When Nike created the Air Jordan after signing then-rookie Chicago Bulls player Michael Jordan in 1984, it designed the shoe in red and black—a striking departure from the all-white sneakers that basketball players wore at the time.
The National Basketball League banned the shoe for failing to meet its standards, but Nike wasn’t cowed. The company had Jordan keep wearing Jordans, and paid a $5,000 fine every time he did. The decision imbued the sneakers with an aura of confident defiance that consumers found irresistible—Jordans were suddenly, inarguably, fantastically cool.
More than three decades later, Jordans are still cool. In the 2019-2020 fiscal year, revenue for the Jordan brand increased 15% from the previous year, to $3.6 billion. And Nike has a market capitalization of $200 billion. It’s one of few companies that has managed to buck the truism that “it’s rare for a product…to be both cool and ubiquitous,” as Lalin Anik, an assistant professor of business administration at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, writes in her case study “A General Theory of Coolness.”
Anik posits that very few brands manage to navigate coolness alongside an extreme rise in popularity, and two have done it more successfully than anyone else: Nike and Apple. Both maintain their credibility by preserving some of what originally earned them acolytes, while constantly tinkering with new ideas to stay relevant. Here’s how these two titans have kept their edge for decades, and what other companies might learn from them.
How subcultures make brands cool
When Nike started out as a little company called Blue Ribbon Sports, it appealed to “a small running subculture,” says Caleb Warren, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Arizona who studies consumer psychology. Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman was the track and field coach at the University of Oregon, and his expertise prompted the design of the Cortez: the company’s first track shoe.
Released in late 1968, the shoe quickly won converts among serious runners, as well as people participating in the burgeoning jogging craze that Bowerman helped kickstart. A few years later, Nike got an even bigger break when the Cortez was spotted on athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, where Bowerman was coaching the US track team.
Even as Nike’s popularity exploded over the ensuing decades, the company made a point of “allocating a lot of R&D resources to its original subculture, runners,” Anik tells Quartz. The Oregonian noted in 2016 that the company’s marketing operation, including sponsorships of athletes, elite teams, and events, has played a central role in “keeping track and field alive.”
Warren’s research shows that many brands people perceive as cool started off being embraced by a niche group outside the mainstream: the skateboarders who first adopted Supreme; the outlaw biker gangs who favored Harley-Davidsons; the surfers who went in for Quiksilver.
At this early stage, the brands “are perceived to be more subcultural, rebellious, authentic, and original,” Warren writes with his co-authors in the 2019 paper “Brand Coolness,” published in the Journal of Marketing. “Over time, some cool brands become adopted by the masses, at which point they are perceived to be more popular and iconic.”
Nike and Apple have held onto their coolness longer than most in part because they maintained connections with their original subcultures even as they went mainstream.
Apple has long been associated with proud nonconformists. During the 1980s and 1990s, choosing a Mac over a stuffy, corporate IBM or Microsoft PC meant going against the mainstream: In the mid-90s, Microsoft had 90% of the PC market, while Apple never cracked 12%. For a long time, Wired magazine wrote, “being part of a miniature customer base was, to Mac users, like being a member of a holier-than-thou, secret society.”
Warren says the success of the iPod, iPhone, and iPad in the 2000s made Apple undeniably mass cool, much like Nike after signing Jordan. But Apple wisely sought to keep trading upon its underdog status with its “Think Different” and Mac-versus-PC ad campaigns, further entrenching the feeling among Apple devotees that they were part of a countercultural community.
The rebel image of Apple and Nike
As Apple’s marketing campaigns made clear, companies that want to remain both popular and cool have a vested interest in hanging onto their connotations of rebelliousness. Both Nike and Apple have mastered the art of making very public decisions that remind consumers they are still willing to break rules.
“Rebellion has been a key ingredient in [Nike’s] image making,” Quartz’s Marc Bain writes. It informs ads like the Charles Barkley “I am not a role model” spot from 1993, or its 1987 ad promoting Nike Air with the Beatles song “Revolution.” More recently, Nike in 2018 debuted a controversial—and highly rewarding—ad campaign featuring football player and activist Colin Kaepernick with the tagline: “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.”
