(Updated May 14, 2024) A prior version omitted a distinction between Carhartt and Carhartt WIP.

Ask ten people on the street what they think is ‘cool,’ and you’ll likely get ten different answers.

In the age of the algorithm, ‘cool’ has become entirely relative. While in the past, to be ‘cool’ was once synonymous with mainstream popularity, the current flattening of taste hierarchies we experience means that ‘cool’ is an amorphous concept, challenging to define, and specific to the niche you’re in.

In this algorithmically siloed environment, where your “For You” page is literally for you and you alone, interesting questions arise—specifically for brands that used to see being cool as a shortcut to success. 

The Flattening of Taste

"The aesthetics of disappearance are the aesthetics of static pileup, of the sudden materialization of the whole, the wholeness of reality, in a single instant." — Paul Virilio

A relentless feedback loop of, first, algorithmic suggestions and, second, algorithmic promotion, results in two profound effects: cultural stasis and extreme relativism. Algorithms, by constantly mirroring our existing preferences, fail to challenge or inspire us, leading to cultural stagnation. To quote Sean Monahan, we’ve arrived at an internet "anti-culture"—ephemeral, overly personalized, unable to build, only distracting and regurgitating.

In Filterworld, author Kyle Chayka defines the algorithmic era as having a “flattening effect on culture.” Because of the nature of algorithms and the mimetic behaviors of humans trying to cater to them, we’ve reached a point where content that succeeds in these channels becomes homogenized over time. 

The journey of ‘cool’ from something universal to something entirely niche can be blamed on the increasing speed of content distribution and the rise of algorithmic recommendations. 

As content is produced and distributed at industrial speeds, it increasingly lacks the depth to make a lasting impact (and even if it has it, it’s already lost our attention as we move to consume the next thing, our voracious appetites larger than ever.) At the same time, we find ourselves confined within personalized echo chambers, served a digital slurry that overwhelms without offering genuine novelty.

"If everyone has taste, then nobody does."

The flattening effect is “not great for the social benefit of a company or a product if all it exists to do is create and then commodify attention,” said Chayka on the Future Commerce podcast. “That's not a fundamentally valuable exchange.”

As our experiences become increasingly siloed, culture and, therefore, ‘cool’ become wholly relative.

We may soon inhabit a 'post-viral' world where an objective hierarchy of taste has dissolved. If everyone has taste, then nobody does. This epitomizes modern philosopher Paul Virilio’s concept of the 'static pileup,’ a term that conjures the visual of a traffic jam of culture going nowhere on the information superhighway. A relentless deluge of images and videos, trapped in a weightless world of ones and zeros, with nowhere to go.

The New Role of the Tastemaker

Determining who defines 'cool' amidst the overwhelming deluge is actually surprisingly straightforward: it's the tastemakers. Only, the dynamic has shifted; it's no longer a top-down affair.

The answer to the deluge? Taste.

Author Yancey Strickler clarified this in his January 2024 piece on The Prestige Recession. A decline of cultural criticism indicates a recession in the idea of prestige. The days are gone when monocultural tastemakers governed from ivory towers, dictating shifts in culture across fashion, art, and music; telling us what’s good.

Collective confidence in institutions—especially those in the media—is at an all-time low, so this form of so-called “tastemaker” is unlikely to make a comeback.

However, to break free from the confines of the algorithm, we will still need tastemakers—people capable of curating and filtering knowledge to unearth what is truly novel. The role of tastemakers today is not to dictate but to act as trusted friends within their niche—helping to sift through the barrage of information, offering paths to freedom and autonomy in the face of the algorithm. It’s pull, not push.

Culture has always emerged from subcultures, and ‘cool’ has always been synonymous with the unconventionality and rebellion of emergent niches. It’s precisely this quality of autonomy that an algorithm cannot replicate. Cool has a point of view, and a point of view is distinctly human.

In The Lost Dimension (1984), Virilio makes poignant observations about a future time when all cultures and subcultures contend for the same finite attention: “Information is the pure form of accident, the virtual velocity of the circulation of signs. But this circulation is itself the site of the pileup, and of the shock of the sudden braking of the real."

Where people seek to intervene, the algorithm will attempt to self-heal. A new class of tastemakers emerges: each other. The tastes we have formed in the past five years on short-form vertical video channels result from inference: statistical dissection and digital quantification of our attention. Public signals of curatorial value are highly weighted in the algorithm today—a number of shares, private bookmarks, or saving a video to watch it later. “300 people bookmarked this Tweet… and so should you,” whispers the algorithm.

Case Study: Carhartt’s Ascent

Consider the rise of Carhartt. While originally Carhartt was synonymous with workwear, you’re now as likely to find Carhartt adorning the bodies of manual laborers as you are Brooklyn Creative Directors who’ve never touched a hammer in their lives. 

Carhartt’s adoption within streetwear and fashion was not driven by intentional marketing but by off-label use within a niche. A notable moment in this transition was highlighted in a 1992 New York Times Article when Carhartt was spotted being often worn by drug dealers who spent a lot of time outdoors: "They needed to keep warm, and they needed to carry a lot of stuff," Steven J. Rapiel, the New York City salesman for Carhartt, explained. "Then the kids saw these guys on the street, and it became the hip thing to wear.”

In 1989, Edwin Faeh, a Swiss denim designer, and his wife, Salomée Faeh, petitioned the US-based Carhartt to grant a license for a fashion-forward reimagining of the iconic American workwear for sale in Europe. The license was granted to Work In Progress (WIP) in 1994, over a century after the brand's founding, demonstrating that building a ‘cool’ brand is a marathon, not a sprint. Rather than rushing to capitalize on fleeting trends, Carhartt took the time to establish a solid foundation of brand equity and provenance before strategically expanding into new markets.

