The Carleton Dance
The Carleton Dance

5 Ways Brands #Fail at Being Cool

Ashley is one of Hootsuite’s speaker candidates for SXSW 2015. Vote for her talk here and see her in Austin next spring.

Social networks are a gold mine of trends. From breaking news to viral hits, content can either get lost or become a huge hit at an accelerated pace with the whims of the social media masses. As a brand or an agency running social campaigns, why not jump on board with one of these trends and cash in on the viral results?

Many brands seek to create viral campaigns that resonate with a cultural trend and fail. The most common mistake is forgetting that virality is conferred by the audience; it’s not something clever marketers create. Audiences decide what’s cool, not brands. And as every high school freshman knows, cool can be tortuously elusive.

When brands try to co-opt what’s cool and exciting (especially to millennials) and miss the mark, they risk distancing themselves from their audiences. The coveted ‘virality’ of social campaigns is almost impossible to duplicate. Here are the five reasons why brands fail at being cool:

1) They’re too late to the party

Cool is constantly changing. It follows the similar adoption patterns to other innovations, where it starts out niche, is picked up by early adopters who make it palatable for mass consumption. They take it, they tweak it, they make it more acceptable, and that’s when the mass consumer picks up on it and runs with it and then it actually kills it. Cool hunters are constantly seeking the niche, and brands are constantly picking up on what’s being mass consumed. And therein you have the problem.


2) They broke the wrong rules

Doing things differently is cool. It’s breaking some rules. Take Virgin for example, who broke the stiff, staid model for how airlines interact with their passengers. From check-in to boarding, they’ve thought through every detail. Even the safety announcements seem too good to be legal: they have animated superhero videos to show how the safety features of the plane work.

An important but subtle subtext is that you need to break the right rules. Brands who fail at being cool are often those who don’t understand the distinction, and tread into territory that is considered offensive or distasteful.

3) Wrong audience, wrong incentive, or both

Customers want to be entertained and surprised. They want to be impressed. They want to discover something hot and share it with their networks so that they themselves look cool. They want to be rewarded for their affiliation with a brand, whether through discounts, freebies, or validation from friends or on social networks. But both the action and the reward have to fit the context. A hockey team rewarding folks for taking selfies by posting them on the big screen: win, because folks are already doing that. Take a selfie at your grocery store til to get 10% off groceries? Fail. No one does that.

4) They’re inauthentic

Authenticity is critical in all marketing, and even more so with social. Brands who jump on trends because they’re trending without evaluating whether or not it makes sense for them to participate are asking for blacklash and failure. Before deciding to chime in on a trending hashtag, ask whether it fits with your core brand identity and communication strategy. Is this a topic you’re an expert in? Does the audience talking about this topic care about what your company offers, and does it makes sense for your opinion to be heard in this arena? Far too often, brands try to take part in mass conversations and they either get lost in the noise, which wastes time and energy, or they come across looking inauthentic, which ultimately erodes their credibility.

5) They have no place being cool.

Cool is about disrupting the norm. Some brands will always be part of the norm no matter what they do, while others will have a chance to break out and do something different. Certain brands or types of products are just not going to be cool because it’s not built into the fabric of their company. Audiences will see right through any veneer of cool slapped on by a trendy campaign or putting a “young”, “hip” spin on communications. It will only emphasize the glaring gap between the cool image they’re trying to portray, and the actual touch-points with customers which will remain unchanged.

Ironically, a brand can be perceived as cool by staying true to themselves, and doing it exceptionally well. A brand that makes fun of themselves for not being cool is even better.

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