Eduvation Blog

Can an institutional brand ever be Cool?

Ken Steele’s reflections on the book Chasing Cool: Standing Out in Today’s Cluttered Marketplace, by Noah Kerner, Gene Pressman, and Andrew Essex. (New York: Atria Books, 2007.)


Plenty of marketing books are immediately applicable to college and university recruitment marketing, but this one probably hasn’t yet hit your radar. (It was published just a few months ago, in May 2007.) What could experts in European fashion, hip-hop music and DJ culture possibly have to say about PSE recruitment? On the surface, nothing at all – but as the authors argue, “Today… every brand is in the fashion business to some degree.” I think the book has a few interesting ideas that can be applied to PSE branding, as I’ll suggest below.

Briefly, the book argues that “cool” is what makes Apple’s iPod a marketing success story, and these days most marketers want to be “the iPod of their industry.” “Our society is consumed with the trappings of cool… Young people gravitate toward it; older people covet it because it makes them feel young.” Cool is authentic and unique, quietly confident, and it anticipates the market’s needs before the market knows what it wants. “Sure, you have to listen to what their needs are. But they can’t tell you how to fulfill their needs.” Most importantly, marketers have to remember that “chasing someone else’s notion of cool is the biggest mistake one can possibly make.”

Ultimately marketers need to focus on tomorrow, not today. “Me-too” marketers, following current trends, are doomed to fail. In the words of a leading marketer, “I love looking at trend reports… because then I know exactly what I shouldn’t be doing.” The authors explain that “the kids on the street are looking to you for guidance… The kids will only follow you if you remain one step ahead of them.”

Many marketers rely on “Cool Hunters,” futurists, or trend consultants, in order to take the temperature of the marketplace, outsourcing what should be a core function because it is repressed in the structure and culture of most modern corporations. “People are scared,” and organizations reward the maintenance of the status quo: “An atmosphere of lowest-common-denominator consensus and committee often pervades.” The authors are describing the weaknesses of major corporations like Sony and Wal-Mart, but we know the description is even more applicable to the academic decision-making process in universities and colleges. “Cool” is often suffocated in this environment (unless, of course, it’s protected by tenure). To achieve “coolness,” a brand has to take risks, and college and university boards tend to frown upon risk.

Perhaps it goes without saying that the vital component of “cool” is that it be aspirational. Tommy Hilfiger clothing was cool because sailing represented upscale New England affluence. Aspiration, I would argue, is absolutely central to the decision to pursue higher education. Consider this observation from an urban marketing executive: “If you tell me I can’t have something and that something represents achievement and success… making it to the next level, being different than what I’ve been described as, I want it at all cost.” Academica Group’s research has identified a number of PSE motivations – personal development, careerism, altruism, parental expectation, etc. – but ultimately they all sound a lot like aspiration in this sense, and the object of these aspirations can be “cool.” Many prospective students are seeking achievement and success, and that is ultimately the “product” colleges and universities offer – not courses, labs, or libraries.

The authors also emphasize that playing hard-to-get is key to maintaining aspirations. “Don’t try to appeal to hip-hop culture by using hip-hop verbiage.” “Teens aren’t attracted to products that overtly target teens.” “Once it gets too close to home, I lose interest.” And ultimately, “It’s not about what consumers are, but rather what they want to be.” Maybe this is why many kids don’t find the prospect of small class sizes and a high-school-like campus appealing. Certainly it means institutions should be cautious when trying to speak in youthful vernacular.

A big part of “cool” is playing hard to get. Although no college or university would ever think of itself as comparable to a nightclub, consider this angle: “The velvet rope that rings certain clubs is an admission that exclusivity works. Everyone is dying to get in.” For many universities, at least, a strong driver of institutional reputation is competitive admissions. The tougher it is to gain acceptance, the more top-achieving students want to join the party. “Ultimately, the customer in any great space needs to feel that they are part of a great group of people, that their experience is somehow proprietary.” “Certain products succeed by making people feel special.” Isn’t this the effect that many campus tours and alumni associations strive to achieve?

If young people are this sensitive to the fellow clubbers who populate a night spot where they will spend a few hours dancing, how much more alert must they be to the campus crowd at an institution where they will spend years of their lives? We’ve all heard PSE applicants explain that their ultimate decision rested on which campus “felt right,” where they sensed that they would “fit in.” We also know that PSE applicants are often intensely aware of peer perceptions, and take them into account when considering their post-secondary options. Chasing Cool provides a bit more nuanced understanding of just what this means.

A “cool” brand can’t appear too desperate for press coverage, exposure or enrolments. This is perhaps part of the reason that traditional advertising has been declared dead, and why “engineering press” is the vital objective of public affairs departments. Really cool brands don’t try to sell themselves at all – they practice what the authors call “benevolent market leadership,” selling a category, a lifestyle, or a charitable cause instead of their own products. (My favourite example has always been Kraft Foods, which doesn’t have to sell its salad dressing brand in order to increase sales, it just has to sell the idea of eating salads.)  In this way, colleges and universities can promote literacy, education, the trades, international peace initiatives, etc. and look cool and confident, not desperate. When your college runs late-August “it’s not too late to enroll” spots, you start sounding too desperate to be cool.

I like the concept of “third-party triangulation,” attributed to a former advertising director of Nike, Scott Bedbury (now CMO of Starbucks). To build a strong brand relationship between Nike and the customer, they instead invest in building a strong third point to the triangle (at Nike, usually an athlete). Instead of overtly saying “please buy our shoes,” Nike builds honest relationships with the athletes, who are aspirational for their target markets. I think we’ve seen universities doing this with their famous alumni, their Nobel-winning faculty, or even employers like Bill Gates. They probably haven’t for a moment considered it “sharing brand equity” or building cool through triangulation, but essentially, that’s what it is. It will succeed when the triangulation balances institutional “DNA”, the desires of its target audience, and the right third party.

The reality is that many colleges and universities essentially offer a commodity to the marketplace. They provide quality curriculum, caring faculty, well-resourced facilities and current technology. Tuitions aren’t vastly different. Classroom experiences, let’s face it, may be indistinguishable between campuses. And the institution’s strategic plan probably doesn’t provide a clear strategy to differentiate them from other institutions. Most colleges and universities are so busy keeping up, playing “me too,” that they never really clarify their brand uniqueness, or strike out on their own to create a reputation that could seem “cool” to the marketplace.

The authors of Chasing Cool offer some small solace to marketers who are struggling to differentiate a college or university. Like Grey Goose vodka, they may find that, “in a category that is based almost exclusively on a bland product… to truly break through, your point of difference often needs to be engineered.” Maybe there’s still hope!

I’m old enough that I still remember when “cool” meant John Travolta or Fonzie on Happy Days. Something I think astonishing is that the very word “cool” has retained its meaning, and its appeal, since the 1950s!  The celebrities have changed, as this book makes clear, but the core of what defines “cool” remains unchanged: authenticity, uniqueness, quiet confidence, something aspirational, indifferent and often exclusive or hard-to-get. Although the authors of Chasing Cool insist that “there is no objective definition for what makes something cool,” it seems to me that their examples all reinforce these timeless qualities. And that, to the extent that a college or university seeks to be unique, confident, and aspirational, we as marketers need to spend more time thinking about it.

Comments? Other thoughts? Please post here!

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Please answer the question below to confirm that you are not a spambot * Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.

All contents copyright © 2014 Eduvation Inc. All rights reserved.