Consider that right now in Iran there’s a woman in her late 30’s awaiting the removal of sanctions, who is anticipating getting access to Krispy-Kreme and McDonald’s for the first time, ever. Having been exposed to these brands through popular music, television and movies from the west, it’s no wonder that she will consider them ‘premium’ products and be happy to pay a premium price. As will most of her compatriots in a market where access has been denied and the desire has been building for decades.
What is it about brands that can make people act this way? What’s the difference between a Big Mac in Tehran and an iMac Texas? To explain, we’ll share the description of the term ‘soft power’ from the man who invented it, James Nye. He describes soft power techniques as those that are traditionally associated with State branding or the influence a nation has outside of its own.
Soft power is the ability to shape the preferences of others through appeal and attraction. A defining feature of soft power is that it’s non-coercive; the currency of soft power is culture, political values, and foreign policies.
Nations have been utilising both hard and soft powers for decades, if not centuries in order to advance their national interests, and there’s a case that consumer brands can advance their own through similar strategies.
In contrast, ‘hard power’ techniques are traditionally associated with the direct influence asserted by Government and Military action through domestic or foreign policy. Somewhere in the world a government is likely to be engaged in various levels of geo-political strategy that can pose a certain amount of threat to its sovereignty. The control it has over its adversaries is usually directly proportionate to the might of its hard power; either through the sanctions it can implement or the immediate threat of its military might.
Soft power techniques are the indirect influence of a nation and how it’s perceived on the ground in other countries. These are predominately attributed to the way a nation sells itself through culture. The soft techniques in this case are everything the nation produces that goes global; think music from artists like Michael Jackson, to artworks by Jackson Pollock and movies from Peter Jackson.
These all become adopted by various nations helping them to form an idea of what that country contributes on a global scale. The US takes out the honours for being the global leader in soft power too. The list of reasons why is endless when you consider the impact of Hollywood alone, not to mention the power of America’s global brands such as Coca-Cola, Levis and McDonald’s. The US dominance in sport at Olympic levels is profound and when you combine that with the global reach of their domestic sports brands like the LA Lakers or the New York Yankees and you can easily see why they take the lead in global influence.
One shining example of the increasing impact of soft power in a digital world is PSY, the South Korean singer, who was the first person ever to clock-up 1,000,000,000 (yes, 1 billion) hits on YouTube for his mega hit Gangnam Style.
What this really demonstrates is how rapidly the soft power of Korea grew as a result. One could easily argue that the recent interest in ‘K-Pop’ was a direct outcome of ‘Gangnam Style’ spreading the globe, which in turn developed a greater interest and understanding in South Korea in general. This influx therefore produced a deeper connection to brand Korea and spread influence across the world. It’s no great leap then to connect this soft power success with the rapid growth in the west of Korean food in the past few years.
These types of techniques enable a conversation that connects people to the story of the nation, without it there’s a danger the wrong story will be told. In light of Korea’s sudden rise in its cultural story through PSY, poor Kazakhstan has suffered a worse fate due to a complete lack of enacting any soft power techniques of its own. Sacha Baron-Cohen’s hilarious and snorting-laugh worthy depiction of Borat the imbecilic back-water patriot exploring the glorious west with his ill-educated perspective has not been kind to the Kazakhstan profile.
We were left thinking less about a nation we started off knowing zero about – it’s cultural influence now and possibly forever in deficit. Without any brand story to draw on, we were only left with the story we drew in our minds.
If nations can create influence with their own form of soft power branding, then what can brands achieve through assessing their own hard power and soft power techniques? What would the equivalent hard and soft powers even be? Let’s take a look at some potential hard power techniques; these could include specific areas a brand directly focuses on as a business – the things it must deliver in order to function. Such ‘hard’ elements would include the products or services it offers; the advertising campaigns and history people are familiar with and associate with the brand. It would also include their market share power along with trade relationships and the influence they have over distribution and retail environments. All of these are very much factors the brand can use to negotiate and influence others to do what it wants.
Soft power techniques, funnily enough work in tandem with hard power techniques. If a brand has greater hard power techniques such as market dominance, greater distribution channels and bigger marketing budgets, then it’s likely to extend to greater soft power through the broader experiences consumers have with the brand. Brands like Nike, Coke and McDonald’s would no doubt be the leading hard power brand ranks with just as much soft power influence.
Go to your local bar, how many new beers are clogging up the fridge? You’ll find it’s common for people to choose the more obscure brands these days over the big brands. It was a telling tale at a recent outing when I observed three young men standing at the bar trying to choose a beer. One man pointed to a beer he quite fancied and asked his mates “What about the James Squire’s Pale Ale?”, to which one of them quickly replied “Nah, I’ve heard of that.”
But there is a way to harness the soft power influence of a brand in today’s market and that is to look at the cultural aspects of the brand that are not necessarily connected to the product or marketing directly. Let’s use the case of Google to demonstrate how they have used their own offices and hiring policies as a form of soft power, which has probably had a greater impact on the way we all view work now than any other company in history.
We all know Google are the disruptors of the work environment and employment process. They made their workspaces fun, they made interviews a group challenge through mental gymnastics. Google has slides going between floors instead of stairs, they offer free meals to all staff. They even studied the perfect distance to place chairs back-to-back in the cafeteria so that it would create the ‘most opportunities’ for people to actually knock into someone else’s chair when getting in and out. These random occurrences they calculated would lead to greater communication between people who might never have otherwise spoken and therefore greater collaboration.
Other soft power influence a brand can develop relates to their values and the authenticity with which they can live up to them. This can come through in a simple video of staff doing a dance in the warehouse shot on an iPhone and uploaded to YouTube that has the potential to reach millions of people and exert greater influence than a beautiful advertising campaign. Soft power in greater context is actually what people take away from your brand more than what you give them. To repeat an earlier phrase in the article:
These types of techniques enable a conversation that connects people to the story of the nation. Without it there’s a danger the wrong story will be told.
So too for companies who enable a conversation that connects people to the story of the brand, because without a brand story there’s a danger the wrong story, or indeed, no story will be told.