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Has Purpose Made Brands Forget How To Be Cool?

BBH London entertainment lead and strategy director Melanie Arrow writes that brands need to add more style to their substance.

Has Purpose Made Brands Forget How To Be Cool?
[Photo: Unsplash user ARTHUR YAO]

I used to think Liam Gallagher was the epitome of cool. He was that old-fashioned kind of rock star who threw actual TVs out of windows, got arrested, took so much crystal meth before a gig that he forgot the words to “Wonderwall,” and turned his acceptance speeches into comedy roasts before they were even a thing: “Right, who’s first then…It’s got be you there with that weird haircut. How many haircuts you got there, four?” Being a bad guy, a nihilistic egotist with slick trainers and a directional haircut, that was cool in the 90s.

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In the cold light of 2017, however, it doesn’t seem quite so cool, does it? Despite the 90s revival, there hasn’t been a revival of the rock and roll prick. Culturally, it seems, we’ve moved on. Like smoking or borrowing unlimited amounts of money, it’s all cool until you get cancer or accidentally collapse the world economy. In the last few decades, cool has undergone some fundamental and, frankly, practical changes. The good news is you don’t have to fling your iPad off the balcony.

Cool is still about aesthetics. It always will be, despite its generational variations. From ironic millennial pink to the pared back streetwear of Gen Z, style is the key to cool. Cool continues to be about confidence too, the self-assured swagger that led James Jebbia to call his brand Supreme. But here’s the twist: You can have all the aesthetics and all the confidence and you don’t have to be the bad guy. You can have the good trainers and the directional haircut without being a total nut job. You can be kind, progressive, make a positive difference and still be cool. In fact, it’s this powerful combination that is driving modern culture forward.

Cool is Kendrick Lamar being the best rapper in the world and taking politics head on. Cool is the 10 minutes of silence in Master of None that takes the viewer inside the world of a deaf New Yorker. Cool is the radical queerness of Frank Ocean’s Blonde. Cool is Beyoncé’s Black Panther homage. Cool is Broad City‘s feminism. Cool is balance. Cool is both.

Since purpose became a brand strategy, cool has taken a back seat. To do purpose, to really stand for something in the world, brands must be earnest, they must show that they mean it, they must hold a mirror up to the real world and conduct social experiments to show that they genuinely understand. We’ve wrongly assumed that doing purpose means you can’t be cool, but I’d go as far as to say being cool is a necessity.

When we made Absolut’s “Endless Kiss” film, we were determined to break all of the purpose rules. We wanted to combine the seething, sexiness of a Levi’s advert or a Tarantino film, with the brand’s unequivocal support for equal love. We wanted zero compromise on either side. Think pool halls, plaid shirts and street cast actors reminiscent of a Dazed shoot rather than an advert. Think sexual pride that some people found difficult to watch. We wanted to be both sensual and radical. Both cool and purposeful. And we wanted to do it all with the confidence of a topic that we truly believe in, because purpose should give you the confidence of conviction, it shouldn’t hold you back.

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Our follow up film, “One Night,” has a single purposeful message: the world needs creativity to progress. It’s an open invitation to create the change you want to see in the world, a riff on Ghandi without any of the worthiness. It features Elvis, Nina Simone and Frida Kahlo. It’s the story of progress told through some of the coolest moments in the world’s cultural history.

Other brands have also seen success by applying the cultural multiplier of cool to their purpose projects. Take “Da Da Ding,” Nike’s visual manifesto celebrating the role sport plays in Indian women’s lives, a country where women have been actively discouraged from taking up sport. The issue is tackled with edge and ferocity. Everything from the Gizzle track to the street-styled girl squad scrambling over cars oozes cool, without a motivational hashtag in sight, more MIA music video than advert. Then there’s the fashion-forward, Acne Studios-esque ads for Thinx that shift perspectives on periods without ever losing their nerve or breaking eye contact. The latest advert for ASOS Face and Body celebrates make up as a means of self-expression using aesthetic and audio stylings reminiscent of Kate Tempest crossed with Aphex Twin. And what about that Chrysler Superbowl ad featuring Eminem? That driving beat, that point down the camera, and a swagger that made you question the stereotypes of run down cities like Detroit.

Purpose as a brand strategy is in danger of becoming passé. Consumers seem increasingly sceptical of brands trying to do the right thing whilst also ultimately, trying to sell them something. There are lots of terrible examples and, of course, this wouldn’t be an article about purpose unless I uttered the P word (sssh Pepsi). But I think this is a massive shame. We need brands to show more diverse, accepting and progressive views on the world, because brands, in some part, shape culture and that’s the kind of culture I want.

Besides, purpose is only becoming passé because we’ve been doing it wrong. We’ve been focusing on the real world when we should have been styling the f**k out of it. We’ve been explaining when we should have been making people want it. What if we could make purpose so cool it was lust-worthy? What if we had people queuing around the block for it?

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We’re reaching an impasse. A saturation of purposeful brand behaviour. But I’d urge you: don’t scrap purpose just because we forgot to be cool. How about we just be cool instead?

Melanie Arrow is the entertainment lead and strategy director at BBH London.