Is it soap?
The term ‘Soft power’ often raises a question or two from our clients.
Why are Rare Design talking about laundry powder in a discussion about brand challenges?
With good reason, we say. ‘Soft power’ is an important part of hard conversations: the necessary conversations about why brands fail, and what they can do to reverse their fortunes.
Taken from Joseph Nye’s political theory of hard and soft power, soft power shifts are the leanest, most cost-effective changes brands can make to their identity – short of refreshing or redeveloping their brand as a whole. They are changes to a brand’s typeface, tone of voice, or messaging: any change that shifts the way the brand is perceived by customers, without attacking the fundamentals of the brand, like the products they offer or the stockists they work with.
We’ve successfully used a soft power approach with brands across the globe – from Kellogg’s to Pizza Express to Heinz.
So what can soft power do for your brand? Here are three examples to get you started.
1. Soft power to boost on-shelf visibility
Effective packaging design can lift everyday products to the exceptional.
Consider the likes of Fiji Water and Voss. Offering an equivalent product to Evian or Smart Water, both brands are able to charge a massive premium because of their on-shelf presence – generated by standout typography, structural design and graphic identity– and carefully managed brand stories.
Better brand design is within the reach of most businesses. Businesses struggling against more modern, fashionable competitors should think carefully about updating their visual and copy identity before rushing to their product range or service offering.
Heinz successfully injected new life into their WeightWatchers range by doing just this. Working with our team, Heinz refreshed their packaging to offer flavourful food photography and a more elegant visual identity, supported by new messages around frozen convenience and quality ingredients.
The result is a product range that jumps off the frozen shelf and into customers’ baskets.
2. Soft power to modernise customers’ brand experience
Repositioning a brand should involve extensive market research, but lead to small, controlled changes in brand identity.
Small changes can help reorient businesses towards new markets, and keep them modern while drawing on their brand heritage and equity. This can involve tweaks to tone of voice, typography, illustration, and campaign-focused activations that deliver new messages about the brand.
Take Marmite, for example – a heritage business that regularly offers special edition packaging to build relevancy while riffing on its traditionalist status. Altoids does something similar. Inside tins that have remained unchanged for 80 years, sweets are wrapped in paper reading ‘Uncle!’ – referring to the American expression ‘say Uncle’ for ‘surrender’, in a nod to the power of peppermint oil. This characterful touch reinforces brand messaging around the curious strength of the mints, adding personality to an otherwise anonymous product.
Delivering the unexpected attracts attention to brands that would otherwise melt into the background. A single campaign can be enough to revive fortunes, with no need to change any other element of the brand.
Donate Life America increased their daily organ donation rate from 149 to 1,022in a matter of days thanks to their ‘World’s biggest arsehole’video. Brewers John Smith famously revived their flagging brand thanks to a series of cult ads featuring Peter Kay.
3. Soft power to attract a new audience
New markets don’t necessarily mean new products. Brands often invest in NPD to attract new audiences – something we see regularly in heritage FMCG brands looking to court younger customers.
There’s a better answer close to home. Before investing in expensive product development, brands should look inwards to find elements of their existing business able to attract new customers. Many products have untapped benefits or green credentials that are under-explored in their current visual identity.
KIND bars have garnered massive success by touting the nutritional benefits of their products, even though their snacks are all but the same as their competitors.
Historically, Lucozade have made several such shifts to appeal to new customers. First marketed as a medicine, the brand now exists firmly in the sports category.
Reappropriation doesn’t have to be limited to visual identity. We recently helped Pizza Express engage a younger audience with our Pizza Express Live concept – using the business’ existing properties to offer a unique music/dining experience in cities across the globe.
Innovation doesn’t mean throwing the baby out with the bath water. Rather than making major shifts in their business strategy (which we’d call ‘hard power’ changes), brands can win shelf space, modernise their identity and attract new markets by building on existing brand equity to change the way they present themselves.
Authenticity is key. Successful soft power shifts are those that use what is already true about the brand in question. Customers are quick to spot brands that are faking it, as Pepsi found out when it attempted to co-opt the Black Lives Matter movement.
For teams that get the balance right, soft power can mean the difference between brand death and business success.
Need more inspiration?
Read our rundown of 5 more international brands achieving soft power success.