THE MERCHANTS OF COOL
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Interview: Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell is staff writer for The New Yorker and author of The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.

Who is Dee Dee Gordon and how good is she at what she does?

Dee Dee Gordon is a cool hunter. . . . When I came up with that term, it seemed fresh and original. She started in her 20s, I think, running a very hip boutique on Newbury Street in Boston. She caught the eye of someone at Converse and worked at Converse for a while, when Converse was making its big comeback in the 1980s. She sort of got in the business of being an expert on, an interpreter of youth trends for corporate America. She worked for a while at an advertising company in San Diego . . . and now she has her own shop. . . .

She has taken that initial idea of being the go-between between those two worlds and turned it into a very successful business. How good is she? I think she's as good as anyone is at this game. It's a difficult thing to quantify, of course. It's not a science. It's really a question ultimately of, how much do you trust the person who's doing the interpretation, and how good are their instincts? And I think in both cases, she's at the top of the field.

What is her talent?

Well, I think her skill is an understanding. When you look at youth culture, there are obviously, at any one time, dozens and dozens and dozens of things going on. And the talent is to figure out which of those things you think is going to be the most important. That's based on something that's very difficult to put your finger on. You can't run it through an algorithm. You just have to have a feel for the sorts of things that are emerging. One of the things that Dee Dee always says is that you know that something's real when you see in many different places. But that really means that you have to look in many different places, and I think one of the things that some of these cool hunters don't do is that they have do their reporting--you know, do your work. You have to make sure you look in all the different places to see where the things are popping up over and over again.

And she does that?

I think that she does that very well, yes.

What is the cool hunt?

Well, the cool hunt is an idea. It's this whole notion of trying to get at trends at the source, to figure out where they're coming from. If you know where they're coming from, then you can get a head start. Particularly in the apparel business, head starts are everything, right? It's all about the first person who has their product there right at the moment.

The second thing is that . . . if you have a good idea about where trends are coming from, then you at least have a chance at influencing their movement. That's a much harder game, and I think it's a very difficult game. But really, for many of these firms, it's kind of the holy grail. They'd like to be able to think that they can come out with a product or a toy, or a fashion item, and be able to create a trend around it. They're always sort of chasing that goal.

I recently talked to an apparel company that's done very well appealing to the youth cultureÉ.And they did an ad which they thought was really, really, really cool.  They took it and focus-grouped it in Harlem and Baltimore.  And the kids just laughed and That second thing involves not simply observing, but understanding the trend-setter in some ways, which is a different thing.

It is different. I actually am very skeptical of those who say that you can manipulate trends, for the simple reason that the trend-setter is someone who is, by virtue of being a trend-setter, resistant to those who would make up their mind for them. One of the things that sets them apart is the certain independence of mind, a certain spirit, a certain precocity, a certain rebelliousness. All of these kinds of character traits are fundamentally antithetical to the notion of any sort of corporate manipulation.

To the extent that it can be done, it must be done extremely covertly. First of all, it's hard for corporations to do things covertly, and the downside of doing something covertly, of course, is that no one might notice at all. So that's also sort of equally difficult. I think the real issue here is simply understanding what's happening, and adjusting your own behavior accordingly, and not trying to actually manipulate the system.

. . . So when you're cool hunting, you're cool hunting the person?

Yes. Cool hunting is structured, really, around a search for a certain kind of personality and a certain kind of player in a given social network. It is not a search for a specific piece of information, and those who search for specific pieces of information, I think, are ultimately misleading themselves. You are searching for a certain kind of social influence.

And the cool hunters were the first to realize, I think, that . . . social status didn't lay where Madison Avenue had said it lay in the 1950s and 1960s and 1970s--in people with the most education, the most money, the biggest house, the prettiest face. That was the definition for years and years and years and years on Madison Avenue of where influence lay. The idea was, if you knew where the money was and where the power was and where the big houses were, then you knew what was going to happen next.

Cool hunting was all about a kind of revolution that sets that earlier paradigm aside and says, in fact, it's not all concerned with those matters. It has to do with personal influence, influence within specific social networks. It has to do with the influence held by those who have the respect and admiration and trust of their friends, and not with a kind of status envy, which is, to me, a notion that comes from the 1950s. It's a notion that's not relevant today, and also happens to be a notion that I find sort of personally distasteful.

Originality was sort of a new holy grail. Originality was the thing that set everything in motion?

