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Soft Power for brand: What does it mean and why does it matter?

In an age of zero-based budgeting, savvy consumers and fierce competition, winning market share through brand design has never been more important. Or challenging.

Soft power is the answer: a fast, lean, effective alternative to building new brands – helping businesses make the most of their existing brand equity to grow their sales.

So what does it look like in practice?

What is soft power?

At its heart, soft power is an approach to problem-solving.

Coined by Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye, the term refers to everything an individual or organisation does to create their own advantage, before they get serious and start a war.

In politics, for example, soft power is hosting lavish meals for visiting diplomats and releasing prisoners to show goodwill to their home-country.

Strategies built on cultural understanding and shared values like these are increasingly potent, says Nye, thanks to the fact that we live in an age of almost limitless digital information, “where credibility is the scarcest resource” available to us. Moreover, soft power in politics is cheap, meaningful and requires relatively little sacrifice compared to the alternative.

And so it is with branding, where soft power is everything a brand can do to improve its performance with customers – short of a complete relaunch, new product development or an entirely new distribution model, all hard power changes.

Soft power is tweaking a brand visual identity for added punch and consistency; it’s updating copy and tone of voice in communications for added character, reviewing range design to drive value sales between products, and building a distinctive photographic and visual style.

Crucially, soft power concerns the emotional attributes of a brand (tone, identity, range and personality), as opposed to the functional (ie. the product or service on offer).

Developing how a brand connects with customers is equally as important as developing the product or service offered to them. And in most cases, it’s far cheaper, faster and simpler to do.

Why should I care?

Soft power techniques often offer the best ROI for businesses looking to grow their brand.

When confronted with a brand challenge – either to revive flagging sales or capture customer potential – many businesses go for the nuclear option. They plunder their marketing budgets to redesign and relaunch their brand. What do Millennials want!? How can we move with the times!? They employ marketing consultants with acronyms after their name to rethink their business, and invest heavily in customer research to crowd-source their new brand.

What they don’t do is explore the full range of options for building their existing one.

Thisis the essence of soft power branding. It’s faster, because it uses elements of the brand that already exist. It’s cheaper, for the same reason. And it’s a more agile way-of-working, because it can be achieved with a smaller team.

What does soft power look like in practice?

UK café chain Eat are the latest High-Street player to benefit from soft power brand development.

Threatened by competitors copying their ‘cooked in-house’ messaging, the business has built on its existing identity to offer a powerful contemporary visual update based on the hand-drawn illustrations of Joël Penkman. Without changing their messaging, tone of voice or core brand identity, the brand has given itself a much needed shot in the arm.

Tweaking single brand elements in this way has proved powerful for FMCG players across the board. Cawston Press grew their sales to £21m in 2016, thanks partly to repositioning their brand around heritage and health. US ice-cream brand Halo Top earned $132.4m sales in the same year, thanks to their new healthy/premium messaging.

How do I get started?

The key to soft power success is pressing pause and asking the right question.

When a brand is under threat from hungry competitors and changing market conditions, brand managers must ask themselves: what is working for us?

Those brand elements that aren’t mentioned are the ones ripe for soft power development.  Tweaking these elements – whether copy, typography, photography, range design or visual identity – could save businesses the hefty agency fees and customer customer backlash involved with complete brand redesigns.

Often, the results are the same.

Hungry for more examples of soft power success?

Click here to read our article: ‘5 food and drink brands that are doing it right


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