Misty Harris, The Ottawa Citizen

Saturday, September 15, 2007

At a time when trends are lucky to outlast milk, the Apple brand seems old enough to bleed dust. But, 30 years after incorporation, the company continues to maintain a chokehold on all things hip in consumer technology.

That influence is only expected to grow stronger with the launch at the end of the month of the iPod touch, an upgraded digital music player that has culture vultures circling. Although the company remains tight-lipped about its marketing strategy, industry watchers have definite ideas of how Apple and similarly successful corporations extend their brands' stay at fame's 15-minute party.

For the most part, it comes down to having an intimate understanding of that ephemeral thing called "cool."

The iPod touch media player is the latest rend-setting release from Apple Inc.

"It's always about being an original. Everybody wants to be the next iPod; they forget that the iPod came to market not trying to be cool but as an authentic piece of technology that spoke to everybody," says Barb Atkin, vice-president of fashion direction for Holt Renfrew.

"Cool is being a leader -- being a visionary and having a strong idea of who or what you are. It's not about looking at others; it's always about people looking at you. It's about standing out, but in a very nonchalant, confident way."

While most existing research on "cool" focuses on trends as part of a yen for conformity, a new study from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania suggests that's only half the story.

Writing in the Journal of Consumer Research, researchers note that although most of us have the initial urge to conform to our current or desired social group ("people don't want to be the only one holding a given taste"), when those fads or "identity signals" are poached by outsiders we move on in order to avoid association with latecomers.

"It's hard for a symbolic or identity-relevant product to be associated with both urban hipsters and soccer moms," says Jonah Berger, study co-author and assistant professor of marketing at Wharton. "Sure, products can be cool in the absence of people, but more often they're cool because the set of people who use them are cool."

Take the rubber wristband phenomenon of 2004.

A week after a Stanford University research team sold yellow bands to students in one dorm, they made the same rubber accoutrements available to students in a neighbouring dorm that was known for its strong academic focus. Just seven days after the "geeks" adopted the wristbands, there was a 32 per cent drop in the number of bands worn by students in the first dorm who, according to researchers, didn't want to be associated with the pocket-protector set.

The Wharton study suggests the way to subvert that cycle, simultaneously pleasing both the tastemakers and the taste poachers, is to do what "cool" companies are famous for: Continually refresh with new and limited-edition products that appeal to the trendsetters, while simultaneously producing mass-market versions for the followers.

"By having different product lines and sub-brands, you can avoid pollution of the identity signal," explains Mr. Berger.

Toyota, for example, has been seeding the hipper-than-thou generation Y market with its sub-brand Scion, created in 2003 and kept separate from the seemingly square parent in advertising campaigns. In combination with limited-edition offerings and exclusive accessory packages that connect with early adopters, the stand-alone strategy has helped Scion win the youngest average buyer of any car brand -- 39 years old; the average Toyota consumer, by comparison, is 54.

Darren Dahl, a professor of marketing at the University of British Columbia's Sauder School, believes it all comes down to knowing what your brand represents in the marketplace, and delivering on that expectation. Apple, for instance, keeps its message both consistent and simple.

"Use a Mac, you're cool and hip," says Mr. Dahl. "Use (a PC), you're not."

Mr. Dahl is alluding to the well-received Get a Mac campaign, in which Apple computers are personified by an urban hipster (somewhat smugly played by actor Justin Long, who recently made headlines for a public make-out session with Drew Barrymore), while PCs are represented by a bespectacled, middle-aged man in a suit and tie (played by humourist John Hodgman, who in all likelihood has not made out with Drew Barrymore).

Apple declined to comment on its marketing approach in these or any other ads.

Trevor Robertson, 28, has purchased every incarnation of the iPod that Apple has put out -- including a Shuffle bought just for his four-year-old daughter -- and is already champing at the bit for an iPod touch.

"I've had the previous ones since launch and am looking for something new and exciting to play with," says Mr. Robertson, who works at Westworld Computers in Edmonton. "For me, it's about the lifestyle change; there's always something that's going to make life more interesting and more fun."

Mr. Dahl says industry watchers need only look to Gap for evidence of what happens when a brand stops facilitating those kinds of changes and literally loses its cool.

"The demographic they originally targeted grew older and what they thought was cool evolved -- and Gap didn't necessarily evolve with them," he says.

Just a few years ago, Nintendo was relegated to the kiddie table at the video game console picnic, placing a distant third behind high-gloss PlayStation 2 and Xbox. But, thanks to highly successful marketing campaigns for Nintendo's handheld DS and Wii console, the once-marginalized company is now front of mind with trend arbiters, selling more than four times as many Wii units (360,000) as Sony sold PlayStation 3s (82,000) in April of this year alone.

"Nintendo is an amazing example of how companies can change things up by aligning themselves with the macro trends of the day," says Mike Farrell, partner and chief strategic officer at Toronto-based trend watching firm Youthography.

"You are simply not cool if you talk about being cool," he says. "And as soon as you start discussing what defines cool, it ain't cool."