CoolBrands: How to capture the essence of cool

Aston Martin has held off Apple to retain top spot on this year's CoolBrands list. Nicola Clark asks what it takes to make the grade.

Aston Martin beat Apple to the top spot in CoolBrand 2011
Aston Martin beat Apple to the top spot in CoolBrand 2011

Slightly cold, of a low temperature, slightly cold in a pleasant way, a temperature that is slightly too cold; old dictionary definitions of cool are a world away from the brands that comprise the annual CoolBrands list. The ranking, which has been running since 2001, has become the definitive guide to the world's coolest companies (see box). This year's list is topped by luxury car brand Aston Martin, which has held the top spot for four of the past five years. It sheds light on what exactly constitutes cool in 2012.

Aston Martin - which remains James Bond's car of choice, despite his brief flirtations with other marques in recent years - is one of several heritage and luxury brands that populate the top 20 CoolBrands. Fashion and accessories names rank highly, with Rolex at number four, Alexander McQueen ranked 11th, Ray-Ban at 14, Chanel at 15 and Vivienne Westwood and Agent Provocateur placed 17th and 18th respectively.

While many would assume that the list would fluctuate greatly over time, Stephen Cheliotis, chief executive of The Centre for Brand Analysis and chairman of the CoolBrands Council, says its composition has remained remarkably consistent. 'Contrary to popular belief, cool isn't a fleeting thing and it gives you a huge advantage over competitors,' he adds.

Additionally, while the top 20 ranking spans big names from Maserati to Tate Modern, none of these brands is polarising. Moreover, in a climate where consumers define themselves and their lifestyle through the products they own and services they use, neither can any of these brands be seen as appealing to a particular age group. Timeless may be one of the most overused words in marketing, but both Google and Chanel, for example, appeal to very wide consumer demographics and show no signs of falling out of fashion anytime soon.

Lifestyle brand

This is not to say the list is in stasis, however. Technology brands, most notably Apple, which is second in the list, are having a significant impact on what it means for brands to be seen as cool today. In the fast-moving world of technology, it has used its positioning as a cool lifestyle brand to drive substantial sales.

Jo Tutchener, founder of Beauty Seen PR and a CoolBrands judge, says Apple is one of the all-time ultimate CoolBrands. 'Apple just has "it",' she adds. 'Its products are always hugely innovative and it is always first to market with "must-have", exclusive products, creating hype and demand prior to launch, resulting in waiting lists, huge media attention and immense desirability.' Pointing to its stores, shopping experience, products and marketing, Tutchener believes Apple has cool in abundance.

With technology brands accounting for four of the top 10, with BlackBerry (6), Google (7) and YouTube (10) all making the grade along with Apple, it could be argued that technology now defines what it means to be cool. Cheliotis says that technology is an area growing in importance. 'These brands are empowering us and, as there is so much competition in the sector, they are constantly innovating, providing us with more reasons to talk about them.'

For these technology brands, being perceived as cool drives brand values and sells products because, despite the ongoing economic downturn, consumers still aspire to own certain items. The question remains, however, as to what exactly makes a cool brand, and how companies can cultivate that idea.

'I don't think many brands set out by saying "We want to be cool",' says James Murphy, founding partner of ad agency Adam & Eve, and a CoolBrands judge. 'It is a by-product of integrity and innovation.'


The CoolBrands judges, who include some of the country's leading influencers both inside and outside the marketing industry, were given comprehensive judging criteria. While the precise components of cool may seem elusive, the qualities of style, innovation, originality, authenticity, desirability and uniqueness provide a framework for what may otherwise be a somewhat intangible concept.

No one believes that marketing directors sit around conference tables discussing how to be cool - the very notion is after all, distinctly 'uncool'. However, there is no doubt that reaching the top of the annual CoolBrands list should be a cause for celebration for these brands (although, of course, it is not cool to gloat).

Certainly those brands that have made it to the top of the list do not believe that being cool is an end in itself. Stephen Quinn, publishing director of Vogue, the highest-ranked title in the magazine sector, says it is not trying to be cool, 'because cool is too short-lived an idea'. Instead, he identifies its brand values as 'leadership, direction and desirability' - brand values that can be identified across many of the brands in the top 20.

American Express was this year's top-ranked brand in the financial-services sector, an area in which it is more difficult to be perceived as cool. Alison Bain, vice-president and head of international advertising at American Express, says that this is a high accolade because it considers itself a lifestyle brand. 'Being "cool" is important,' she adds. 'It means that you are relevant and contemporary - something that many of the world's biggest brands have in common.'

Do the brands that haven't made the list, then, need to try harder to be recognised as cool? Tim Soar, a clothing designer, and CoolBrands judge, advises brands not to seek to be cool - not least because even the very concept is difficult to define in the first place. 'There are no hard and fast rules, but you know it when you see it,' he adds.

Fellow CoolBrands judge and designer Hannah Marshall, whose fashions have been worn by Janet Jackson and Jessica Alba, points out that brands perceived as cool are often not obviously so. 'Cool is something that starts off underground, or as a small, niche idea, but is labelled "cool" as soon as it grows a cult following,' she explains.

The brands that can take this initial following and not only retain it, but grow it without alienating their core audience, can not only be labelled cool, but will benefit from substantial commercial success.


CoolBrands is an initiative to identify the UK's coolest brands. The list has been compiled annually since 2001. Each year 500 CoolBrands are chosen by an expert council and members of the British public. Brands do not apply or pay to be considered and the selection process is independently adjudicated.


The CoolBrands top 20 collest brands of 2011
1 Aston Martin – Automotive/Cars
2 Apple – Technology/General
3 Harley-Davidson – Automotive/Motorbikes
4 Rolex – Fashion/Accessories, Jewellery, Watches
5 Bang & Olufsen – Technology/General
6 BlackBerry – Technology/Telecommunications
7 Google – Online
8 Ferrari – Automotive/Cars
9 Nike – Sportswear & Equipment
10 YouTube – Online
11 Alexander McQueen – Fashion/Designer
12 Dom Perignon – Drinks/Champagne
13 PlayStation – Leisure & Entertainment/Games & Toys
14 Ray-Ban – Fashion/Accessories, Jewellery, Watches
15 Chanel – Fashion/Designer
16 Nintendo – Leisure & Entertainment/Games & Toys
17 Vivienne Westwood – Fashion/Designer
18 Agent Provocateur – Fashion/Lingerie
19 Tate Modern – Leisure & Entertainment/UK Attractions & The Arts
20 Maserati – Automotive/Cars