Dr Lida Hujić

How Generation X became cooler than the next

A recent interview with the co-author of the book How Cool Brands Stay Hot, Joeri Van den Bergh, prompted me to write this article. I’d like to provide an alternative perspective on coolness and the generational debate (specifically the dynamic between Generation X and Generation Y). This, in turn, can serve to discuss methodological issues as well as give some food for thought for researchers and brand managers alike interested in gathering future looking intelligence.

My own research started from the hypothesis that what came to be known as ‘cool brands’ are not cool or, to be more precise, no longer cool. I picked up on a number of other observations from the interview in question, namely that parents of Generation Y follow what their kids are doing; that the ecological agenda is high for this new generation, which parents copy. I am not in any way questioning the legitimacy of these claims in relation to the sample but it becomes problematic when those are used to make a general statement about consumption trends – essentially dubbing Generation Y as trend leaders.

My own findings reveal that perhaps for the first time in marketing history we have a case of parents being cooler than their kids – or Generation X being cooler than the next (Generation Y). (Just so that we’re clear, Generation X, those born 1965 – 1978; Generation Y, those born 1979 – 1995). Firstly, let’s address a couple of issues: the definition of coolness and the research approach used to unearth insights and substantiate findings.

What do we mean by cool? The general understanding is that cool is about trend setting. More often than not, cool is unquestionably associated with ‘youth’ or ‘youth culture’. Youth are indicators of future trends and parents will imitate what their children do. It follows that cool brands are youthful brands and for that reason they are undeniably hot.

Stepping outside the myth that has been a truism in marketing since the 60s – that youth are cool and therefore trend setters – depicts a different picture. In this scenario, being cool is a mindset. It is about challenging the status quo. Instead of a group primarily defined by demographics (in this case, age), what we have is a network. This network is not bound by rules of proximity but connected through one or two degrees of separation (as opposed to the six degree separation theory operating between all of us). These connections are haphazard and yet haphazardness has its own way of morphing ideas into networks.

The Network
It is within this network that I have done my research. The method was ethnographic: participant observation over considerable lengths of time. The key, here, was access to the scene. In my case, that wasn’t a problem, as I didn’t initially set out to do research. I was just hanging out with friends, having always been attracted to nonconformists. Socialising with them inadvertently inspired the research. The key moments that led to formulating my hypothesis about the generational shift (myself belonging to Generation X, who came of age just as Douglas Coupland published the same entitled book) were situations where kids started to hang out at our parties (us being the parents). Among them were the leading beacons of Generation Y who were represented as cool in the mainstream youth media (MTV, T4, the youth division of the British terrestrial channel, Channel 4, and the like). I didn’t need to ask ‘is you less cool than yer dad’ (joke!) as it was evident who was following whom. I did, however, recently interview some of those young people (now in their mid 20s)  – such as broadcaster Miquita Oliver and artist Louis Marie de Castelbajac – who all completely agreed with me. Hanging out with their parents (art and music promoter Garfield Hackett; artist and fashion designer Jean Charles de Castelbajac, respectively) is far more inspiring for them than the celebrity obsessed youth culture and media, more generally.

But that ethnographic piece of evidence was not enough to generalise about the shifts in mentalities. Here, I added other dimensions to corroborate my findings.

Firstly, I could only make my claim by comparing like for like. Both in the case of my Generation X and Generation Y protagonists, I was only interested in the minority faction who is perceived by others as style leaders.

Secondly, to claim style leadership – I needed to reframe the role of my network in terms of being ahead of the consuming crowd. Only then do these style leaders provide an array of symbols with which to express new consuming visions. This is where ‘attitude’ takes precedent over ‘age’ when creating segments. It is at this point that I turned the findings into the market cross over model from alpha trend-setters, towards the early adopters, early majority and, finally, the late majority. (As I said, age is not the primary definer when looking at alpha trend-setters but if I were to put an age, the ring leaders were overwhelmingly Generation X or even older; less were Generation Y and usually on the borderline with X). Somewhere between the alpha trend-setter and early adopter is the opinion former. To explain the role of the latter in spreading ‘the virus’, the concept of maven (broker of information), connector (spreading information via word of mouth) and salesman (the persuader) popularised by Malcom Gladwell in The Tipping Point fits the purpose.

