Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2001, MCB UP Limited
In the last few years cool has risen inexorably to become the favoured language of popular culture. It is arguably the zeitgeist of the new millennium, at least in terms of youth and those reluctant to leave youth behind. Consumer marketers have, therefore, become increasingly focused on the search for the holy grail of cool for their products and it has been interesting to note that the rather staid image of the market research industry has been enlivened by the emergence of a new breed of "cutting edge" agencies specifically claiming cool credentials and offering insight into the workings of the "hip" world.
For instance in the Market Research Society's Research Buyers Guide 2000 one research agency describes itself:
The pernicious tentacles of Informer are tickling the youth of the world, leaping the physical and cultural barbed wire of international boundaries with their strategy motorcycles. They're straddling the globe like a mixed metaphor, covering the youth culture of the planet like some really enormous blanket.
While some in the industry may view this development with a degree of disapproval or perhaps even cynicism, it is worth noting that if the market research industry is sometimes reluctant to indulge their clients' search for that elusive cool credibility, there are others who are ready to encroach on their territory.
InterestIn the USA, where, inevitably, the quest for cool consumer goods first took off, the business that Naomi Klein's best-seller No Logo (2001) calls "cool hunters", has tended to by-pass market researchers and make large profits for "major corporate cool consultancies" – among them Sputnik and the Bureau de Style, both founded in mid-1990s. These are not market researchers but quasi-ethnographers who "hang out" at the "cutting edge" of metropolitan life, seeking new modes of consumption, new spaces and new methods of "viral communication". Although Klein believes these "legal stalkers of youth" and the global companies they report to tend to become locked into:
a slightly S/M, symbiotic dance: the clients are desperate to believe in a just-beyond-their reach well of untapped cool, and the hunters, in order to make their advice more valuable, exaggerate the crisis of credibility the brands face,
there is no doubt that even in the UK a very profitable market for consumer knowledge has developed, one that the qualitative market research industry is not yet necessarily part of. "Cultural commentators" and "cultural reporters" are very profitably seeking out emerging trends everywhere from New York to Tokyo. But rather than usurping the observational techniques, focus groups and projective questioning of qualitative market research, they are sometimes merely passing on their own subjective judgements without any of the rigour of the market research process.
How can qualitative researchers most effectively contribute to the quest for cool? What is apparent is that however commodified the concept of cool is, it is people rather than commodities who create cool. It is essential therefore, to talk to those at the "leading edge" of popular culture. Certainly qualitative market researchers can better reach those "style leaders" whose lifestyle places them ahead of the mainstream by using young "hip" recruiters (rather than the traditional middle-aged lady interviewers), recruiting in fashionable areas of the city, searching for a certain kind of job (fashion, media, music, design), media habits and a particular "look". Although it can be argued that "style leadership" is too fragile a concept to subject to direct questioning techniques, observation and indirect questioning can also be used as part of the recruitment process. Indeed, if recruiters are themselves young and stylish and thus well-qualified to detect potential respondents, they are also well-placed to persuade recruits that the whole exercise has "credibility". The "moderators", research exercises and research venues too need to ooze credibility to connect.
The quest for cool is unlikely to fade. It will be interesting to see how the market research industry deals with so ephemeral and elusive a concept.
Clive NancarrowProfessor of Marketing Research, Bristol Business School, UWE
ReferenceKlein, N. (2001), No Logo, Flamingo, London.