Image is increasingly important in the marketing of products, and consumer packaged goods - the vast majority of which are food and drink products - are no exception.
A new report from independent market analysts Datamonitor suggests that products which can appeal to consumer aspirations for all things 'cool' will have a greater chance of standing out from the crowd.
These aspirations are equally reflected among older consumers, who are as reluctant to appear middle-aged as young consumers are to be seen as cool, according to Datamonitor, with the result that the 'coolness' factor can be the make or break quality in contemporary branding as consumers use their perception of cool to differentiate and choose between products.
In the last 30 years, coolness has become heavily associated with consumerism as consumers increasingly use brands to define themselves. According to the report, 66 per cent of respondents in Datamonitor's survey felt it was important or very important to feel personally cool in the way they live their lifestyle and a similar number also placed an equally high emphasis on being seen as cool in the eyes of others.
Insecurity is a natural facet of human nature and cool brands and products provide an important sense of security to ordinary consumers. Although coolness is most commonly associated with clothing and fashion items, consumers are now beginning to seek cool in smaller commodity items associated with consumer packaged goods (CPGs). This desire to be cool, and a willingness to pay more for a product perceived as cool, leads consumers to demand more from their brands, and in turn places increasing pressure on manufacturers and marketers to provide the right image as well as high quality products.
But cool as a concept is also becoming of more commercial relevance and has numerous implications for marketers, Datamonitor suggests. Companies such as Nike and Adidas have illustrated that establishing a cool image can be highly profitable; consequently the search for cool has become increasingly intense.
Products most often connected with cool are alcoholic beverages and personal care items that are most easily conspicuously consumed and displayed, but cool marketing is beginning to establish a presence in product categories traditionally beyond the realms of cool.
Coolness in packaged goods is about enabling people to lead a certain aspirational lifestyle that is easily seen and viewed as attractive by others. In short, a cool packaged product will assist the purchaser in living their desired lifestyle. This obvious consumption makes it important that marketers understand the process of identity construction that leads to the labelling of certain products and behaviours as being 'cool', the report suggests.
Although consumers' priorities change with age, the desire to be seen consuming the right products and fit in remains a relatively timeless need. The lifestyle benefits of consumer packaged goods can be as relevant to those over 40 as the under 25s. Many older consumers striving to avoid feeling and appearing middle aged or 'out of touch' will seek products that allow them to share in a youthful lifestyle. This emanates from the 'cool parenting syndrome' - something exemplified by parents wearing the same kind of trainers as their children or sitting down to a game on the Sony Playstation. Some older consumers will also view a cool product as one that allows them to assert their maturity and demonstrate how they have mastered the art of living, Datamonitor suggests.
But cool is far more complex than the outward expression of one's image through fashion items and what constitutes a cool product will vary by product category and the individual's judgement. Coolness is not inherent within products themselves, but exists via consumers' attitude and perception towards them. It concerns the shared attitudes of groups of consumers towards a range of things that offer a shared meaning and identity.
Datamonitor's survey found that consumers place the most importance on packaging and design, whilst word of mouth was perceived as the most effective means of communication in helping a product appear cool, suggesting that new product launches should seek to engineer word of mouth campaigns in addition to traditional mainstream advertising campaigns.
Cool means different things to different people, but Datamonitor has identified three key consumer groups sharing common values and characteristics seeking coolness in different ways. The Opinion Formers, of whom there were 21.8 million in Europe in 2002, are the key influencers in setting trends on what is cool. Adopters play a key 'connecting' role in the diffusion of cool products to the mainstream, whom Datamonitor refer to as Regulars.
Both new and cool products will diffuse from the Opinion Formers group to the Adopters and onto Regulars, depending on how quickly word of mouth spreads and if marketers make their products available to the mainstream.
"These consumer groups, identifiable through specific personal characteristics and shared attitudes and values are likely to share common interpretations of what is cool. Marketers must be able to vary their tactics for targeting these consumer groups in order to make products appear desirable to their lifestyles and personalities. They must also resist letting cool diffuse to the mainstream too quickly," said Datamonitor analyst Daniel Bone.
Marketers can heavily influence consumer perceptions of a product's coolness through effective product positioning. Despite many consumers becoming increasingly media savvy and sceptical of marketing tactics, Datamonitor's research showed they are firm believers in marketers' power when it comes to influencing perceptions of cool - 78 per cent consumers surveyed agreed that a product's marketing strongly affects their perception of whether it is cool.
However, Datamonitor cautions marketers not to misinterpret the increasing importance of cool and says they must avoid becoming cool-centric. This is because consumers are ultimately demanding something more than cool. It is not a necessity that CPG products be cool in the first place. The key mentality for CPG players to adopt is to 'think useful, not cool'.
Bone added: "Coolness is important but far from the main benefit consumers seek. What remains of more importance is to market your product as lifestyle-supporting, meaning it will sometimes be cool, but at other times not. Overall, it is important to remain true to the basic tenets of marketing ensuring you fulfil high level need states amongst your target market."
For more details on Datamonitor's reports, click here.