The chill factor – what makes a brand so cool?

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The names are instantly recognisable and worth a mint, writes Jonathan Owen, as Peter York sorts the hip from the humdrum

We buy them in the hope that they will add lustre to our lives. Cool brands may not necessarily be the best that money can buy but they are the best at convincing us we can't live without them. This week, the most successful brands in Britain will celebrate their power to persuade with the announcement of the 2011 CoolBrands top 20.

Among the names in contention are YouTube, Tate Modern and "heritage" car marques such as Ferrari, Aston Martin and Maserati. Brands that failed to make the cut last year but have scrambled into the latest top 20 include Nike, Rolex, PlayStation and the underwear retailer Agent Provocateur. They are among a shortlist of 500 selected for consideration by the judges, with the whole operation organised by Superbrands UK, a marketing research firm.

The importance of a strong brand name should never be underestimated. The electronics giant Apple this year became America's most valuable company. Over the past four years, its global revenues have grown from £16.2bn to £27.7bn. Nike, another internationally recognised brand, saw an annual rise in its global revenues of 18 per cent, to £3.9bn, in the first quarter of this year.

More to the point, famous names such as Apple and Nike have been able to defy gravity while the fortunes of many other companies have suffered a reversal in the recession.

Stephen Cheliotis, chairman of the CoolBrands expert council, says: "Cool is clearly not here today, gone tomorrow, as some might assume, but about lasting the distance and maintaining one's edge over rivals."

The organisers of CoolBrands claim none of the names on its shortlist has applied or paid to be included. The appointed arbiters of "cool" include designers Ben de Lisi and Kelly Hoppen, model and TV presenter Lisa Snowdon and rave DJ Rob da Bank.

But Peter York, The Independent on Sunday's cultural commentator, remains unimpressed. "There's something innately hilarious and somewhat compromised about these brand rankings," he says. "You're crossing your legs at the discomfort of it."

Here, York casts a critical eye over the would-be cool rulers.

Rolex

A fine brand, but it's not remotely cool. It's the Swiss watch that people choose automatically to show they've got a little bit of money, and it's sold from here to kingdom come. Anybody who wanted to make a cool statement wouldn't have a Rolex because the essence of cool is not to have the first obvious thing you buy when you become well off.

Alexander McQueen

He's on the list, but he isn't here to appreciate it. It's a great irony that the brand's biggest mainstream triumph happened after his death, with Kate Middleton's wedding dress. So, you have a turbulent history, a sad life... and then, great commercial success. A royal wedding is very different from one of McQueen's Nineties shows.

Bang & Olufsen

It's a business that makes technology workable, attractive and luxurious. Bang & Olufsen does not invent new technologies, but it applies them brilliantly to the requirements of affluent, middle-aged people. I'd be thrilled if a whole lot of Bang & Olufsen stuff for the house was delivered, but I wouldn't regard it as making me in any way cool.

Tate Modern

In terms of making contemporary art accessible to lots of people and making it fun, this has to be good. But it's not a funny, funky little gallery; it's what everybody takes their kids to. So it's admirable, but you wouldn't call a great big institution like that cool in that way, would you? I don't think it would want to be called cool.

Apple

The point about Apple isn't whether it's cool. It's much more important that things work well and are easy to operate. It's sometimes said that the iPhone and iPad are uncool, unspecial, middle aged – and that is because there is nothing mysterious about them.

Nike

It's got very good cool hunters (to use a Nineties term), brilliant designers and so on, but basically, the whole business of sports-derived clothing for unsporty, overweight people is horrible. What's cool about Nike is that it's got brilliant designers, brilliant marketing, but the net effect is just awful.

YouTube

YouTube is newer than most of the brands here and it is mass, mass, mass: everybody's doing YouTube so it's neither cool nor uncool. It's a fantastic new medium and I'm looking at everything on it from comical cats to medical horrors, all the time. Great stuff, but it's global and it would have been fantastically new and cool when it started.

Ferrari

What's remotely cool about a Ferrari? It's a very expensive car for show-off, middle-aged men, and it's no coincidence that the model we know best is called the Testarossa. It is a major virility statement and how can that be cool? It's also enormously expensive and that, I think, is the antithesis of any idea of cool.

Dom Pérignon

How can Dom Pérignon be cool? I suppose because it's drunk by rappers. Deeply embarrassing I would have said. I think the idea of hyper-priced champagnes is essentially uncool. It may have thought at first that it was good to be the choice of rappers, but I think at the end of the day it's embarrassing because bling is embarrassing.

Agent Provocateur

Agent Provocateur has the whiff of great old rebellions because it was a bit saucy and so on, faintly porny and faintly Soho seedy, and all that stuff. But it's as safe as houses now, and it's a very big brand. It's what people give their wives. Some nice designs, a bit of British fun... but not new and not in that sense cool.

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