Defining Cool - How We Improperly Brand To Teens
By Al Berrios (contact Al Berrios)

"Cool" isn't some phenomenon exclusive to teenagers, and yet we improperly spend billions trying to understand teens and become cool, so teens can buy more of our stuff. The problem doesn't seem to be our inability to be cool with teens, but rather we don't have a clear approach or ROI for doing branding. In addition, applying CRM to managing our relationships with teenagers is taboo because many limit CRM to technology that teens quickly reject.

Skip to section:
> What is Cool and Who is Cool?
> What Is Branding and How Is It Different From Other Marketing?
> What Is CRM and Why Doesn't It End With Technology?
> What Is Credibility And Trust and How Do Consumers Value Them?
> Delivering ROI From Branding To Teens

What is Cool and Who is Cool?

The way Sarah Jessica Parker dresses is cool to you. The way your friend whips out her cell phone is cool to you. The way your co-worker doesn't comb his hair and it still looks great is cool. Cool, clearly, isn't something just teens are capable of being and it is definitely not fashion or any other form of expression. It is also not relegated to people you know, as we are also capable of being influenced by celebs and strangers we think are cool.

Cool is your desire to be like someone else, because the way you perceive yourself to be isn't what you aspire to be, and in order for you to aspire, there has to be some example to set your standard. This standard can be youth, leadership ability, attention-getting, style, or even mannerisms. (Ever notice how you tend to use words or phrases frequently used by people you spend the most time with?)

This desire can be considered positive by psychologists that believe we should all have a goal. However, for the sake of understanding cool, I will claim that it is an irrational human perception because rationally, someone else's perceptions of you has no actual impact on your individual performance. If twenty New Yorkers think you're a loser, it will only affect your performance if you agree, not because it is true. But the miracle of perception is that all you need to do is travel to Wisconsin, where twenty new people will think you're not a loser, and before you know it, you will agree with those new people.

Based on this argument, then, anyone can be a trendsetter among the right group of people. This further supports our analysis that trendsetters and opinion leaders can theoretically be created and would ultimately be a waste of resources to identify and market to them. Unfortunately, since teens remain among the same group of people for five or six years, these perceptions become very strong and difficult to alter. (Editorial: Reinforcing this perception is a terribly dated educational curriculum and not entirely, as we're constantly being told, the fault of corporate marketing machines.) This highly irrational perception can either be subdued by joining cliques where a cool perception can be spread throughout the group, resulting in a herd-like mentality or amplified, resulting in acts of hate towards those that are perceived as cool.

What Is Branding and How Is It Different From Other Marketing?

Are teens over-branded? In Alissa Quart's book, "Branded: The buying and Selling of Teenagers", "she exposes the underhanded methods advertisers and marketers use to rob teens of their individuality and freedom of choice." However, couldn't advertisers also be accused of manipulating just about everyone? After all, when was the last time any one of us questioned the reasons behind why McDs loves to see us smile or why Reebok's Terry Tate's barbaric, yet hilarious, abuse of his co-workers should convince us to buy sneakers? A better question, I believe is, what exactly is branding?

According to, brand is a noun, a mark, indicating ownership or infamy. Originating with the burning of your mark on animal and human flesh to mark ownership, it has historically not been a good thing. However, marketers have increasingly given it the definition that it is a set of promises that your product or company makes to the consumer, and the process of generating awareness for these promises, powered by time and money, in order to increase the amount of attention and income consumers spend with your product or company. In effect, marketers are psychologically branding us as their property, increasingly using the hot iron known as media to burn into our brains these promises. Branding, therefore, isn't simply an effort, but a package of efforts - a strategy by which all other marketing efforts are guided.

The difference is that we are not the property of companies or products. Not because we question why, but because 1) we have choices and 2) our time is limited. Because we recognize our ability to choose and lack the time to enjoy all our choices, we are a difficult target for branders. Therefore, it would be virtually impossible to think anyone is a branding expert without first their being experts on the consumer.

Based on the supposition that consumers are extremely difficult to brand, marketers have taken the technology approach to managing their relationships with consumers. Upon any transaction with a consumer, they become a customer, and the relationship must now be tracked and managed the same way you manage all of your other relationships, with incentives and rewards for continuing that relationship. And since volume is the only way to make this effort worthwhile, technology is used to dish out those incentives and rewards.

What Is CRM and Why Doesn't It End With Technology?

