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Evaluation Innovation Framework: Use Coolness

By Jeffrey Phillips

True innovation requires a more expansive evaluation than a traditional business case and needs to be considered with features and attributes that are more qualitative and driven more by emotion than logic. Seven components contribute to innovation success: choice/control, convenience, community, completeness, compatibility, coolness/communication and customer’s cost. These factors, used to evaluate an idea early in the process, can contribute to the success of a new product or service by improving adoption, reducing risk and building trust for the new product or service.

Some of the concepts used to evaluate ideas are relatively deterministic and easy to measure. An individual can tell at a glance whether or not a new product or service reduces work or simplifies complexity. Some of the factors simply cannot be easily defined, but it is understood that these factors exist and have specific value. Probably the most difficult to define, and most important to consider, is its “coolness” – a new product or service that demands attention, stands apart, is different in important ways from existing offerings, varies from the norm or violates existing expectations in a way that draws attention or respect.

If consumers are asked, many will define innovation as something that is new, creates unexpected value and is “cool.” Usually the intent of an innovator is to create something that is valuable, but not necessarily hip or cool. The reaction of the target market, however, can drive up a cool quotient on a new product or service. Some products and services are hip or cool without necessarily being innovative; the Mini-Cooper and the Volkswagen Bug are both cool but not necessarily innovative.

What drives the “coolness” factor?

  • Design is often a key component – creating sleek or beautiful products leveraging design can create something cool.
  • Solving an old problem in a new way or combining several disparate capabilities to create a completely new and interesting product or service can be cool.
  • Providing a level of service or integration that simplifies a job or provides greater service can be cool.

Cool Is Not Enough

There are several factors to consider when thinking about cool – innovation, solution and communication. While a product or service may be cool, it also must solve an important problem or challenge recognized by the customer. Additionally, something that is cool must be easily communicated to others. These concepts are so tightly intertwined as to be almost inseparable. If a new product or service seems cool, then the solution it creates and the word of mouth and discussion it initiates will lead to building communities of interest around the innovation.

Coolness is more valuable as a measure when considering products and services that target end consumers than those meant for business-to-business innovations, but cool innovation can exist in any sphere. For example, consider what York is doing in the heating and cooling industry. York is offering a new model for acquiring heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) services by offering its customers a choice: buy the HVAC equipment and participate in the yearly maintenance and headaches associated with running an HVAC plant, or acquire chilled air and let York do the rest. This offering is innovative – it changes the traditional sales and service model to a complete services relationship, solves a problem that chief financial officers face with capital expenditures and ongoing maintenance, and is interesting and easy to communicate. York’s argument? The purchasing company does not produce electricity to light its building and power its machines, why should it be in the business of heating and cooling the workspace?

Consumers are attracted to new, interesting products and services. Just about every example of an innovation used in the popular press – open source, Google, the iPod, the Swiffer – has some special factor or feature that makes it cool. Coolness may be more important than you think.

Why Is Cool Important?

Coolness is an important feature due to the relationship of needs and wants. Historically, most products and services that were available were necessities and there was little choice among them.With most basic needs fulfilled by a wide range of choices, most consumers base their purchasing decisions on factors beyond needs. Many successful innovations offer meaning and experience beyond the features or benefits of the solution. One such example is the Swiffer. The Swiffer is a replacement for a broom and a mop. And although it may not clean as well as either of the tools it replaces, it is easy and fun to use and cleans well enough. In fact, since it is so easy and fun to use, perhaps the owners will clean more frequently. It is indicative of the coolness of the Swiffer that “to swiffer” has entered the lexicon. Who could have imagined a cleaning product driving this much awareness and interest? Coolness played a big part.

Cool products and services create word-of-mouth communication from their adopters. People love to be in on a secret and love to share their knowledge with others. When they experience an innovation that solves a problem, is simpler or less expensive than its competition – they share that innovation with others and these shared experiences often form communities. Coolness creates communication, which in turn creates communities. These communities become self-referential and a virtuous cycle begins.

Coolness has an impact on incremental as well as disruptive innovations. Incremental innovations do not have to have a coolness factor, since frequently they are an extension of an already existing product or service and do not require as much motivation to adopt. If Richard Branson can make bridal shopping cool, then virtually any product or service can add a coolness factor. Disruptive innovations, however, must have a coolness factor associated with them to attract a broad audience due to the risks of change and the inertia of the consumer base. Coolness for a disruptive innovation is important because it can create more reason to switch to a new product or service, and creates more interest and communication about a new product or service that may seem risky or uncertain.

Cool Can Fail

Many firms have failed to understand the role coolness plays in a new product or service. The fact that a new product or services seems cool does not mean that an innovation will be successful. While Apple is celebrated for the success of the Mac and the iPod, it also had two rather large stumbles – the Newton and the Lisa. Both products were introduced with a lot of fanfare and ultimately did not achieve the market penetration necessary, even with Apple’s reputation for cool products. In Apple’s case, a past history of cool products did not transfer to the Newton or Lisa. While the Newton was reasonably cool, it lacked support and integration, so even though the Newton had some cool credentials, it failed to solve an important problem. The Lisa paled in comparison with the Mac and was really never cool even with Apple’s brand attached.

Another example, the Segway, was an attempt to create a disruptive alternative form of transportation and seemed cool at first as politicians and rock stars were early adopters. The Segway failed because it did not have the ability to change transportation for the general public, and seems even less cool now that it is used primarily by security guards and police organizations. The Segway is a great example of a cool idea and technology that did not create a viable market solution.

Ultimately, the coolness factor is a measure of the customers’ and prospects’ reaction to the new product or service. A product or service that provides the necessary solutions but has no distinctive style or differentiation may succeed, but a cool product that solves a problem will create a viable market. OXO, for example, makes basic kitchen utensils, but carefully considers design and usability. It can command a significant mark-up over its competitors in what would seem to be a commodity business.

Is Coolness a Requirement?

Does a product manager or service developer have to include coolness for the success of an innovation? Not always. An innovation first must demonstrate that it meets the needs of the consumer in a way that allows the consumer more choice and control or convenience and has a compelling value proposition over existing alternatives. If these factors are in place, then coolness can only help the product or service. Many cool product and service innovations have failed when the focus was overly weighted toward coolness and did not fully consider the needs of the marketplace, the competitors and substitutes available. Coolness is more important for disruptive innovations than for incremental innovations, and probably more important for innovations directed at end consumers than business-to-business innovations.

But every compelling innovation can be considered cool. Opening a mailbox to find NetFlix videos is much cooler than driving to the local video store. The question becomes – do successful innovations become cool or were they engineered with coolness?


While it can be hard to define and hard to measure, coolness is an evaluation metric for an idea, especially disruptive ideas aimed at consumers. It is important to understand that while an idea may be cool, it must still solve a problem or challenge and add significant value. If, however, an idea does add value and solves a problem, the coolness quotient can create a community and engender increased word of mouth communication and buzz, which will lead to more rapid adoption.

About the Author:

Jeffrey Phillips is a vice president with OVO and responsible for marketing and for leading innovation projects with OVO’s clients. Mr. Phillips has extensive experience working in the innovation space, with a wide range of Fortune 500 firms. He has published articles for Harvard Management Update, DigitAll Magazine, Pure Insight and blogs about innovation at Innovate on Purpose. Contact Jeffrey Phillips at jphillips (at)