Yes, originality. But remember, as well, that there's an important distinction to be made in cool hunting between the people who start trends and the people who spread trends. This is something that Dee Dee is very good on as well. But again, it's a point that's sometimes lost. You're not really that interested in the person who's starting the trend. What you're really interested in is the person who's spreading the trend, and trends spread. First of all, sometimes it's the same person and very often it's not. Very often, the set of social skills that are necessary for spreading trends are different from the set of social skills that are necessary for initiation of a trend. And the person who spreads the trend is someone who is very self-consciously playing a social role, and occupies a particular and privileged place in their own social network. They are the people that people look to for cues on what to be doing and saying. . . .

In the book I've just written called The Tipping Point, I describe some of these personalities. The key personality here is the person I call a "maven." The idea is that there are people who master certain arcane and complicated fields. And the rest of us rely disproportionately on that person when it comes to making decisions in these complicated fields.

The maven is really the one that you're interested in knowing. You want to know that person who occupies that kind of social place. You want to know what they like and what they're picking up on, because they're the ones who can take something that's buried beneath the surface and really bring it into the open. And the other thing that's interesting with those types is that they are changing the idea as they adopt it. They're making the idea palatable. You know, most trends in their earliest form are distinctly . . . they'll never make it outside . . . they need to be altered and have their edges smoothed. They need to be repackaged for the rest of us.

People sometimes act as if you go to the epicenter of cool, the idea comes straight and unchanged from that place and spreads everywhere. It never happens that way. The earliest of the early adopters takes that idea and uses it in a form that the rest of us would never use, because we're not interested in the extreme embodiment of some new idea. We're interested in something that fits much more into our lifestyle.

Tell us a story of how Dee Dee discovered this and adapted it. I'm thinking of the skateboard shoe.

Cool is valuable to marketers, because marketers understand that the job of getting their message out is greatly enhanced if they can appeal to the kind of person who will independently set trends among their peer group. This was in the mid-1980s, I believe, or maybe late 1980s. Deedee was working for Converse at the time, and began to notice in L.A. a lot of the cool Hispanic kids were wearing shower sandals. And they were wearing these old man shower sandals as a kind of fashion item. And she got the idea. She had a sense that this was part of a kind of broader cultural thing where, you know, the Beastie Boys were dressing up like old men. There was a whole kind of old-man -1950s-thing going on.

And so she convinced Converse to do a Converse shower sandal, which was just basically a plastic sole with the Converse logo. It was a huge massive runaway hit for them. It's a very good example of this notion of seeing an idea and then translating it. The kind of shoe being worn in L.A. would never have worked. It was never going to play in Kansas City. You've got to take the idea, democratize it and smooth the edges down. And that's what they did by putting it within the form of Converse, which is a very familiar brand and just giving . . . that sandal a tweak. They were able to create something that was a huge, huge sensation in the shoe world.

Underlying this whole thing was the sort of trickle-up phenomenon. What's happened?

We're now in a situation where trends are coming from the bottom up and not from the top down, the way that we thought they did in the 1950s. A number of things have happened. When we talk about taste-makers in the context of the 1950s, we're really talking about taste-makers within a very, very small range of products. We're talking about fashion. In fact, we're talking about high fashion--really where that sort of paradigm comes from. Now, when we're talking about trends, we're talking about trends in many, many different . . . areas. We're talking about music, fashion, sports. . . So the field has widened now.

The other thing that's happened that we're acknowledging now is that a lot of teen-driven trends are reaching the consciousness of adults. I have a sense that a lot of teen things in the 1950s simply went on underneath the surface. They were very, very kind of buried within the recesses of teen culture, to the extent that teen culture existed. And a lot of this simply has to with the emergence of teen culture. The emergence of teen culture has a lot to do with the telephone. For years and years and years and years, teenagers basically interacted at school, and then they came home. And when they were at home, they played and hung out with people in their neighborhood. But the universe of the average teenager was constrained by the length of the school day and by the availability of peers within their neighborhood.

. . . The emergence of the second telephone in the 1960s turns teen culture from a seven-hour-a-day thing into a 14-hour-a-day thing. It doubles the amount of time that teens can spend. And the reason all of this stuff has gotten a boost in the last two years is that the cell phone goes along and extends the range of socializing even further. It begins to make it possible to multiply the complexity of social encounters, too, and it ramps up the spontaneity. All of a sudden it becomes possible to walk down the street, talk to your friends and arrange a meeting. And it's out of those kinds of spontaneous, social complex interactions that ideas percolate and emerge.

That's a long way of saying that things like the telephone essentially allow a lot latent forces within teen culture to assert themselves. There's the fact that teens have lots of time on their hands and the fact that teens are really eager to try out new ideas. When you finally give teens the opportunity to start talking a lot and to talk over long distances and to talk for hours and hours each night and so on, all of a sudden you allow all of those structural factors to assert themselves.