Kaepernick, a former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, famously protested police brutality by refusing to stand during the US national anthem. In response, the National Football League effectively banned him.
Nike’s choice to side with Kaepernick prompted a boycott of the brand. But its bet seemed to pay off, boosting online sales 31% year-over-year in the immediate aftermath of the ad and sending Nike’s stock price to what was then an all-time high. And while some view the ad as an example of wokewashing—the phenomenon in which corporations preach values they don’t actually practice—it nonetheless resonated with young consumers.
Apple, too, has made a habit of emphasizing its willingness to go against the grain. The original MacIntosh in 1984 stood out from other personal computers thanks to its graphical user interface and intuitive, friendly looking symbols meant to help people navigate the technology. Years later, as Anik notes, “Apple challenged a big orthodoxy by releasing the first iPhone without a physical keyboard when having a keyboard was the generally accepted practice for mobile phones,” such as the Blackberry. “This move could be classified under attitude or autonomy,” she says, two important traits associated with cool brands.
Of course, the Apple of today is a $1 trillion company that’s been said to prioritize stability over innovation. But the longevity of its maverick reputation can be traced in part to the late Steve Jobs, whose rebel image was closely intertwined with the identity of the company he co-founded.
A college dropout and product of California counterculture who maintained a lifelong interest in Buddhism, Jobs was a “hippie capitalist” who openly thumbed his nose at comparatively staid competitors and “played by his own rules,” as Fortune wrote in 2008. His approach to leading Apple was perhaps best captured in an early piece of advice he gave his developers back in 1983: “It’s better to be a pirate than join the navy.”
Although Apple’s co-founder is also known for his personal and professional flaws, Jobs’ reputation after his death in 2011 has remained that of a visionary iconoclast—and the association with Apple has yet to fade.
Can Apple stay cool?
Ten years ago, when Warren would ask students and focus groups to name brands they thought were cool, Apple and Nike were always at the top of the list. These days, Apple comes up less frequently. Warren says the company may soon become an “uncool market leader”—that is, a company that’s so well-established and widely used that it doesn’t need to be cool.
After Jobs’ death in 2011, the noticeably more straightlaced Tim Cook took over as Apple’s CEO, kicking off a largely successful strategy of expanding its services—Apple Pay, Apple Card, Apple Music, and Apple News Plus—instead of focusing primarily on splashy new devices. That has cost Apple some of its reputation for innovation. Apple Watch and AirPods, launched under Cook’s watch, are regarded as wins, but not game-changers.
“As their innovations have started to become more incremental and their market share has become larger, [Apple] is now very much the norm,” says Warren. (The iPhone dominates market share for smartphones in the US at 46%, and ranks third globally at 14%.) But being an uncool market leader isn’t necessarily bad if the company can keep offering value beyond its social currency. “As long as…Apple products are easier to use or they work better, whatever that other benefit is—Apple doesn’t need to be cool,” Warren says. “People will buy it for those other reasons.”
Apple may also have innovation yet to come. Already, Cook has made it clear he’s gunning for healthcare. In 2019, referencing the Apple Watch’s health-monitoring features and other ventures into medical technology, Cook told CNBC, “I believe, if you zoom out into the future, and you look back, and you ask the question, ‘What was Apple’s greatest contribution to mankind?’ it will be about health.”
The social function of coolness
The big advantage of cool for companies is that it leads to word-of-mouth marketing, which in turn helps brands grow faster than they might otherwise. Of course, once you’re a market leader that incentive isn’t as important–everyone has heard of Apple—but treating certain brands as cool can have social benefits, too.
“The reason society and consumers value coolness is that it’s a social reward for organizations, people, and brands who are able to change culture in a way they see as valuable,” says Warren.
Apple championed individuality and creativity in an industry characterized by uniformity; Nike pushed back against an outdated way of thinking about patriotism when it sided with Kaepernick. When popular discourse recognized them as being cool for doing those things, it was society’s way of encouraging other companies to be more like them–to think about the social norms and conventions that are in need of shaking up. “That’s the purpose of coolness,” says Warren. “It provides a lubricant for positive societal change.”
Correction: An earlier of this story said that Kaepernick refused to kneel during the US national anthem. In fact, he refused to stand.