Last but not least, to be robust, I then created a framework, which I dubbed as futurology by looking at the past. And this step is key because this is where the disassociation between ‘youth culture’ and ‘trend setting’ becomes fully evident. By doing so, the claim that youth are not necessarily style leaders is less radical because both in the 60s (the birthplace of cool) and the 90s (the decade of cool marketing and cool brands), the search has always been for the nonconformist rather than the young per se – it’s just that the two have been conflated. By looking back at the 1990s, I established the following trend dissemination model.

This model shows how maverick brands (which went on to become the cool brands, with MTV on top of this game) were in tune with the nonconformist networks (above all rave and hip hop cultures and the many subgroups that emerged from there on). It also shows how they served to translate the language of those subcultures, in stages, for the mainstream. By doing so, they shook up the brand industry and set the tone for the next decade.

Specifically in the research sector, the idea of cool hunting and the need to keep the pulse on ‘youth culture’ is a legacy from this era. This is when we started using ethnography. All the main fashion, music and lifestyle cues emanated from this ‘cool’ network, too. It also gave us a series of communication tactics, such as guerilla marketing. All of this was radical when it first started but, over time, it reached overkill.

Moving onto the next decade, I used exactly the same cross-over model, which afforded me with consistency from an analysis point of view, on the basis of which I could validate my insights (the ethnographic research) and make my claims.

In the 00s, especially the first half, corporate cool ruled. It’s just that, if cool is devised in the boardroom, by definition it is no longer cool. By now, cool brands were the establishment. Cool was primarily redefined in terms of bling and worshipping celebrity. In that same time, something else was bubbling up that would in turn set the industry agenda. Hipsters (who moved onto the next thing) and new maverick brands akin to their values were operating on the sidelines. In simplistic terms, the ‘eco trend’ comes from this new network. Think Innocent Smoothies or Dr Hauschka as well as the unconventional systems of distribution they initially used. Parallel to this, new types of businesses would embrace and spread new ways of selling stuff and communicating messages, notably concept stores. Over time, a new industry category would be created. The new consumer would emerge from the union between hipsters and new mavericks.* (In contrast, youth studies of that period and as recent as 2009, such MTV’s own generational study, revealed that ethical considerations were not high enough on the ‘MTV Generation’s’ agenda to justify a compromise in their lifestyle).**

Just like the cool brands of the 90s, it was the turn of these new mavericks to translate the new underground language into something palatable for the mainstream. This new aesthetic – (life)style cues expressed via movements such as the ‘knitting club’ or what became ‘nu rave’ and more recently ‘vintage’ – was very different from the youth culture dominated by bling and obsessed with celebrity. I use the terms ‘corporate cool’ and ‘über cool’ to make that distinction. The communication tactics were also different and came to be known as ‘collaborations’, ‘limited editions’ and the ‘curated event’ and ‘pop ups’. All of this would eventually find its way into mainstream youth culture, too, but unlike in the 90s where this sector was leading, this time, it would follow. From my personal experience as a consultant, some brand managers from the corporate cool sector initially didn’t get it, whereas brands from ‘non cool’ industries (motor, spirits etc.) proved to be more adventurous. This über cool network is still very hot – or, current to create currency – and for that reason sought after by brands.

The implications for research
What are the implications of this ‘generational shift’ for researchers or brand managers? Ask yourself what you are trying to achieve. No, seriously. It is very easy (and indeed common) to fall into the trap of complacency, looking for research that will confirm an answer that you already know. When it comes to youth culture and trends, what are you actually interested in? If for whatever reason you want to learn about young people, then by all means, find ways of getting under their skin. You may want to push further and find out who the peer leaders are. Fine but do not conflate group peer leaders with indicators of future trends. They may or may not be. If you’re interested in forward-looking intelligence (this is particularly relevant in brand innovation as well as seeking to project a forward-thinking image), then cast your net further. Drop your assumptions. Cool moves in mysterious ways. You may find it where you least expect it. Otherwise, in this first-to-know race, you may run the danger of becoming the last to know.

*Note that the ‘tipping point’ that led to a paradigm shift in consumption would happen just as Web 2.0 was coming about. It is too soon to make big statements about how the instantaneous dissemination of information via social media will impact the formation of new underground networks but it is worth bearing in mind that a social network is, above all, a medium. It is not in itself cool, which is an assumption that the cool brand sector was quick to make with their overwhelming focus at the time on things such as Second Life, which proved to be a fad.

**MTV Generation, v2 (2009)

Dr Lida Hujić is a trend expert and brand innovation consultant. She is the author of The First to Know: How Hipsters and Mavericks Shape the Zeitgeist, which addresses all the issues raised in this article in full detail (www.thefirsttoknow.info)