I actually think that is much more important that teens have a lot more money. They started to get a lot of money in the 1960s and 1970s. But I think that's secondary to the fact that their patterns of socialization become richer. . . We're talking about things that emerge out of social interactions, right? And when you have a richer form of social interaction, you're going to have a much richer kind of trend foliage in the cultural garden. And that's sort of what's going on, or what went on in that period.

. . . How is this related to people like Dee Dee going out to study the teen creatures?

To be kind of frivolous for the moment, the rise of the cool hunter is about a triumph in the mass culture. It is the reflection of the academic shift from sociology to anthropology, which is the great academic shift from the 1950s to now. Anthropology has triumphed over sociology, over the idea that you would go out and very reverently and respectfully observe the culture of someone else seems more fitting now than sociology, which seemed to sit back and create theoretical paradigms to describe social interactions and behaviors.

So in a certain way, it's just a matter of contemporary cultural style. It reflects on the way in which our culture likes to think about itself. We now much prefer the anthropological model to the sociological model. I think a lot of corporations were humbled in the 1970s, early 1980s. They suddenly became aware that they were not keeping in touch and that it was impossible for them to divine what the market wanted. I think there were a lot of people who got very, very sudden and rude educations in the changing consumer marketplace. . . .

What about the psychographics and increasing scientific patina of trying to understand the market?

Part of what's happening--and it goes back to something that I said earlier about how once you dislodge status as defined by demographic variables as the principal determiner of social influence--it throws the field wide open. . . . I make $75,000, I'm a male, I live in New York City and I'm 37 years old. Once you no longer think that those are the salient facts about me and that those facts explain my role among my friends, then you have opened the door to any number of possible ways of understanding me.

And all of the other possible ways of understanding me . . . are softer than the hard demographic facts. They all are matters of interpretation. They're matters of cultural analysis. . . . We've used quantifiable methods to understand people. And we opened the door to these things that are much more useful, but they are, of necessity, a lot more different to wrap your arms around. That's why we need these teams of people, some of whom sometimes . . . less precise and objective as their predecessors. But that's because we're no longer using those comfortable and precise objective measures of influence.

What is the cool hunter really trying to understand?

I don't know that they're trying to understand a person. They're trying to understand taste. They're trying to put their finger on the evolution of taste. It's a matter of question how much taste tells you about the individual, or at least what kind of window that gives you into their personality or their nature. It tells you more, I think, about the context of the times and the situations that we're in.

But in cool hunting, there is an idea that it is possible to put a finger on the evolution of taste without . . . having to understand important questions about what they like at this moment. You can observe them in a variety of contexts or sample some aspect of their consumption patterns or just listen to them talk.

What about the irony that discovery of cool does something to cool?

The irony of cool hunting is that the kind of person who starts trends, and also the kind of person who spreads them . . . the reason they play this game is they're interested in occupying a unique position in the culture. The person who starts trends would like to be different. The person who spreads them would like to be the one who connects this weird undercurrent world with all of their friends in the mainstream. So they see a social role for themselves, only insofar as those ideas are out there to be discovered. As soon as the idea is blown wide open and revealed to everyone else, then both of those people lose their social position, and so they're driven to the next thing.

So the faster you pick up on these trends and blow them out and show them to everybody and reveal them to corporate America, the more you force the kind of person who starts them and spreads them to move on and find the next. There's no kind of solution to this. You can't ever solve the puzzle permanently. By discovering cool, you force cool to move on to the next thing. It's "chase in flight." That's a phrase that comes from illusionary biology. It's kind of a treadmill--not an unpleasant treadmill. But nonetheless, it's the wonderful way the cool hunters stay in business, because by being in business they make their own role even more necessary. . . .

The thing to remember is that the person who discovers trends, the person who is cool, is interested in discovering trends precisely because they're hidden. They want to be the one who is distinctive and unusual. That's their kind of social currency. . . .

So, by intervening in the process, you have sped it up. And you've also created a condition where there will always be something you don't know, because you're simply pushing the cool person even further ahead in to discovering new kind of mysterious and hidden cool delights. The irony of the cool hunter is that, by their very existence, the more the cool hunters do their job, the more their job is necessary. The more they do their job, the more they create these hidden pockets of coolness that require discovery and interpretation.

. . . It could be argued . . . that Madison Avenue is so good now that they've taken over and corrupted a lot of what used to be much more authentic street culture. I actually don't believe that. I do think that Madison Avenue is better at what they do. But by virtue of being better, they have in certain ways ensured that there will always be a pocket of cool out there. They've pushed the cool person even further ahead. So I don't buy this argument that we're all somehow becoming slaves to corporate America, and that corporate America can entirely colonize the cool process. . . .

