Hipness is what it is…
and sometimes hipness is what it ain’t…
(Tower of Power, ‘What Is Hip?’)

Dear CMO:

Look for ‘What Is Hip’ by Tower of Power when I pen my iTunes Celebrity Playlist. Not sure about the timing at present, but I’m ready when they are. I’ll do this right after James Lipton interviews me on “Inside the Actor’s Studio”. All I need is fame and all of this great stuff will just come tumbling out.

If anyone can easily explain what is hip — ‘tell me, tell me, do you think you know?’ — then it probably isn’t. What is hip is often a mystery to those who find it and as elusive as grasping the proverbial shadow for those who pursue it. Worse yet is that the very image of ‘cool’ is a very fickle thing. “Sometimes hipness is what it ain’t”. Being hip and cool is great until the moment that you aren’t.

Let me try to tackle the ball of smoke. What is hip? iTunes and the iPod are hip because of what they are: Apple understood what needed to happen to solve the problem of buying and sampling music and solved it with a simple, elegant system. Creative Labs’ Zen is not hip because of what it wants to be: they just can’t understand why people won’t buy its 8GB MP3 players even though they’re cheaper than most iPods. They don’t understand why hip is hip. And you know what? Creative has a product that is solid, affordable, and good looking. They’re just aiming in the wrong direction.

Audi is cool because of what it is. Audi says it produces ‘strong’ cars. Good choice of words. When racing schools say they only teach in Audis because they’re that much better than anything else on the road, when international rally races ban Audis because their all-wheel drive Quattro is an ‘unfair advantage’, and then you look at the understated look and feel of the vehicle, it very quietly says, “cool”. At the same time, Cadillac is marketing to 70-year old guys by showing 40-year old guys driving around while blasting Robert Plant songs, (who is a very cool 60 year old guy). Not cool.

Nike is cool because of what they say. What is more authentic than, “I believe in the athelete in all of us”? Sure, “Just Do It” is a great rallying cry, but expressing core beliefs like this goes to the heart of why you run, work, get out of bed, play catch with your child, and everything else you do. New Balance is so uncool they are very cool because of what they don’t say and because of what other people say about them.

BMW Films was very cool and the entire mini-proto-virtual industry that has popped up around the idea of media snacks is, at best, almost cool. Showing the first 8 minutes of a movie on iFilm is cool. Registering on a website so you can instantly get updates on what’s happening with m&m’s is an eye-rollingly painful lesson in what is not cool, interesting, or remotely relevant.

Real word-of-mouth — real buzz — is cool. Manufactured buzz is the antithesis of cool. Have you heard of Buzz Agent? People get paid to artificially pimp your product with “real”, heartfelt endorsements. If you were a brand manager outed for spending money with Buzz Agent you’d probably rather have Jon Stewart tell the world that he just found Jack Abramoff’s home phone number in your rolodex. Either way, you’re busted, chump.

So what is the true essence of being hip? I have a theory wrapped in an enigma. It may be shrouded in a riddle, I don’t know. Hipness equals authenticity divided by luck times mob mentality times the attention span of our “celebrity culture.”

Shown mathematically:


Hipness requires authenticity. Without being ‘real’, it can’t be cool. New Balance is hip because they make running shoes for runners that have unsurpassed quality. They do not aspire to fashion. They are not cool. They run advertising that doesn’t appeal to people seeking cool. They run advertising to appeal directly to core runners and sell to a channel that sells to their core group of runners. Their unwillingness to be cool makes them cool.

Luck is necessary. For most products that wildly succeed, it’s more than two-thirds luck. Accept it, it’s kismet. Just because you’re clinging to the rear end of a rocket doesn’t mean you’re steering. You can design a product for the ‘youth’ market only to find that what you thought was really ‘cool’ (this should be a red flag at this point for those of you paying attention) turned out to have real functionality to a completely different group of people. The wonderful and excellent Plantronics MX100 headset is a good example. Designed by a group of people who desperately wanted to make it cool to the ‘youth’ market, the ‘ear cuff’ was supposed to look like an earring. Instead, the business user found it to be very stable and comfortable. The ‘beaver tail’ design tried to be ‘fashion cool’ and nobody noticed; but someone else noticed the comfort and — voila! — it was cool. That’s life.

The “Culture of Celebrity” that defines 21st century American life has reduced our attention span to an almost fruit fly life span-like duration. When the critical mass sees something shiny and new, the student body moves as one. Instant communication, more media choices, and a new species of unfamous celebrity who act like carnival barkers for their causes, products, and/or projects all congeal in an instant message-whipped perfect storm. The mob then takes over.

So what’s a CMO to do? Is your fate hung up in random chance? Maybe, but don’t despair. What’s interesting here is that the only thing in your control is authenticity. You can’t control luck, but as Bobby Knight says, “luck is when preparation meets opportunity.” You can’t control it, but you can be ready for it if it hits you. Mob rule might swarm over your product one day — for good or bad — and if you’ve pursued your product and marketing strategies with relentless focus on why you’re better than anyone else for exactly the market you’re aiming to serve, you might be chosen. And you might not. And if you’re not, it might not be your fault.

All you can control is your authenticity. Maybe that’s more important than cool. Be authentic, put yourself in harm’s way and see what happens next. You, as steward and caretaker of your brand, need to stop trying to do cool things and understand what makes it cool in the first place. Try to fake it, and you’re instantly Milli Vanilli.

Hipness is what it is. And sometimes hipness is what it ain’t.

Keep it real & best regards.

Copyright (c) 2006 Stephen Denny

PS: Take a moment and read the very insightful article from American Demographics (June 2004), entitled, “Buzz Giant Poster Boy”.