You're a number. You've spent $349.72 between now and your first transaction with the company two years ago. You've got a tendency to look for discounts, and your products have mostly been things for an office. The CRM system says you're not an executive of a major company, but a small business owner and since your relationship with the company has been two years, you're obviously not a frequent buyer and are not happy with the selections in your local store. In reality, you buy things for your wife, whenever you can't bring them home from your office. She's not a small business owner, just someone who likes to plan things with the proper tools. And, you're generally pleased with the selection at your local store, since they always have things when you need them. In addition, you've purchased at other stores, but since you pay with cash or without using your store club card, the data stored on your number hadn't been updated.

There is no problem with using technology to manage your relationship with customers, people who have had a transactional history with your company (as opposed to a consumer, who is part of the general public and has not initiated any transaction with your company). However, technology does not understand consumer behavior, particularly without transactional history to evaluate what you would do. In addition, technology is based on rules that are programmed to assume that as rational consumers, a discount on something you've purchased before is the most likely reason you'll buy that same thing again. Unfortunately, no matter how many ink coupons Staples' CRM system continues to send me, I won't be any more inclined to purchase them.

It's the same thing with teens, folks. When you're attempting to evaluate how to approach them, it seldom works to use technology because often, teens aren't influenced by logic, but by peers or others that they irrationally aspire to be. Marketers must understand that, even though being like a peer will not contribute any obvious benefit or value to them, just a fulfillment of their personal goal, it is unfortunately how consumers actually operate. Teens aren't numbers and you cannot expect to manage your relationship with them based on incentives and rewards that, although valuable to you, aren't valuable to them.

So what is valuable to teens? How can you leverage your understanding of their irrational perceptions to initiate and develop and profitable relationship with them?

What Is Credibility And Trust and How Do Consumers Value Them?

Whether you're talking about corporate governance or customer relationship management, the package of promises you make to consumers and deliver via media should be obvious and true. Don't tell us that you'd like to us smile, and then not deliver. Don't tell us you've got to fire us to stay in business, but give yourself bonuses and huge stock options. And especially don't tell us you value us and our privacy, but send us offers that infer things about us, and doesn't treat us like you're serious about developing a relationship with us.

It all comes down to two things: transparency and experience. The more forthcoming you are with your business and how we as consumers and employees fit into that business, the more powerful our relationship is. (This is comparable to friends - would you consider a friend someone you only know superficial things about or someone who tells you their most interesting secrets?) And the better that experience, the more experiences we will seek from you that are similar. These forces shape our perceptions, and we will always choose you over the next company. The more consistent this relationship, the more we will come to trust that we will always have this level of quality. Being without this relationship will make us loose some value in our lives, the value that you provide through your products and services, and we will willingly ensure that we continue this relationship.

Ultimately, branding is more about the quality of the product or service than the marketing done to generate awareness about it.

Delivering ROI From Branding To Teens

al berrios & co. advises to marketers trying to reach teens to
1) ensure that the product can deliver on what teens value, such as quality, innovation, utility, satisfaction, convenience, and recommendations;
2) spend more time understanding the forces shaping irrational teen perceptions, rather than identifying just the individuals or trends that are the roots of these perceptions. Understanding these forces will make your relationships more powerful and give you a new metric by which being held accountable makes sense, since you'll have a better standard by which to gauge teen response of your performance relative to prior responses;
3) stop aggressively promising to them things that they don't value without taking into consideration their other choices; and
4) focus your efforts on targeting them via a combination of channels where they can make independent decisions, such as television, internet, or print and where they can be reached in their herds, such as radio, OOH, event marketing, and retail channels.

Brands that have successfully done both are World Wrestling Entertainment and American Legacy Foundation. Brands that haven't are Burger King and Sprint PCS.

> "Strategies on Reaching Opinion Leaders Revisited"
> "Changing Corporate Culture"
> "Credibility, Perception, & the Internet"
> Trust + Privacy



Disclaimer: The recommendations, commentary and opinions published herein are based on public information sometimes referenced via hyperlinks. Any similarities or likeness to any ideas or commentary from any other sources not referenced is purely coincidental. al berrios & co. cannot control any results occurring from advice obtained from this publication nor any opinion(s) conveyed by any reader of this publication.

(c) 2001-2005. All Rights Reserved. al berrios & company, inc. Published by al berrios & co. This Report may not be reproduced or redistributed in any form without written permission from al berrios & co., subject to penalty.