THE MERCHANTS OF COOL
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What's It Like Hunting for Cool?

danielle in action

A Cool Hunter:

Here's a glimpse of a few hours in the life of Danielle, one of Look-Look's 500 global "correspondents." Correspondents are high school or college age, are cool themselves, and can find cool kids and speak their language. This clip shows Danielle searching for "cool" at a Slipknot concert in August 2000.

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Today's young people are generally unresponsive to traditional brand marketing messages. What they do respond to is something "cool." But "cool" keeps changing. So if you're a marketer, how do you find "cool?" Many corporations hire the expertise of Look-Look a research company specializing in youth culture. Read below some of FRONTLINE's interview with Look-Look's co-founders, Dee Dee Gordon and Sharon Lee. They explain more about their business and the challenges of hunting for cool.

Why do your clients hire you guys? What are they looking for? What do they do with the information you give them?

Gordon: I think they're looking to us to be kind of the eyes and ears of youth culture. It's a difficult job. You can't understand a whole culture by checking in every now and then or a phone here or an article there. So they kind of rely on us as a resource to say, "This is what's going on" all the time, to give them kind of a pulse.

...For instance, we have some clients who are interested in taking a product that already exists and finding a way that it can appeal to young people. So they will use our information to find out if that product is even interesting to them or if there's a way that they could make it more interesting. Same thing with advertising. They like to test whether or not their advertising is relevant to these kids or what kind of advertising is relevant, so that they can do something similar. Or let's say they want to like create a whole new brand or a whole new product with a company that targets a specific audience. They take out information to assist in inspiring project designers, in helping them market the new product, even in naming the product, and then eventually testing. They use our database to recruit kids to test the products out, stuff like that.

How would an entertainment media outlet use you guys?

Lee: It depends on what it is. There's various ways. I mean most people will use us to help in marketing, finding new ways to reach kids, finding new products and new promotions, new events to get involved in -- even down to who's a popular actor or actress that maybe they should cast for the film, what magazines they should be advertising in. Sometimes there are new scenes that pop up out of nowhere that kids like to pass around. Studios want to know if they should be involved in that, too. All kinds of different stuff.

What are some of the major misconceptions that companies have about teenagers?

Lee: One of the motivations for starting our company is that there's so many times we'd sit across from clients and they would ask us the same type questions over and over and over again, no matter where you went.

What questions?

Lee: "What's the hottest new brand with kids?" This one is my favorite: "My son just bought roller blades. So all the kids must be getting into roller blades, right?" Or "My son's saying the word 'dope'. That must be the hottest word to use now, right?" Well, because they don't have a resource, if they have teenagers or if they have neighbors, they kind of use that as a one-man focus group and try to get information. But they want to know in general what are they like, how do they feel, what's important to them? I mean they just don't have a clear sense of where to begin with that information, because it's such a foreign set of people that they don't interact day to day.

And it's so basic that we were a lot of times repeating the same things like, "Well, you know, you really shouldn't talk down to teenagers. You should first educate yourself on what they do like. Why don't you pick up a magazine they read and look at that? Why don't you watch a TV show that they like? Why don't you go out and hang out at some of their hang-outs and observe without judgment of what they're doing, how they're doing it and what they're enjoying?" These days it's just because they don't have time. They're time poor. And it's intimidating. ...

...How does a trend spread?

Lee: ...Actually it's a triangle. At the top of the triangle there's the innovator, which is like two to three percent of the population. Underneath them is the trend-setter, which we would say is about 17 percent. And what they do is they pick up on ideas that the innovators are doing and they kind of claim them as their own. Underneath them is an early adopter, which is questionable exactly what their percentage is, but they kind of are the layer above mainstream, which is about 80 percent. And what they do is they take what the trend-setter is doing and they make it palatable for mass consumption. They take it, they tweak it, they make it more acceptable, and that's when the mass consumer picks up on it and runs with it and then it actually kills it.

Talk about the Internet aspect of what you do.

Lee: Well, the Internet is this great resource for both the kids and us. It's a vital link. Most researchers take this perspective of, "Oh, we'll go out there in the field," which happens maybe once or twice of three times in a year, and "[We'll] get the information from that and that'll be enough." And the reason why we think it's not is that because young people use the Internet as an everyday part of life and it's such a resource for them. Communication, spreading ideas, learning about things that the speed with which information travels has just accelerated to such a degree that you really need that online real time resource to say, "This is what's going on." It's moving faster and faster and faster.

And the other part of it is that we can reach out to so many more people, instantly globally. You know, it's like this global network of our community of correspondents, respondents, and us and we're able to communicate so much more efficiently. ... The Internet part of it makes all of that so much more efficient and so much easier, because they can just come into our network, decide they want to be a correspondent ... and then the information gets loaded up so much quicker of the people who are interested.

Describe the structure of your website. [How does it work?]

Lee: The website is a big database. It keeps collecting information as it gets streamed in from all of our various correspondents. It's always clicking and learning and sorting information. So you have 500 correspondents out there at random moments saying, "Here's a great jeans story that I saw in my town." "Here's a great music story that I think is really important." And the website is a database, which is a mechanism that collects this and sorts this and then it also publishes it out. So that you get all this really complicated voluminous information and it's easy to fit understanding segments.

Publishes it for whom?

Gordon: Publishes it for anybody who's interested in this culture. It's marketers who want to market to them. It's media people. It's copywriters at advertising agencies. It's, you know, a news person from Associated Press. There's such a broad range of people that are interested in the culture for various reasons that, if you think about it, that's what we're provided is a resource for all that information.

What kinds of companies hire you?

Gordon: Manufacturers of apparel, health and beauty, cosmetics and fragrances; people who are manufacturing footwear; movie studios; sports associations; electronics companies; advertising agencies.

Read Gordon and Lee's full interview with FRONTLINE. And also check out Malcolm Gladwell's interview with FRONTLINE about Dee Dee Gordon and cool hunters as well as Gladwell's The New Yorker article about Gordon.

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