The cool brands con: pay us £6,250 and you, too, can claim a place on the British hip list

Paul Smith, Harvey Nichols and Myla among companies excluded in cash-for-cachet controversy

Few would dare question the popularity of the Mini, the reputation of the Savoy or the fashionable cool of designer Sir Paul Smith. So it was a surprise when these and other famous British names were not included in a poll of top UK brands, one backed by the leading lights of the marketing industry.

An investigation by The Independent on Sunday has revealed that behind their omission was an astonishing demand from the organisers of the annual vote that the "winning" companies pay thousands of pounds for the privilege of being listed. Sir Paul Smith, the Harvey Nichols chain and other leading British names refused.

The disclosure is a serious blow to the credibility of the scheme - claimed to be a serious attempt to promote the success of British goods and services - which was endorsed by the Chartered Institute of Marketing, the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising and the British Brands Group.

Selfridges was voted top of the Cool Brand-Leaders 2004 list, followed respectively by the magazine Dazed & Confused, the lingerie shop Agent Provocateur, the central London restaurant Hakkasan and the art department of Goldsmiths College, London. In total, 63 brands appeared on the well-publicised list.

The upmarket lingerie firm Myla was one of the brands that refused to pay. Charlotte Semler, Myla's co-founder, said her company received a letter earlier this year from the Business Superbrands Council (BSC), the independent organisation behind the scheme, stating that it had been chosen to appear on the list.

"The letter started off: 'It gives me great pleasure to inform you that Myla has been selected as one of the coolest brands in Britain.' It went on to say that we had been chosen by the 'independent and voluntary Cool BrandLeaders Judging Panel' and that only a minority of the initial shortlist of brands qualifies for this following the judging process," she said. "But it wasn't until you got to the end of the letter that they asked for £6,250 for what they described as 'full membership of the 2004 programme'.

"We are a small company and simply could not afford that sort of money. It seems unfair to prevent smaller companies from appearing on this list simply because the membership charges are so prohibitively high."

It is not only small companies that resisted paying the fee. The Savoy Group, which includes Claridge's and the Connaught, has been approached twice, but each time refused to stump up. A spokeswoman for the Savoy Group said: "We got a lovely warm feeling when we opened the very posh literature and saw that we had been selected. But they were requesting a sum that just wasn't in our marketing budget, so we declined."

Robert Bean,who founded the brand and advertising consultancy BANC in 1994, said: "Making people pay to appear on a list of this type drives an Exocet through the side of its credibility. Any talk of the list being independent would certainly be putting a great deal of make-up over the creases. There is nothing wrong with people marketing their findings, but coercing people into paying to be included in their findings is just plain wrong."

It has also emerged that companies including Diesel, Piaggio and Agent Provocateur - all names that made it on to this year's list - also had high-profile representatives on the judging panel.

This year's judges included the fashion designer Matthew Williamson, Tony Chambers, creative director at the style magazine Wallpaper*, and Alex Proud, owner of Proud Galleries.

Other members on the panel were Siobhan Curtin, marketing manager for Piaggio (Vespa); Daniel Barton, head of marketing and communications at Diesel, and Nicki Bidder, editor-in-chief of Dazed & Confused. These three all found that the brands they represent appeared in this year's list.

According to Superbrands, the independent judges consider more than 1,300 brands before compiling a shortlist. It is from this shortlist that invitations are sent out to brands. In most cases, those who pay the fee appear on the list. This year's list was compiled in co-operation with Metro, London's free newspaper, which helped research the views of more than 3,000 consumers aged 18 to 44 on who, what and where is cool.

According to the official website: "Cool BrandLeaders are brands that have become extremely desirable among many style leaders and influencers. They have a magic about them signifying that users have an exceptional sense of taste and style."

Stephen Cheliotis, chairman of the BSC, said that in most cases a brand has to pay to appear on the list, but said that most similar awards ceremonies have some sort of payment involved, some simply for entering.

Mr Cheliotis said: "The fee is ultimately for the production and printing of a publication in which the selected brands appear, as well as for a promotional event. The book is distributed widely and is read by a wide variety of both industry figures and the public.

"At the end of the day it is an opportunity for a brand to feature alongside others which are equally highly rated and elite. Anyone we approach would easily be able to cover such costs as we only approach the major brands. All we are trying to do is promote the discipline of branding and pay tribute to exceptional brands."

Additional reporting by Sophie Morris

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