what has soft power taught me about campaigns?

Sometimes it's not the direct things that wins people over. It can be the BBC. Or Bollywood. As a talented comms officer from Tunisia who worked for the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office reveals.

by Kacem Jlidi

Picture this: a 16 year old boy from Morocco going to the hairdresser to get a 'David Beckham' haircut or doodling all sorts of tattoo shapes on his textbook while in class.

Imagine this South African 48 year old lady spending her evenings binge-watching Bollywood movies and gasping at the sight of her favourite Indian actor’s dancing.     

Wouldn’t you agree that those are basic examples of successful brand engagement – ones that went beyond geographical limits? 

Now, thinking about those two people, wouldn’t you also agree that they are favourably disposed to Britain and India respectively and they are likely to choose to consume news, services and products from those countries rather than 'rival' ones? Sure they would.     

How did that happen?

They call it ‘soft power’. A term I accidently came across that influenced my understanding of effective branding and campaigning.

In case you haven’t heard of the term before now, Soft Power is the use of positive attraction and persuasion to achieve global influence. The term is mainly used in international relations and was first coined in 1990 by Professor Joseph Nye, former Dean of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Clever man.

Simply put, soft power is a country’s ability to alter the behaviour of others to get what it wants using attraction and persuasion techniques.

According to Mr. Nye, there are basically three ways for a country to get what it wants: coercion (sticks), payments (carrots), and attraction (soft power). Side note: sticks and carrots are considered a hard power such as the military, economic sanctions etc.

What I learnt was that force could get people to do what you want them to do, but it will never be out of conviction or admiration. Think of Greece, Iran and Russia.

History demonstrated that the use of Hard Power could bring results but only temporarily. Eventually, uprisings and revolutions will happen because people don’t like to be oppressed. 

Soft Power on the other hand is very closely linked to branding and it’s about attracting, persuading and influencing people to achieve what you want them to do by appealing to their minds and hearts.

There are 3 main pillars that determine a country’s Soft Power:

  • Its culture (when it can be made attractive to others – think Hollywood projecting American culture.)
  • Its political values (when seen to be applied locally and overseas. China, for instance, is not doing so well on this one for its record of human rights abuses.)
  • Its foreign policies (when they are seen as legitimate. America’s focus on the use of hard power and involvement with several wars isn’t getting credit points on this one.)   

So what does all this have to do with campaigning and comms work?

We can use the concept of Soft Power on organisational level to attract and engage audiences. My reflections led to me to conclude this:

We can use the concept of Soft Power on organisational level to attract and engage audiences. My reflections led to me to conclude this:

  • Maximise the value of your assets such as social influencers. They will promote your messages and increase your brand awareness. For example: I tried to reach out to well-known local bloggers that often write about politics and public affairs to help us promote my employer’s projects on freedom of expression.
  • Working with influencers can be very beneficial since they already have an immense reach. It’s a win-win situation because your campaign can position them in good light and for that reason they will be happy and have fun creating engaging posts with their own style. Often they will help for free and their followers are just waiting to respond to that call to action.
  • Adopt a human style with a “real life” lingo. This will appeal to the hidden personal traits of your audience. Also do post occasional off-target messages. They will make you seem more human and relatable.
  • Just don’t use this: “We are strategising our forward facing service protocols to maximise our human infrastructure’s core efficiencies.”    
  • A longer term strategy that focuses on attraction will reap higher rewards over time. Soft Power campaigns are healthier, more sustainable and will deliver higher brand engagement than any short term coercive campaign.

A slightly off-target thing

Did you know that Britain is the most powerful country in the world? This is based on a study done by ‘Soft Power 30’ that examined soft power assets at the disposal of countries. Check this for more details.  

Please let me know if you have any thoughts in the comment section. Would be good to challenge perceptions and discuss ideas.

Kacem Jilidi is an experienced international strategic communications and digital media professional. He has worked at the British Embassy in Tunis as part of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office. His LinkedIn is here.