In the first post dedicated to this case study, we already answered the question: yes, public and/or international institutions can be cool. Our attention will now focus on understanding how. In the case of the luckiest (or smartest since one can decide to create an institution, after all), the cool factor is ontological, which means it belongs to their DNA, just as some people are born with this intangible yet real quality of being cool, my favorite being Clint Eastwood.
Coolness by capillarity: the Executive Office of the President of the United States
This famous institution is better known as the White House, thanks to the use of a metonym which designates the President and its administration by using the name of the building they are closely associated with. Now, is the White House cool? With 1,113,379 fans on its Facebook page at the time of writing (August 2011), the usual ambition of American kids to become President of the United States when they grow up, the regular use of the White House as a sacrificial element of pop culture (like in the movie Independence day) I would consider it as a cool institution.
Because the White House is the power centre of the USA – and therefore quite an important power over the world as a whole – its coolness varies amongst people benefiting of or suffering from the American politics conducted at any time. Nevertheless, White House’s cool factor is like the American Way of Life – it knows some fluctuations in people of the world’s appreciation but remains a gold value on the long term.
Is it intentional?
Sometimes, you just cannot find something on the Internet, such as the communication budget of the White House. Reason is the massive coverage of the current negotiation between the White House and the Congress over the US budget. See all those crossing over keywords? That’s how you should hide important information on the Net.
The White House, no doubt, has a communication department and even a Social Media Team (we met them!). They’re active in promoting the President’s political views and activities, with notably, those White House White Boards videos which explain technical subjects in understandable ways.
It started a long, long time ago
There is an intention to be perceived as cool, even if it is not the primary aim of White House’s communication – as it never will be for an institution. I would however hypothesize that the coolness of the White House is not to be solely credited to the current communication team. I believe the White House became a cool institution long time ago and that it had everything to do with its tenants rather than with the house itself.
Because most of the US Presidents had strong influence over the world affairs, a lot of them are famous outside the USA. Roosevelt, Kennedy, Nixon, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Obama… Not all of them were cool people, and it’s clear the White House’s perception from outside is hugely dependent on the personality and political leadership of its tenant. It affects deeply the elasticity of the cool factor. In other words, it’s not sure the Bush years were the best for the White House to appear cool, even if there were some efforts in this direction for a certain audience as the photo below demonstrates.
Rather than being cool by essence, I would say the White House benefits from the summing up cool factors of a long list of presidents. With the halo effect brought by history, most of American presidents are favorably perceived. The sum of their personal charm pays off for the institution. Of course, some mandates are worse than others, which fits with the volatility and subjectivity of coolness.
What can we learn from this?
One strategy for an institution wishing to improve its branding perception could be to bet on the capillarity effect and to chose a charismatic, cool leader. This is well known by private corporations when they select a famous personality to lead whatever non-profit causes they suddenly decide to defend.
Unesco plays this card too with its Goodwill Ambassadors:
The UNESCO Goodwill Ambassadors are an outstanding group of celebrity advocates who spread the ideals of UNESCO through their name and fame. They extend and amplify UNESCO’s work and mission and have generously accepted to use their talent and status to help focus the world’s attention on the work of UNESCO.
If you check the list of current Goodwill Ambassadors, you may notice some cool people amongst them.
Opposite effect works too: choosing a non-charismatic character, a controversial personality or a grey leader, even if the person is competent for the job, might impair the whole organization’s reputation, whatever its purpose and legitimacy might be. The metonym effect works in both ways.
So far, we’ve seen institutions that are ontologically cool and others that inherit this quality from their past and present leaders. In the third post devoted to this case study, we’ll have a look at a the ones for which, just like for us, simple human beings when compared to Clint, it requires a hell of an effort to become cool.