Pop Culture lives on coolness

Pop Culture relies on fashion sensabilitites

Volkswagen as pop culturePop culture is a risky brand business. I heard a report this morning on Marketplace about Volkswagen. Basically, the report focused on the effects of the VW settlement on the automaker’s product development pipeline. The reporter stated that the multi-billion dollar settlement would make the Volkswagen new model pipeline a bit bumpy. He said that it might put a crimp on the innovation that VW hopes to achieve to keep their product line COOL.

Cool is a scary word for me in the branding business because the idea of cool is all about making a connection to an aesthetic sensibility that is connected to personal taste in an odd way. In some ways, maybe many ways, cool can be defined as a fad.

Cool is hard to bank on in pop culture

What was cool yesterday in pop culture may not be cool today. What was once considered cool can digress into downright kitsch. If you want proof, take a trek to Graceland and – aside from the greatness of Elvis’s talent itself and the voyeuristic thrill of peering into the private life of a celebrity – you’ll find that there is NOTHING in that mansion that we covet today.

Graceland is Pop cultureWe don’t want the blue shag rugs or the clumsy devices that passed for high tech in the day. What was once cool (and even, in the case of Graceland, where no expense was spared) is just a pile of dated junk. Pop culture cool just does not have legs. Cool by definition is mercurial.

Apple used to be cool. Much of that coolness came from the charisma and genius of Steve Jobs. Since his death, Apple is just innovative and has yet to hit the mark with the same coolness that Steve naturally oozed and made Apple products de rigueur.

Cool can be a goal for some brands. But hitting that sweet spot is a difficult task in pop culture. Predicting success is even more difficult.

Recognizing what is cool and developing product to that standard is near impossible. The parent brand can deliver permission for its coolness but adoption of that next cool thing is more about happenstance.

But it is not just a problem with Pop Culture

Movies as pop cultureThink about this for a moment: The major movie studios try to produce blockbuster movies. While they may not use the word cool to describe their intent, you certainly would not be stretching the definition of coolness by thinking about it in terms of a movie’s appeal.

What interests me here is how often the movie industry misses the mark. The studios invest millions of dollars in a script, director, cinematographer and proven stars and still turn out a BUST. You would think, with all of their resources, they would have more hits than misses. But predicting popularity is that near impossible.

Brands that make their reputation and mark by being considered cool are only as valuable as their latest iteration. The rest is left up to chance.

Sting’s TED Talk is a necessary listen

Yesterday, by happenstance, I opened my podcast app and decided to update my five podcast subscriptions.

I’m glad I did.

One of the podcasts I like to come back to from time to time is the Ted Talk Radio Hour, which is hosted by NPR (can you ever really go wrong with, NPR?).

This week’s podcast was a rebroadcast of a show that aired last October entitled, “The Source of Creativity.”

As is per usual, the show is broken into a handful of segments and rehashes key components of the TED Talk series. It’s definitely worth your time and attention.

His thoughts on creativity are profound.
His thoughts on creativity are profound.

The first segment was on the musician, Sting. I’ve always been a middle of the road fan of his solo work and a much greater fan of The Police. While that’s besides the point, it was that reason alone that I was curious enough to hear what he had to say about inception of creativity and how to overcome writer’s block.

We all struggle to come up with good ideas.

Sting gave powerful insight into an eight-year period of writer’s block. Prior, he was a hit machine, writing songs, which he admits, were solely about him and his experiences. It came to a point where he tapped out of things to say about his life experience from his vantage point.

He searched that entire time. Asking questions of his faith and of himself, “Have I said all that I am supposed to say?” This tormenting thought weighs heavy on any person of creativity.

Soon, he realized his vantage point needed to change. It was time for him to write about the people he knew, who he grew up with in Wallsend, from their perspective. Soon enough he was writing songs that took on dialects and were used as fodder for a Broadway play, The Last Ship.

Sting reminded me of what it means to be creative. 

When we create, we are taking a chance. We are placing our faith in an idea that doesn’t come from the mind, but from the gut. It takes practice to embrace those creative ideas and not overthink them and a willingness to ask hard questions of yourself, like Sting did. It’s that journey and self-reflection which, if we are willing to accept, can bring us to the ideas we are looking for.

It’s also a process from which you develop powerful brands. Stepping outside yourself and looking at things from an outsider’s perspective. That’s when you truly become creative and persuasive.