The Soft Power Of Brands

Nigel HollisApril 29, 20216 min

“Soft power.” It is a weird combination of ideas, right? How can a power be soft? And yet, soft power can be credited with the demolition of the Berlin Wall, the Arab Spring, and the allure that the United States still holds for many people around the world. For a business, soft power rests in its brand. That illusive, intangible something that makes people want to buy a product or service more than the alternatives.

In the late 1980s, Joseph S. Nye, Jr. developed the concept of “soft power” in international relations to explain how the United States could still dominate the world, in spite of the apparent decline in its military might. Nye contrasted soft power to hard power, defining soft power as “the ability to affect others by attraction and persuasion rather than just coercion and payment.” As described by Nye, soft power originates from a country’s culture and values rather than its political system, although the term became almost indistinguishable from the promotion of democracy by the United States and Western European countries. With democracy now facing challenges around the world, soft power is no longer in the spotlight, and today most of the world has shifted its attention back to wielding the hard power of economic and military might.

For anyone in marketing the similarity to brand power should be obvious. Brands wield both hard and soft power to build market share. Hard power comes in the form of meaningful innovation in products and customer service, in the control it has over its distribution system and in the leverage that the company has with retailers and resellers. A patent is a form of hard power because it is a means to stop other companies copying an asset, which is why tech companies often acquire a company simply to gain access to its patent portfolio. Soft power, by contrast, is a company’s ability to create demand, to get people to want to use the product or service, to seek it out, and, importantly, be willing to pay the price asked. An online video has little coercive power, although many advertisers delude themselves that it has, but it does have the power to seed ideas, to influence and attract.

The thing that intrigues me about the concept of soft power in international relations is that the idea has been misunderstood and misinterpreted in just the same way that people misunderstand and misinterpret how brands help generate sales. An article by Eric Li in Foreign Policy summarizes the rise and fall of soft power and it struck me that there are distinct parallels with the shift of budgets from brand building to innovation and sales activation.

First, and the most important parallel is that soft power cannot exist in isolation of hard power. As Li notes in his Foreign Policy article,

In reality, soft power is and always will be an extension of hard power. Imagine if the United States had become poor, destitute, and weak like many of the new democracies around the world but had retained its liberal values and institutions. Few other countries would continue to want to be like it.

The same is true of brands. You cannot have a strong brand without a strong business model and a good product. There is a reason that Apple is one of the most valuable brands in the world. From the start, the iPhone set the standard for a smartphone, and while we can argue about whether the actual product is worth a third more than the technically equivalent OnePlus phone today, there is no doubt that the iPhone remains the pre-eminent choice of smartphone in the minds of many. But that strength would not last long if the iPhone 12 proved to have flaws that could not be fixed, if Apple’s supply chain broke down repeatedly or if an upstart really did create an iPhone killer and Apple failed to respond. A strong brand will buy some forgiveness from customers, but only so much.

A consequence of the fact that soft power originates from hard is that it provides inadequate power to achieve a goal on its own. For two decades the idea of democracy – perhaps conflated with the American dream – caused people around the world to overthrow authoritarian governments, to seek freedom and the right to decide their own future. However, as Li notes, soft power did not stop North Korea developing its nuclear missiles or Iran to back down in the face of pressure from the U.S., and China has proven that trade embargoes are a two way street, bringing little but chaos to the individuals and businesses affected. If a leader chooses to wield hard power and has the strength to do so, then it will trump soft power, just as the iPhone trumped Nokia and Blackberry.

Second, soft power does not originate from governments, although their actions can contribute to it or detract from it. Nye goes to some lengths to assert that soft power is driven less by government than by the cultures and values of a country. And in an abstract Nye states, “Propaganda is not credible and thus does not attract.” Soft power requires walking the talk, but it is not just a government’s actions that matter but those of its people, institutions and culture. And the same is true of brands. Everything a company does builds its brand, for good or ill. A company’s actions shape what potential customers experience and how they interpret that experience (and in this context I use experience in the widest possible meaning). Just as a carefully crafted ad says something about a brand, so too does the stultified, voice-activated customer call system that implies, “Your call is a burden to us, so we are going to minimize the time and cost spent on solving your problem.”

Third, in his book, Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics, Nye admits that soft power is not easily directed to achieve specific goals, rather it creates the condition by which specific policy goals are more easily achieved. From a brand perspective, this is the eternal battle between investing in brand building versus sales activation. A strong brand creates the conditions under which sales activation works harder than it would do otherwise, because people are predisposed to choose the brand, making them more likely to click on a link, visit a store or cut short their search. It is possible to say that the brand is more attractive than others, but it is impossible to ensure that a specific person will buy the brand. There are just too many variables in play in the purchase process that could cause someone to end up choosing a brand they have never even heard of before. A strong brand improves the probability of purchase, it does not guarantee it.

What do you think about this comparison? Let me know your thoughts.

Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: Nigel Hollis, author of The Global Brand

At The Blake Project we are helping clients from around the world, in all stages of development, redefine and articulate what makes them competitive at critical moments of change. Please email us for more.

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