Battle of the brands

Can what you buy make you cool? The creators of the annual Superbrands survey certainly think so. But Ian Burrell and Peter York reveal what such 'elite' labels really say about us
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The Independent Online

The Spectator editor and Henley MP has cultivated his own brand with the savoir-faire of the most cutting-edge Charlotte Street agency. Beneath his bird's-nest hair, Britain's favourite young fogey acts out the bumbling buffoon in order to build the Boris brand. Despite the rise of David Cameron, the TV regular Johnson is the most public figure on the Tory side of the House, and his profile has boosted sales of his magazine. Johnson's perceived coolness is a further indication of younger people's lack of interest in the grey of Westminster. "It has to be said that they have got this right," Peter York says of this choice.


The mobile phone giant has successfully marketed its brand by aligning itself to music events such as the NME Rock'n'Roll Riot tour and the Wireless Festival in Hyde Park (where O2 customers were given privileged access). In sport, it slapped its logo on the chests of Clive Woodward's World Cup-winning England rugby union team and on Arsène Wenger's Arsenal, neither of which are quite as all-conquering as they once were. Prince Harry dealt O2 a slap in the face when he refused to swap his BT Cellnet-sponsored England rugby top for an O2 version.


The Blunt brand is a strange mix. With a pukka background but a surname that matches street slang for marijuana, his website combines pictures of rainbows and bunnies with a profile saying: "James Blunt's family have served in one kind of army or another since 995AD." Blunt, whose Back to Bedlam topped the album charts, studied aerospace engineering and sociology at university. But York finds nothing confusing in the brand: "This Harrovian balladeer is the Chris de Burgh de nos jours. Blunt is a turn-on for mainstream and posh girls, though not exactly the cool and beating heart of pop."


De'Longhi styles itself as offering "living innovation" but its appearance in the Superbrands list ahead of the likes of The White Company and Gaggia raised a few eyebrows among experts. Helen Edwards, the co-author of Creating Passion Brands, noted that while the company does make cappuccino machines (such as the fully-automatic Magnifica) "it is really a white-goods maunfacturer and also makes a deep-fat fryer, which is one of its bestsellers". If you embrace the De'Longhi brand you are probably a suburban housewife with an obsessive interest in home improvement television shows.


That this never-say-die Lancastrian all-rounder emerges ahead of the ailing global brand that is David Beckham is not a great surprise after the euphoria of the Ashes series. Surprising, though, that sport is seen as "cooler" than the Hollywood glamour of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. Of England's cricketers, "Freddie", as he is branded, is easily the most marketable, which is why he has sponsorship deals with the likes of Volkswagen, Red Bull, Barclays Capital and The Sun newspaper. After last summer, virtually every English male is a fan of Freddie, but it is the FHM-reading class that is his core constituency.


Known for its tanning lotions and blushers, St Tropez's reputation is now decidedly mainstream. Helen Edwards thinks the brand is still reaping the benefits of the low-key approach to publicity it took in its early days: "When they established themselves, they did it through word of mouth and buzz. That was smart, and probably has a lot to do with why they are seen as cool now." If you buy into St Tropez, you know your beauty products - but you're not quite as cool as you think you are.


Diesel was called "the ironic brand" by expert Matt Haig, the author of Brand Royalty, who placed it at No 84 in his top 100 brands. Haig claims that the Italian-based clothes company has succeeded by "puncturing the overinflated sincerity" of other fashion brands. Unlike Levi's, Diesel is "anti-cool", one of a wave of companies dubbed "New Trash brands" by the social commentator Nick Compton, which market themselves with irony. If you wear Diesel, you're probably in your late twenties, you want people to think you care about the way you dress, but not too much, and you're saying that you're media-savvy - and media-cynical.


There's nothing élitist about the Superbrands survey, so the "coolest" tipple is the beer boy's favourite bevvy - "Paul Weller" or, to give it its politically incorrect nickname, "Wifebeater". Stella, sold in 80 countries, is one of the world's best-selling beers. Its Luis Buñuel-inspired adverts, directed by Frank Budgen, give it a more upscale image, as does its sponsorship of tennis at Queen's Club. Even so, if you think Stella is the epitome of cool, you'll probably be found at the burger van at 11.30pm on Fridays, not wearing a coat and with your shirt outside your trousers.


One reason Wagamama tops this list is because it falls within the price range of most respondents to the Superbrands survey. York says: "It is the opposite of Americana and the proletarian fast-food restaurants. There's no flim-flam and the prices are moderate but it is also very student union. It's a nice experience." You're saying: "I'm not flash but I've got taste and went to university."


Microsoft is described by Matt Haig as "the dominance brand". To some, the MSN brand conjures thoughts of Bill Gates as a James Bond baddie plotting to take over the world. But not to those who responded to the Superbrands survey, who chose to give the cool tag to the global giant MSN rather than less mainstream internet operations. Then again, Bill did kick-start the whole thing and continues to pour millions into research and development. No doubt MSN would quite value this Superbrand recognition, until they were told that in second place in their category was that well-known media/entertainment outfit "Rizla cigarette papers".


The image of the Vorsprung durch Technik brand has been carefully shaped by blue-chip advertising agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty for many years and the car-maker even launched its own television channel last month. But style guru Peter York contends that: "Silver German cars are up and down the street like nobody's business and if you really want to make a statement you buy a Bentley coupe." Even so, Audi has cleverly differentiated itself from other more brazen German manufacturers (namely Mercedes and BMW) by cultivating an image that York defines as "left-of-field, low-profile ... the alternative German car". If you are an Audi driver, you're a high-achiever who doesn't feel the need to brag about it.


Jordan has been trying to rebrand herself as "Katie Price" (her real name). A well-received appearance on ITV1's I'm a Celebrity...Get Me Out of Here! does not seem to have enhanced her "cool" rating in the eyes of the Superbrand respondees. York thinks this is snobbery. "She's a single-word brand like Madonna and her brand has sold a lot of books. It is a brand that people consume, but don't want to acknowledge," he says. But she is saddled with an "uncool accessory", he concedes: her fella, Peter Andre.