry them.”

And when too many people pile on, she says, a brand can lose its appeal.

“If too many people use it, people with different status associations use it, it becomes uncool. Apple is now dabbling with that.  Too many people have it.  I think the same with Starbuck’s.  Starbuck’s created the coffee drinking culture, but now everybody has Starbuck’s, and now hipster coffee shops are coming in,” she says.

Anik also concluded that brands can become cool.  Take Adidas, for example – a sportswear brand that was hip in the 70’s.  

“Nike stepped up their game.  Puma stepped up their game.  Converse came in, but Adidas hung on, but then the trends changed.  That’s what’s interesting about coolness.  Cultural trends and context changes, and now it’s all about being original.  It’s all about being nostalgic.  The Millennials love it!” 

One other attribute can help – association. Choosing a celebrity who’s a natural fit can boost the coolness of a brand.  These ideas are spelled out in a paper by Anik and colleagues Johnny Miles and Ryan Hauser published by Darden.  Its title – A General Theory of Coolness.