As long as adolescents are adolescents, and so long as adolescents have that hormonal make-up, they're always going to place a special value on authenticity. And authenticity is defined in the adolescent world as something that starts and ends with adolescence. It explicitly excludes the intervention of adults in business suits. Nothing will ever change that fact. This is a moment in human development when we are acutely and primarily and overwhelmingly interested in what our peers are doing. . . .

A counterargument is that, with the rise of the authenticity factor in advertising, the kid has difficulty differentiating.

Madison Avenue has gotten very good at aping youth culture. . . . It's difficult for those of us who are not in the youth culture to tell the difference. However, it's not confusing for those in youth culture. If you are the cool 15-year-old that Sprite is trying to reach, you know damned well the difference between Sprite's version of your world and your world. You're an expert on your world. Never has the kind of narcissism of those small differences meant more than in this context.

. . . I recently talked to an apparel company that's done very well at appealing to the youth culture sort of inadvertently. And they were saying, "Well, maybe we should do this ad aimed at this sort of inner-city kid who's buying our product." And they did an ad which they thought was really, really, really cool. They took it and focus-grouped it in Harlem and Baltimore. And the kids just laughed and they pointed to16 things that were wrong with the ad that immediately said to them that it was inauthentic. And this company realized, "Listen, it's silly for us to try. . . the best way for us to reach them is just to be ourselves and not to try and play their game."

The point is, had you or I looked at that ad, we would have thought that it was incredibly cool and emblematic of youth culture. It was not, but we're not aware of that, because we're outside that world. Within that world, the standards for playing and the standards for belonging are exacting and precise and intimidating in many ways. I just don't believe that any 28-year-old ad copywriter is ever going to master those things, no matter how hip that 28-year-old is.

So what is Dee Dee offering?

. . . She's not necessarily . . . giving the people a way of aping the culture. She's giving them rules for playing that game. Kids will buy something even it if doesn't speak in their precise language. In fact, much of what they buy does not speak in their precise language. Much of what they're interested in is just finding things that they can fit into their world. I think that's the kind of advice that she's offering people, simply, how can you create something that . . . will appeal to these people on that much broader level? The Sprite question is a separate issue--whether you actually want to pretend that you are as authentic a member of their world as they are. I think that is a much harder and problematic thing to pursue.

Why is cool valuable to marketers?

Cool is valuable to marketers, because marketers understand that the job of getting their message out is greatly enhanced if they can harness word-of-mouth, if they can appeal to the kind of person who will independently set trends among their peer group. . . . They think that the quickest way in is to be seen to appeal to the kind of kid who is at the core of that social epidemic. So that's why it's valuable. It's a short-cut. There are certain situations where you don't have to be cool, or maybe you don't even want to be cool. But certainly within the apparel business . . . and fashion, and the movie business--businesses that are epidemic in nature . . . and have a strong social contagious dimension to them--it makes perfect sense to try and get in on that process somehow. So that's why cool is valuable in what I would call "epidemic markets."

What about the origin of the type of language that Dee Dee uses in her work?

The theoretical framework for cool hunting comes from what's called "diffusion research," which is a whole school in sociology that attempts to understand why certain innovations become adopted. When they started this school, they weren't at all thinking about fashion. They were thinking about things like one famous early study, which was about how quickly farmers adopted hybrid seed corn in Iowa in the 1930s and 1940s. They actually studied the farmer who was the first to experiment with this cool new seed, and then how quickly did the other farmers follow his lead. . . . They studied who are the kinds of people who are likely to follow this first farmer's lead first, and who were the ones who took some time.

From there, you get a kind of Bell curve. The earliest diffusion guys divided that up into innovator, early adopter, early majority, majority, later majority, laggards. Those are the kind of words used now in the fashion world or any kind of cool-driven business, to describe the adoption, the innovation, the diffusion of new ideas there. But it is funny that it comes out of a very old school academic analysis of the driest sorts of innovations. . . .

Dee Dee said the end process of this is to kill--that what cool hunts, it ultimately kills.

Yes. The process of discovering cool kills cool, because that early cool person is scared of one thing, and that is of seeming like everybody else. So the faster everyone else adopts the idea, the faster the cool person has to run in the opposite direction. And also remember that one of their things that sets a cool person apart is they have short attention spans. They are thrill seekers. They are sensation seekers. They're not the kind of person who wants to sit still. So it makes sense that they're going to be plunging ahead at the slightest provocation.

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Read Gladwell's New Yorker article on Dee Dee Gordon and other cool hunters.


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