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The frontier dilemma: hard vs. soft power for heritage brands

Imagine: you’ve captained a ship to a new, uncharted land. You need to set up camp for the winter. The ideal spot – protected, full of supplies – sits next to a native village. The locals there are unarmed, but you can’t be sure of their intentions for you.

To earn safety, you have two options. You could capture the locals, loot their homes and hold them captive. Or you could mount a charm offensive: share your food; speak with them and earn their trust – then set up camp.

What do you do?

Option 1 is the hard power choice: achieving your goals by coercive change. Option 2 represents soft power; cost-effective diplomacy, built around constructive co-operation. Arguably less risky, too.

For heritage brands looking to defend their position in competitive markets, soft power is the best option. Here’s why.

Hard questions

When faced with a challenger brand eating their share of the market, heritage brands typically reach for hard power. They tweak their recipe to be more or less like their new competitor; they add new product lines in a bid to snaffle casual customers; they develop new distribution channels to capture interest.

These moves are expensive in terms of time and cost. Too often, they’re unnecessary or ineffective.

Unilever sought to enter the organic drinks market with the UK launch of soy milk AdeZ in 2006. The multinational’s first new brand in 11 years, the product was withdrawn after 18 months due to struggling sales.

A look at Google and Apple’s failed products over the last decade confirms that with even the biggest budget, hard power is rarely enough to convince consumers to change their buying habits. Challenger brands continue to gain market share; brand managers at heritage brands can’t understand why. They threw everything at the problem, and it didn’t go away.

Soft is smart

A heritage brand achieves heritage status because consumers love what it does well. In changing what it does, the brand loses its reason to be. When Coca-Cola birthed ‘New Coke’ in 1985, they killed the very thing that had enabled the product to retain market share against Pepsi – its taste. The result was a disaster.

To avoid alienating consumers and burning their brand equity, heritage brands should instead invest in soft power change. These are the minor tweaks that drive a 5 degree shift in brand direction – including refreshing the visual identity, tone of voice or typographic style.

Soft power changes are more cost-effective and efficient than wholesale changes. And they demand less risk because they let the brand function effectively without alienating loyal consumers.

For heritage brands, hard power changes offer high returns at a high price. Soft power changes provide the same at a much lower cost. In an economy of zero-based budgeting, brand managers need to make more with less. Soft power represents the smarter investment.

The problem in practice

Competition in the food baby food sector is a case in point. With its bold, colourful identity, challenger brand Ella’s Kitchen has disrupted the fairly traditional marketplace and is busy eating market share like a growing toddler. In response, heritage player Heinz has realigned their identity with Ella’s Kitchen, so the two look nearly the same on-shelf. The hard power move has won limited success. Ella continues to eat Heinz’ sales while the latter is being delisted at a worrying rate.

What next? Heinz could invest in developing new flavours; they could open their channels. Or they could make subtle, reassuring changes to their historic identity to re-attract buyers. In the infant category, peer-to-peer recommendation is important, and leveraging well-known brand assets would reassure consumers. The materials are there: Heinz need to be brave enough to use them.

Frontier choice

Heritage brands, be the diplomat. Don’t seek to compete by mimicking your competitors or changing the brand assets that won consumers’ hearts. Your heritage is your greatest asset. Shelve the risk, save your budget and engage in soft power thinking.


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