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Selling isn't past its sell-by date: The ROI of Soft Power

Amid all the talk of branding, it’s easy to lose focus of what really matters: ROI. But many marketers studiously avoid talk of the bottom line.

Brand work, the stereotype goes, is fluffy and less tangible than expensive endeavours like R&D. But this is a misconception. At Rare, we talk a lot about Soft Power. It’s a term we’ve repurposed from political science.

In its original sense, it describes how influence is more powerful than force in politics. In branding, we talk about Soft Power as a way to maximise the influence and power you already have. Soft power can mean repositioning yourself to unlock a new market or using stories and design to improve your on-shelf presence.

A classic example of hard power is Coke’s ‘New Coke’ debacle from the ‘80s. It was a hard, expensive play to fight back against Pepsi’s encroaching influence in the soft drinks market. Rather than doubling down on what makes Coke great, the brand changed its formula.

In contrast, Soft Power is low cost and high reward. How do we know that? Because the potency of Soft Power has been demonstrated throughout consumer facing businesses. Let’s look at how big-ticket brands depend on Soft Power for sales success.

Strong and differentiated visual identity

When Rare started working with Scholl, the iconic foot care brand had no coherent on-shelf consistency: the entire product range was disjointed - every pack was different.

Rare’s redesign reinstated the brand’s heritage yellow colour and introduced brand guidelines that ensure consistency across the range.

You may like: A brief history of brand psychology

It hasn’t all been rosy since then. The failed launch of an electric foot file has dragged on Scholl’s performance, but the brand’s strong identity has helped Reckitt Benckiser (Scholl’s parent company) steady the ship. Scholl’s identity is its cornerstone and sales over the last three quartershave stabilised. Projections indicate this will continue to improve in the last half of the year.

The market-disrupting power of visual identity can be seen in the ice cream market, too. Halo Top, an American low-calorie ice cream brand, has exploded into a £100m behemoth in a very short time.

Its packaging has all the traditional, decadent embellishments of ice cream packaging - but with a twist: each tub is emblazoned with the ice cream’s calorie count. This is the brand’s hook: it’s a healthy, decadent snack. The results speak for themselves: the brand’s sales have increased 2,500% year-on-year since 2012.

Great copy and compelling tone of voice

Soft power is not just visuals, however. Your tone of voice and copy can emphasise your brand’s unique qualities. The iconic aperitif Aperol Spritz engineered “monster” sales growth through a marketing blitz defined by a consistent tone of voice.

Previously, Aperol’s marketing had been “low level”, bordering on non-existent, according to Nick Williamson, its marketing director. Aperol’s marketing has ramped up significantly, spanning across events, online and print. But all throughout, it’s emphasised Aperol’s glamorous Italian identity and heritage. The campaign’s success led to the New York Times labelling Aperol as “the drink of the summer”.

Meanwhile, British baby food brand Ella’s Kitchen has relied on its tone of voice to ascend to a 30% market share. The company’s tone of voice is unique, deftly mixing the common conventions of family and a down-to-earth conversational tone: Breakfast is ‘brekkie’, and package labels simply state ‘0% bad stuff’.

A tone of voice doesn’t just have to warm and friendly, however. Burger King has a long history of ribbing its fast-food rival McDonald’s for not flame-grilling its burgers. The results are perhaps less financially tangible, but Soft Power isn’t always solely focussed on direct sales. They can create PR wins, too.

Seamless brand experience

Pizza Express has been a casual dining market-leader for half a century. But as the casual dining market continues to slump, the business has sought new ways to remain profitable and relevant.

The company enlisted Rare’s help to roll out Pizza Express Live, turning the cellars of 50 restaurants into live venues for music, comedy and talks. The live venue concept is actually a nod to Pizza Express’ history as a jazz venue.

The concept has been a commercial success, increasing customers’ average cover value by lengthening their stay at each venue. Entrance fees offer an additional revenue stream. The menu has barely been altered, with Pizza Express only adding cocktails as something new.

Investment in brand experience has been successful in the banking sector, too. Metro Bank made history in 2010 when it became the UK’s first new high street bank in over a century.

