What Soft Power Means to 21st Century Marketing
The UK is home to many mysteries, but none greater than our uncanny ability to remain internationally relevant. If the world is Goliath, we’re definitely David, straining to remain heard against the voices of giants. We might cringe every time we get called the 51st state, but also find ourselves unable to completely dismiss the suggestion. The truth is our international identity has for a long time been compounded by our history, to the point that we have become the ‘has-beens’ of global stardom. All empires rise and fall, but none other is so fresh in mind as the British empire.
And yet despite all this, we do in fact remain a key player. Like the aged grandfather doling out precious wisdom, our relatively small nation remains one of international importance, bolstered by a formidable base of soft power assets. As a concept coined by Joseph Nye at the start of the 1990s, soft power has become a loosely defined part of international powerplay, generally signifying a nation’s ability to persuade and influence through means other than direct force or economic strength (i.e. hard power assets).
As recent as 2014 a committee in the House of Lords restated the need for Britain to ‘use new methods and adapt new priorities to make the most of its soft power strengths’. Essentially, it is not the heavy hand that makes the loudest noise, but our beguiling and recognisable name, the intricate web of influence and networks the UK has established over centuries past. And within the Soft Power World Rankings (yes there is such a thing) the UK currently holds the top spot.
Importantly, it also shows how the mechanisms for establishing an entity’s name and reputation have evolved. It is not necessarily what you have, but what you purport to have. Actual physical, hard power assets are less relevant against the backdrop of a digitalised society, in which strength through force is as much illustrated as it is presented. The scope between these two things has only narrowed further with the rise of social media, and continues to do so.
Companies, like nations, require soft power. Their efforts of persuasion and influence, within the minds of customers and shareholders, are equal to their capital or buying power. The parallel between these processes of branding is obvious: each seek to establish a name and an identity which illustrates and purports a position of strength, through an engaging product or service.
What the UK successfully does internationally is sell a concoction of past and present identities. It takes a backseat, but only so it can pull on strings from unseen shadows. When the question of committing our armed forces overseas is raised, there is no mistaking the relatively limited contribution we make. But far more important than the actual contribution is the commitment to contribute, to provide the nod of support from an internationally recognisable name.
New nations aren’t formed every day, but companies are. Companies have the privilege of being able to actively invest in their soft power assets from an early stage, to stack them as a base before hard power and growth are acquired. Branding has never been more important; a name, a network and a persuasive voice are the new pillars of power within the 21st century.