May 16, 2023

Brands can't stay cool forever

Skinny jeans. Harry Potter. “Doggos.” “Adulting.” Instagram filters.

The ceaseless march of time comes for us all, and it has come for these hallmarks of millennial culture. To varying degrees, all the items above were at one point nominally “cool” or at least somewhat popular. But as Gen Z has begun to take the reigns of cultural taste-making, they are now to use their parlance, cheugy.

Things can’t stay cool forever. That’s just the simple nature of what defines cool – iconoclastic, on the vanguard, and certainly not what your parents think is cool.

What goes up must come down. This law of coolness gravity applies to brands too. Vice Media, the edgy digital startup, was valued at $5.7 billion as recently as 2017. This week, it filed for bankruptcy.

You can make an argument about whether Vice was ever really cool. Though the company started as a Montreal-based magazine back in 1994, how many people first heard of them was through their namesake HBO program, which premiered in 2013. Correspondents traveled the world, chatting with drug dealers and guerrilla warriors, and put on a good show while doing it. They sought to upend traditional news, but in doing so, they were really, really convinced of their own coolness – it’s telling that the best way to get a sense of the brand is a parody series called “Edge” produced by The Onion.

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That aside, Vice isn’t the only 2010s staple that has seen its fortunes fade recently. BuzzFeed shuttered their (always surprisingly good) BuzzFeed News division and is now leaning on AI to mass-produce soulless reams of content. MTV News, which peaked in the prior decade, has been shut down. Twitter’s been whipped this way and that under new chaotic ownership. And when the exodus from that platform started, nobody even considered Facebook as an option – that’s where the boomers are.

As a new generation crests, the last generation gets uncool. And the brands that became icons of that older generation face a choice: age with their existing audience or join the fight for the younger entrants. Both routes are tough and uncertain.

The only way out of this trap is a third alternative: authenticity. The word “effortless” is often paired with coolness, and that ease results from authenticity – when you are actually something, you don’t have to try to be the something. The fortunes of authentic brands will wax and wane, but they’ll ultimately always come out on top. Across generations, this manifests in such stalwarts as Apple, Levis, Nike, and Oreo.

Authentic brands don’t care about being uncool. They don’t chase cool. They know that if you maintain the focus on your mission and stay true to your values, you’ll always find your way back from the wilderness.

About the Author

Ben Guttmann ran a marketing agency for a long time, now he teaches digital marketing at Baruch College, just wrote his first book (Simply Put), and works with cool folks on other projects in-between all of that. He writes about how we experience a world shaped by technology and humanity – and how we can build a better one.

Get my new book, it just came out.

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