The move seemed brave, especially considering that the high street has struggled and digital-only banks like Monzo are seemingly changing the way the public sees banking.


By Philafrenzy [CC BY-SA 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons

But Metro has been a startling success. The bank has acquired over a million customers, growing 33% year-on-year and increasing to fifty branches. Metro Bank crafted a “lighthouse identity” from day one, emphasising its difference from incumbent banks. Branches stay open later to cater for people’s workdays, for instance. And bank managers are trained to memorise customers’ names.

Metro’s head of marketing Shirley Hill summed it up as: “Everything we do either helps or hurts the brand. Everything. If a sign is crooked, if one of our people doesn’t smile, if we don’t maintain a sense of energy, then we are hurting the message.”

Inspirational imagery

Airbnb has used imagery to great effect. The company’s marketing focuses on action-oriented or aspirational images of the spaces available to rent. Imagery is not visual identity per se, rather the actual images it uses to showcase its products.

From the company’s founding, Airbnb hosts were offered a professional photographer to come and photograph their space. The service was a hit - and Airbnb found that listings with enhanced photos are two and half times more likely to be booked.

Carefully considered, inspirational imagery can alter the way consumers view or use the brand. In this way, yoghurt brand Chobani oriented itself as a “food-focused wellness company” after it completed a big redesign in 2017. The redesign has been a success: revenue is growing at a double-digit percentage since the change.

The redesign eschewed the farm-to-table, rustic imagery often used by yoghurt brands and adopted imagery inspired by 19th-century folk art. The company’s head of marketing told Ad Age that the imagery made Chobani “feel more enchanting” and “more heightened”.

The non-alcoholic drinks brand Seedlip Drinks has found success with eye-catching imagery, too. The brand’s designer bottles have beautiful label imagery depicting the drink’s ingredients. The brand has blossomed, selling in high-end stores and securing investment from the drinks giant Diageo.

Impact and relevance

Perhaps the best example of seizing the zeitgeist is Dr Dre’s signature Beats by Dre headphones. Dre, ever the businessman, cannily recognised the rising cultural preeminence of rap and hip-hop.

From the start, the multi-billion dollar brand aligned itself with the rap community by emphasising the bass that characterises the genre’s music.

As Noel Lee, one of Beats’ earliest collaborators, noted, no other brand did the same. “[Other headphone brands] were still doing studio or orchestral stuff, but they weren’t doing hip-hop... The kids, when they listen to music, they want to hear it like they hear it in the club.”

Beats’ biggest marketing play, though, was its careful alignment with sports stars. Before the 2014 Football World Cup, the brand ran the ‘Game before the Game’ campaign, focusing on pre-match rituals sports stars use to get into the zone.

Adjacent to the hip-hop world, streetwear has become a $263bn-a-year industry. Supreme has captured a significant slice of this, by creating small batches of limited edition products.

Supreme only offers limited edition goods, releasing a small number of products every week to round-the-block queues. Resellers then inflate the cost of the goods by up to 600%, driving increased demand for new ‘drops’. Product rarity makes it more valuable.

The energy drink brand Red Bull has opted for another approach: it’s a ubiquitous presence in the extreme sports world. The company bankrolls all sorts of extreme stunts, most notably when it sponsored the highest ever free-fall parachute jump from 24 miles above the earth.

The company’s daredevil identity has delivered sales performance: In the UK alone, sales rose by £20m to £279m overall, securing the brand’s position as Britain’s best selling energy drink.

Soft Power matters

The results are clear: Soft Power isn’t fluffy nonsense. Innovation, design, branding, Soft Power - they’re not just a nice to have, they’re essential for brand growth.

The examples we’ve shown here also illustrate how pliable Soft Power is. It’s not any one thing. You can increase your Soft Power and brand’s influence through all manner of clever positioning.

Be it a parachute jump, a fiendish trolling of a rival brand or a package redesign, these tactics deliver significant ROI, time and again.

#SoftPower #ROI #ReturnOnInvestment

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