Buying “Cool” and how MTV died with TRL

Today in my consumer behavior class, I watched a documentary (Frontline’s Merchants of Cool) that I’d seen before, probably in Comm 101 and possibly again in Understanding Media Industries, I don’t remember. Half paying attention because I could have recited bits of it, I started thinking about what it all means. Hey, at least it was productive daydreaming.

Three things stuck with me:

First, buying cool means killing cool. In other words, once something from a so-called niche hits the big time, the trendsetters move on. Fast. Can we talk about hipsters? Yes, I know, you were hipster before hipster became hip, but what’s that all about? Why does it matter? I liked the All-American Rejects when their self-entitled album debuted in 2002. Why does that mean I shouldn’t have liked the earworm Gives You Hell six years later? Maybe it’s mental, but we all do it. We love to be on the cutting edge – and we hate it when our thing becomes everyone’s thing.

Take house music. Majority of the pseudo cool kids today love it. Those who jumped on the bandwagon first? They’re pissed. Because all of the sudden their thing is parading itself around Lollapalooza and being blasted at so-and-so’s frat party pregame. It’s not theirs anymore, it’s everyone’s.

It’s the same reason we get annoyed when “x” song plays on “y” radio station over, and over, and over again. Sure, We Are Young by Fun. was great the first 15 times we heard it, but by time 467? Not so much.

So what does that mean for brands, for marketers, for advertisers? It means you need to know your consumers inside and out, you need to be able to spot the trends before they reach the mainstream, and you need to spot the next trend while you ride the wave of the first.

There’s a reason consumer understanding is such a vital part of account planning and strategy – and why I find it all so interesting. Without that knowledge, how can advertisers hope to develop a meaningful connection with consumers?

Second, Sprite has done really well. What do you remember about Sprite from your childhood? What do you associate with the Sprite brand name? For me, I’m thinking about hip-hop music and the NBA. I think every brand should strive to create a connection as strongly as Sprite has with urban culture. The Coca-Cola spinoff has activated this relationship by sponsoring the NBA Slam Dunk contest, pairing up with MTV for the “Sprite Step Off” series, hosting parties featuring big name artists, and producing spots that feature artists and athletes at the top of their respective games.

While Sprite was used as an example in Merchants of Cool, I think Mountain Dew has done an equally terrific job at ingratiating itself in the culture of extreme sports. Not only do they sponsor the Dew Tour – but they activate using the tour outside the tour. Just glance at the Mountain Dew website – you’ll hardly be able to separate the soda from its cultural identity.

We ourselves don’t necessarily have to buy into the culture in order to consume the product, but we do hold the association. Sprite and Hip-Hop. Mountain Dew and Extreme Sports. We remember that; and maybe that’s what makes the difference.

Finally, MTV died with TRL. For at least an entire generation and much of my own generation’s childhood, MTV defined cool. It’s where the music video debuted in an age before Youtube, where people stopped being polite and started getting real, and where the non-manorexic Carson Daly had quite clearly the best job in the world.

When TRL ended, MTV should’ve changed its name, having replaced music with so-called “reality” programming almost entirely. Since TRL’s demise in 2008, what has MTV been known for? Snooki? Awful dating shows? Also-rans from previous hits like my favorite, Laguna Beach, now call MTV their permanent home.

The “M” in MTV is what made it what it was, a cultural magnate that was able to determine what would be “cool” for millions of American teenagers. The culture that surrounded the music was equally as important, but music was at the heart. Without it, we’re left with GTL and not much else.

So what now, if not MTV, defines “cool” for the largest and most marketed-to generation yet? 

In this age, with social media, globalism, and segmentation down to the smallest of characteristics, it’s possible that no single entity could be so culturally significant again. My takeaway is this: understanding your consumer is now more important than ever. Generalizations are harder to make, trends are harder to find and faster to fall, and for a generation who thinks its smarter than advertisers? We have to be that much better.

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