How Consumers Become “Cool”: Distinction-Seeking vs. Trend-Following – Evidence From the Arab World

How Consumers Become “Cool”: Distinction-Seeking vs. Trend-Following – Evidence From the Arab World

Kaleel Rahman (RMIT University, Australia)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-2727-5.ch008


In this research, the author attempts to understand the vernacular meaning of cool. The author explores whether individuals depict “coolness” by going their own way or following the trend, and whether their depiction is communicated through the inner or outer qualities of coolness. The research design involves a qualitative projective technique using collages generated by 38 individuals in a global consumer culture - Dubai. Collages were analysed and themes were identified in relation to the research question. Although prior research showed that cool is more a matter of going one's own way rather than following the trend (Warren & Campbell, 2011), this research shows that it involves both. Cool is a constant negotiation between fitting in and following the trend versus going one's own way. Despite widespread use, academic understanding of coolness is its infancy. This research contributes the body of knowledge in understanding the meaning of cool.
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Recently I noticed my friend Judy (24 years old, female) at a party using a small mobile phone. She said she does not use her iPhone anymore because almost everyone has one and she complained, “it’s not cool any more”; hence she bought a cheaper, unusual mobile phone and decided to go her own way. On the other hand, many of my friends, like millions of other consumers, are converting their iPhone 5 to iPhone 6 and still consider that “it’s cool”. As used by my many friends, does cool mean “following the trend”? Or, as used by Judy, does it mean “going your own way”? Do consumers see coolness in themselves or in products, brands, activities, other people, situations, and objects? These questions motivate this research.

The concept of cool is an interesting subject of discussion among researchers (Belk et al., 2010; O’Donnell and Wardlow 2000; Warren and Campbell, 2011). As Belk (2006, p. 7) describes it, cool “refers to a person who is admired because she, or more often he, exhibits a nonchalant control of emotions, a rebellious trickster demeanour, an ironic detachment from the regard of others, and a ‘cool’ style of talking, walking, gesturing, and grooming”. Moreover, a non-person can also be cool. According to Neumeister (2006), the definition of a “cool” item is anything that inspires consumers to feel “I want that!”.

Despite some advances in the academic understanding of the origin and meaning (O’Donnell, and Wardlow, 2000) of this vernacular usage, the relevant literature in consumer-related research remains in its infancy. Theoretically, the reason an object is termed cool is that it is used by someone who is perceived to be cool; coolness thus is following the trend. According to O’Donnell and Wardlow (2000), the cool phenomenon is a product of “narcissistic vulnerability”, the difference between the ideal and the real self in early adolescence. As a “drive reduction strategy”, teenagers derive from their friends and peers the sense of comfort and security formerly associated with parents. To fit in with those reference groups, and thereby mitigate their vulnerability, they “walk, talk, gesture and groom” in the same ways as the members of the group to which they aspire to belong, and they internalise the attributes of heroes and idols.

It is also reasonable to argue, however, that consumers tend to abandon products if they see that they are finding favour in the mass market; they aspire to personalise their style in an effort to be different, and do not want to be associated with the mainstream. As Southgate (2003) asserted, the cool are always looking for a way to be different and to express themselves in an “authentic” manner. Coolness can thus also mean being distinctive – going your own way. As recent research has found, rather than conforming to behaviours desired within a particular subculture, people and brands can become cool by going their own way (Warren and Campbell, 2011).

As Nancarrow and colleagues (2002) have suggested, the meaning of cool has an inner layer which involves personality and behavioural characteristics of individuals, as well as an outer layer involving aesthetics, lifestyle and fashion. Coolness of a person tends to be more fundamentally present within a person genuinely possessing the “inner” qualities of authenticity, detachment and rebelliousness rather than conspicuously trying to project an “outer” image regarded as cool by overtly relying upon the use of appropriate products and brands (Moore, 2004).

The purpose of this research is to explore whether consumers depict coolness by going their own way (distinction-seeking) or following the trend (trend-following), and whether their depiction is communicated through inner (inner cool) versus outer (outer cool) qualities of coolness. A collage approach was used to address these questions.

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