As WIP's cultural capital grew within subcultural niches like New York's hip-hop and skate scenes, Carhartt's workwear transitioned into symbols of 'cool' that were authentic to niche communities but contrary to their original use. Heritage brands like Carhartt, Salomon, and Stanley seem to bypass the static pileup, suggesting that to "go viral," one must first build a sustainable business over time.

WIP navigated the balance between niche authenticity and mainstream appeal by collaborating with artists, musicians, and designers to create limited-edition products appealing to youth culture and streetwear mavens. Nearly thirty years later, Carhartt’s overall success is a testament to the WIP licensee's patience and strategic planning, built upon the parent brand's generational heritage.

This trajectory of Carhartt from practical workwear to a staple of streetwear shows how niche groups have the power to redefine products and brands in ways that algorithms cannot predict or replicate.  In the light of algorithmic glut, the function of tastemakers in filtering and recontextualizing takes on renewed importance.

The Saturation Point

Taste is seeing the potential in a trend that others don't yet see. Having it or grasping it is a signal.

“IYKYK” is important because the unspoken recognition of the future potential in a brand, a trend, or a movement is tantamount to citizenship in a future society. You’re part of something. You belong. This mutual recognition creates psychological bonds and forms Veblenesque in-groups and out-groups. 

If you “know,” you’re in. If you don’t, you’re out.

"When something once considered ‘cool’ becomes too ubiquitous, it risks losing its allure. For evidence, look no further than how uncool it is to use the word ‘cool.’ "

This is why it's special when someone identifies something new they think is cool and you feel the same way. 

However, as a trend gains traction and more people are “in” than “out,” that feeling of belonging is cheapened.  When what once felt like a secret becomes synonymous with mainstream culture, it inevitably reaches a saturation point where its connection to its niche origins erodes. This phenomenon presents a conundrum for brands and consumers. Widespread adoption signifies success and market penetration—but it risks diluting the authenticity and exclusivity that initially made the trend appealing in the first place.

Where ‘cool’ is as relative as it is today, brands face an uphill battle, making the jump from niche success to the mainstream. 

When something once considered ‘cool’ becomes too ubiquitous, it risks losing its allure. For evidence, look no further than how uncool it is to use the word ‘cool.’ 

The allure is like a siren call, beckoning you with open, welcoming arms, inviting you to join in. When that allure is gone because the call has beckoned too many, and now the space feels crowded, the trend runs the risk of becoming passé. Many would consider this to be true about Carhartt and there are many memes to demonstrate the sentiment. 

This saturation can be particularly problematic for brands deeply rooted in niche subcultures, as their authenticity may be questioned once they achieve mainstream recognition. The secret is out. Everybody knows. Consumers who initially gravitated toward these brands for their countercultural appeal may feel disillusioned as the brand loses its edge and commodifies. 

However, navigating the fine line between niche authenticity and mainstream appeal is no easy feat. Brands must carefully balance accessibility with exclusivity, maintaining their relevance within their core community while also appealing to a broader audience. This delicate balancing act requires a deep understanding of the brand's identity, its audience, and the cultural landscape in which it operates.

Pictured: a 2x2 Matrix of brands based on mass appeal, breakout successes, underground in-group dynamics, and oversold hype.

How To Navigate

Every brand has to navigate the complex relationship between cool and commercial. It requires making difficult choices, but they are easier if a solid brand foundation exists. We view a few key questions as pivotal. 

  1. Is cool aligned with the larger strategy?

No brand sets out with the mission to be ‘cool.’ However, founders often have a deep-down desire for validation, which usually comes in the form of success, often defined by money or fame. Brands should assess whether being perceived as "cool" aligns with their long-term goals and target audience.

  1. How much time is there?

Building a loyal community and fostering meaningful connections with consumers can have a more lasting impact than fleeting moments of ‘coolness.’ Chasing mainstream success too early before your brand can gestate in a niche can alienate your core, causing your brand to lose cachet and momentum before achieving lift-off. Instead of chasing fleeting trends, brands should prioritize sustainability and longevity, and that shouldn’t happen overnight.

  1. Are the mission and values strong enough to filter out the noise?

Brands should honor their heritage while also embracing opportunities for growth and expansion. One way to do this is expansion through mission-aligned collaboration. Identify niche adjacent partners that can foster more organic expansion through synergistic relationships. We’ve seen many “unexpected collabs” between mega brands and niche up-and-comers. One gets street cred, and the other gets hyperspeed growth. But in the end, they often alienate their core. A great example of this is how Apple often uses brand partnerships to demonstrate the greatness of its products (mission alignment!), most notably when they teamed up with the New York Times to promote the launch of the iPad in 2010. By working with NYT, Apple could show just how much better an experience reading newspapers and magazines was on the iPad.

  1. How can we embrace flexibility without sacrificing our authenticity?

While mainstream success may tempt brands to abandon their niche origins, staying true to one's roots is essential for maintaining authenticity and credibility. Remaining "cool" is an ongoing process that requires continuous evolution and adaptation. Brands should be willing to reinvent themselves while staying true to their core values and identity. This may involve collaborating with emerging tastemakers, exploring new subcultures, or reinterpreting existing trends innovatively. This refers to brands being living, breathing beings rather than hard-shelled, impenetrable objects. The former allows brands to change with trends as long as they use core values as their filter. Moreover, like evolution, we cool move in cycles. From obscurity, to cool, to ubiquity, to uncool, to obscurity, then back to cool again (but this time disguised as nostalgia).

The pursuit of "coolness" is complex and ever-evolving. By re-evaluating their approach to cultural relevance and adopting a strategic mindset, brands can navigate the shifting landscape of taste and maintain their relevance in an increasingly fragmented cultural environment.


Insights and futurism for executives in eCom and Retail

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