Is Apple still cool? The coolest answer is not to care

After Apple’s $3 billion deal to buy Beats Audio and this week’s glimpse at the latest versions of iOS and OS X, a hardy perennial question is doing the rounds on the blogs again: is Apple still cool?

The question I’d rather think about is: does being cool actually matter all that much? Is cool really what makes people buy and keep buying or is it just a magic quality marketers have convinced us matters most?

Play the long game

The clashes between Android fans and Apple advocates in tech blog comment sections are deceptive. Most people don’t have that level of fervent brand loyalty.

Instead, they’re tied to particular devices by a whole web of different concerns from the apps they use and have downloaded to what devices their friends use. Outside of teenagers who, according to some recent surveys, might see Apple as marginally cooler after acquiring Beats, “cool” comes lower down the list of requirements for most users.

Even if we accept that making “cool” products is important, it’s not a position you can start from, especially if you’re not a multinational like Apple with money in the bank and almost endless marketing reach.

Startups shouldn’t start from the position of trying to build something cool. They should try to build something useful, something enjoyable, something that will keep customers coming back. Your customers will decide whether your product is cool. You can’t force them.

Be too cool for cool

Running after what’s “cool” also carries the danger of becoming a copycat. A few years ago, we were deluged with waves of group messaging apps and location services in the wake of Whatsapp and Foursquare but most disappeared or were swallowed up by bigger companies.

Trends and fashion are fleeting and can leave you building a company based on a fad rather than a real need.

While the debate about Apple’s relative coolness will go on forever, it doesn’t spend much time worrying about whether it’s cool or not. Instead, its designers focus on creating products that will appeal to huge numbers of people.

Apple has been slower in introducing certain features than its rivals because it wants to implement them in a way that works not just for tech obsessives but users of all skill levels. Simply trying to be cool limits your market.

What is ‘cool’ anyway?

Cool is fleeting, class is permanent. If you build products that customers love, they’ll be less concerned about whether using them is cool or not.

They’ll simply enjoy the experience and that, in itself, makes a product cool. That’s the tricky aspect of cool: we all have slightly different definitions of what it is, definitions that are always shifting and evolving.

Apple has retained its cool by refusing to be defined by its competitors. It’s at its least cool when it snipes about Samsung and attacks Android during presentations.

The Monks of Cool in Terry Pratchett’s Lords And Ladies, had the best approach to defining cool: “[They] have a passing-out test for a novice. He is taken into a room full of all types of clothing and asked: Yo, my son, which of these is the most stylish thing to wear? And the correct answer is: Hey, whatever I select.”

When you start something, aim to build a great prodcut. If you get it right, the cool kids will select it in the end.