News that Aston Martin has been voted the UK’s Coolest Brand for the fifth time in six years got me thinking – What does it mean? How did they get there? And how can other brands get in on the action?

Firstly we need to start with a rudimentary definition of what it means to be a ‘cool brand’, since, as I will explain, ‘cool’ doesn’t necessarily mean successful.

Stephen Cheliotis, chairman of the CoolBrands Expert Council, says “Cool is subjective and personal. But being identified as a Cool Brand by the British public and a panel of influential opinion formers implies it is a brand that most Brits wish to own.”

A brand is essentially an identity which reflects the qualities and values of its owner, one that used to be defined by the brand itself, but in this era of digital and social media is largely a product of public perception. If a brand really is cool, then the evidence should be visible for all of us to see.

So, a working definition of ‘cool’ will most likely include;

  • a brand which people aspire to own,
  • which people then feel proud to openly display within their peer groups,
  • are happy to associate themselves with the other brand owners,
  • and which conveys upon them the same distinctive qualities that they associate with the brand they like.

Or to put it another way, a cool brand must inspire admiration, aspiration, a willingness to associate and a mutual sense of identity.

American clothing brand, Abercrombie & Fitch, used to be cool; many of us admired the quality and style of their items, felt comfortable being identified as an A & F customer but then once everybody was wearing them, we felt less happy being associated with the brand.

Abercrombie & Fitch

I was reading an article this morning by Colin Morrison about ‘Five reasons why Facebook may be doomed’, and one of the reasons he cited is that Facebook is losing its cool because it’s simply too popular – too common.

What began as a community of students sharing their pictures and news, has now become an essential tool for parents keeping track of their kids. What may have been cool (in a geeky sort of way) has now become a metaphor for weirdness. Would you want to be like Facebook? Probably not.

Just as it would be hard to deny how successful Facebook has become (it’s on target for more than $1bn profit in 2011), the same cannot be said for phone maker RIM (producer of Blackberry devices), whose shares have plummeted 50 per cent in the past few months with calls for its joint-CEOs to step down. Despite the financial turmoil and loss of demand for its smartphone and tablet devices, the CoolBrands survey found that while 47% of women voted Apple their favourite tech brand, some 44% voted for Blackberry.

This news is unlikely to appease RIM’s current shareholder revolt, but shows that being cool (or not) doesn’t necessarily translate into the bottom line.

So how did Aston Martin become a cool brand?

Aston Martin One-77

Cheliotis commented; “Smooth, sexy and sophisticated; British built, high quality and hand finished, let’s be honest, young or old, male or female, opinion former or British public, who wouldn’t aspire to own what is truly the coolest car on the road. Number one in five of the last six years, this British icon is truly the coolest of the cool.”

From Aston’s continued association with the 007 Bond films, their passion and success in motorsport and the bold innovativeness of the One-77 supercar, Aston Martin as a brand, represents the kind of person we’d all like to be – confident, successful, well-liked and courageous, yet subtle and classy.

The brand as a tool for self-identity is strong in this most British of car makers – Aston Martin is like the guy at school which all the girls want to be with, whilst all the other guys just want to copy.

So how have the other brands being doing?

How other brands can get in on the action?

The one question we haven’t answered so far is, “what difference does it make if a brand is perceived to be cool?” As an accolade, this latest award bestowed on Aston Martin is generating thousands of news articles and millions of views – it’s called ‘earned media’ and you just can’t buy this kind of positive messaging for your brand.

Aston Martin DBS Carbon Edition

People who read about a ‘cool brand’ will reflect on what it could mean for their own image and perception by in their peer group, so whilst being perceived as cool won’t automatically translate into a bottom-line revenue improvement, it’s certainly a very valuable asset – one that saves a huge amount of marketing spend and which should lead to increased profitability, providing, as was unfortunately lacking with RIM, that you continue to provide products which people want to buy.

So the takeaway message from Aston Martin’s success is two-fold; build a brand identity and personality that customers would like to adopt as their own, but make sure you then build the products that such an affiliation would normally lead them to buy. A cool brand without neat products is something of a hollow achievement.

But Aston Martin is not the only cool brand, and whilst this latest CoolBrands survey is notable for the iconic brands surveyed, it’s not entirely comprehensive or indeed conclusive. Nor is coolness the preserve of luxury brands.

Lexus LFA

Lexus is the top-selling hybrid car maker in 2011 and for many buyers the epitome of cool, when choosing to express their environmentally conscious values. MINI continues to be a cool brand for many, despite their ubiquity, whilst Citroen has made great progress in rebuilding ‘affordable chic’ back into its brand with cars such as the DS3 and now DS4.

Even Volvo shows signs of venturing cool-wards with its latest S60/V60 and XC60 models. The one thing they all have in common is a distinctive personality and attributes which make them stand out on our crowded roads.

Of the Top 20 CoolBrands, only Ferrari (8th) and Maserati (20th) were in the fight with Aston. Morgan were also in the Top 66 brands in the survey. The remaining automotive brands on the list were unclassified and included – Alfa Romeo, Audi, Bentley, BMW, Jaguar, Lamborghini, Land Rover, Lotus, Mercedes-Benz, MINI, Porsche, Range Rover and Rolls-Royce.

So Aston Martin is yet again the coolest of the cool, but rather than dismiss it as a meaningless trinklet, it might be worth taking a closer look at how Aston have achieved this position.

Alex Vaidya, Head of Digital at Porsche Cars GB tweeted this morning, “Being voted the coolest instantly makes you uncool!” – well in that case I’m sure Dr Ulrich Bez, Aston Martin’s CEO, must be cursing the brand’s latest trophy and wishing he’d kept a lower profile.

Perhaps not.

Written By

Steve Davies

Steve is an investor, private equity advisor and former Partner at KPMG, PwC and Bain.   Most importantly he's a life-long car enthusiast, mountain biker and active sports enthusiast. He designs and builds technology platforms and is the architect behind Transmission.

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