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Soft power of brands

If you haven’t seen the TED talk on soft power of countries, you should. Here’s the link http://www.ted.com/talks/shashi_tharoor.html.

(Shashi Tharoor used to be with the UN, and was in the running for the post of Secretary General of the UN and narrowly lost out to Ban Ki Moon.)

In this talk Tharoor talks about the soft power of countries. He says beyond GDP and size of armies, referred to as hard power, there is the power a country has that is demonstrated through other facets of the country. In the case of India he talks about Bollywood movies, Indian restaurants etc And in his belief soft power is as important, if not more important, than hard power.

That got me thinking about its applicability to brands.

Does the concept apply to brands. And if it does, what possible implications exist for marketers.

We need to start with defining what is hard power in the context of a brand.

To me hard power is the product/service and the advertising communication itself. That is the power demonstrated by the brand by communicating the brand’s strengths through directly paid media. This is my definition so of course am open for debate on this.

If this is the hard power then soft power becomes all the messaging around the brand. This could be a social media plan, an events plan, editorial activity, retail experience etc.

Impressions of a country are a combination of the hard power and soft power. But I think soft power probably is stronger than hard power. After all the Bollywood movies and the indian cuisine does more to shape the image of the country than it’s GDP.

Similarly in the case of brands the soft power plays an extremely strong role in shaping the image of the brand. A Ferrari participating in F1 or the Virgin Experiences help shape the perceptions of the brand as much as an ad about a car or an airline.

Again like in the case of the country, the country itself does not have control over its soft power in many cases brands have little control over their soft power, but they need to know that soft power can enhance or detract from the brand independent of the hard power.

There are two learnings for me

1. Opportunity :  Soft power helps define brands as much if not more than hard power. Hard power is paid for. IS showing off. Soft power is independent. Not in your face. Not about the brand. It’s about the experience. And brands that don’t exhibit soft power are losing out as then someone else is doing it for them ie silence makes a statement too. Brands that are successful recognise this and ensure that they flex their soft muscle.

2. Managing : Once you understand that the soft power is important, brands try and manage this as much as possible. Brands like Apple go down to the store level and define and manage the retail experience too. Most others ignore it. The role of social media like blogs, bulletin boards, twitter all become important in this space. One end of this is monitoring the noise. But more importantly it is a channel to gather and direct inbound customer issues and managing the response. It also provides an opportunity for brands to use these channels to show their soft power side.

Today disproportionate amount of time and effort is spent on hard power while soft power gets the short shrift. Given the strength in soft power I would expect to see more brands leaning the other way over the near term as they realise how soft power can give them a huge advantage in the market place.

PS Obviously this is a subject that deserves much more space for the arguments to be laid out. But limitations of space and time prevail.

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