Cool. That elusive special sauce that sets certain people apart. Urban Dictionary defines it as “laid back, relaxed, not freaked out, knows what’s goin’ on.”
For companies, capturing this elusive cool can mean iconic status that lasts for decades. Think Ray-Ban, Converse or Frye. They hardly even have to advertise—because we all just know what they are and what they mean. In a funny twist of words, they effortlessly exude cool and effortlessness. And nothing more needs to be said.
There are other, more recent brands that exude cool. Not surprisingly, many of them are in the fashion industry. Think Isabel Marant, Bonobos or even J.Crew’s little sister Madewell. With their impeccable grasp of the cool, they transport you into a world where life is breezy, and all of your friends are good-looking and interesting, though they seem completely unaware of it.
Against this backdrop, it’s interesting to think about the emerging movement toward building companies that “do well by doing good.” It’s what every business school student seems to aspire to do these days, dreaming up business models that have never been thought of before along the way. It’s an inspiring movement with many fervent followers. But is it cool?
In other words, is it cool to care? It’s not completely clear. Studies show that millennials care about making the world better and that they like to buy from companies that deliver positive social and environmental impact. But let’s face it—like generations past, millennials want to be cool and liked too. Yes, it’s great to throw some positive social and environmental impact into the mix, but it’s not the end-all-be-all. Cool is still a far more valuable currency.
This question of cool has deep implications for those who are looking to generate engagement around topics such as social entrepreneurship and impact investing. The popularity of these concepts is undeniable, but the question is: Are the coolest among us getting involved? What is the social status associated with these concepts? Are they perceived as the work of the earnest and overzealous, or the work of the cool and irreverent leaders of the pack?
How can you get those who are too cool to care, to actually—well—care?
You can create a brand that is first and foremost cool and that, as it happens, also cares about the world. Companies like Tesla Motors are leading the way in making ecofriendly products simply too cool to pass up. Yes, some might question the profitability resulting from Tesla’s high-end, luxury strategy, but there is no question that Tesla transforms an ecofriendly product into a cool status symbol. Whether you care about climate change or not, chances are that you like Tesla cars and dream of owning one. And that’s all that Tesla expects from you—to buy an ecofriendly car because you want to, not because it’s the right thing to do.
You can have an already iconic, irreverent leader like Richard Branson speak up about the need to integrate social and environmental issues into business practices. Why is Branson’s voice so powerful? Because he started his career in the music industry and made his fortune by building the iconic Virgin Records, with hip record stores and a star-studded roster of legendary bands. Starting from there, Branson proceeded to expand the Virgin brand into an international phenomenon. If you want cool, Branson’s got it. So when he gathers his famous friends to discuss his recent initiative, The B Team, you actually want to hear about it.
Or if you are really daring and ready to test the limits of the cool/caring ratio, you can have a lesser-known, yet charismatic leader like Blake Mycoskie at the helm of your socially focused venture. Just think, would TOMS Shoes be anywhere on our radar at all if the CEO of the company was not cool and charismatic? The company could have been doing all the same great work that it does, selling shoes and giving them away, but the idea could have fallen squarely into the goody-two-shoes category if not for Mycoskie’s powerful storytelling. By projecting cool, you can sell anything—even the concept of caring about the world.
So, going back to the original question, it is possible to make it cool to care, but there are very specific ways of doing so. While making the world better is certainly important, in the end cool is a far more powerful currency that never goes out of style.