For a few years now there have been discussions and multiple articles and books written on topics such as authenticity, values, and social responsibility for companies. More and more consumers, it is said, now take into account the values and social stances of companies when picking products.
Whether it’s Ben & Jerry’s pioneering this “movement,” Patagonia in recent years, or WeWork and their no-meat message, many companies through the years have put forward their social values to promote a message. "Some might argue that in certain cases the message comes across as a call for attention rather than a shoutout to an important issue, but it remains to be a choice an increasing number of companies are making."
But not everyone reflects on such broadly impactful ideas like the environment, climate change, or clean water. And not everyone feels it’s their place to take such stands. For companies wishing to share more of themselves and find kindred spirits among consumers, it might be interesting to take ideas from a concept usually reserved for countries: soft power.
Coined in the 90s by Joseph Nye of Harvard University, soft power can be described as:
The ability to affect others through the co-optive means of framing the agenda, persuading, and eliciting positive attraction in order to obtain preferred outcomes. […] The types of resources associated with hard power include tangibles such as force and money. The types of resources associated with soft power often include intangible factors such as institutions, ideas, values, culture, and the perceived legitimacy of policies. […] Hard power is push; soft power is pull.
The people at Monocle magazine, for one, have been using the term a lot in their rankings of countries. Germany’s Goethe Institute is a cultural institute active worldwide, which creates soft power for the country; France and Japan are two countries whose culture draws admiration and goodwill from everywhere in the world, reflecting on each country as a whole. Social policies and good design provide a similar positive vibe to Scandinavian countries.
The idea is not that different from the social values we started with but this broader vision opens the door to more varied views on how an organization might show more of itself. Project management software maker Basecamp can be seen through that lens. Yes, they are pretty much doing content marketing with their books and Signal v. Noise blog, but mostly they are not talking about how great their product is, giving tips on using it, or doing listicles. They are affirming and sharing their culture. Their soft power manifests in great influence and respect for they way they do business.
Apple, other than keynotes and colourful ads, don’t do that much in terms of promoting their policies and values or even their culture—most of what we know is usually because of obsessive observation by fans. They do promote their environmental and privacy policies, but it would be hard to argue that the bulk of their soft power comes from their obsession with design.
In the end, what we are thinking about here is not that different from the authenticity, values, and social responsibility angle. Rather, it’s a slight change in perspective. Perhaps what you need to be thinking about showing is not just what’s currently cool or respected and what you happen to agree with. Perhaps what best represents you is what’s core to who you are as an organization and what are you good at. Look at your team, at your work. Write down what you obsess about; listen when new recruits or clients come to you and note how they describe your company; ask around internally: what couldn’t your team live without?
Keep compiling these obsessions and distinctive qualities, then find a next step to make them even more valuable. Perhaps it’s setting aside an offsite day to think about those ideas more deeply. Or making a list of related questions to start meetings with everyone on your team. You’ll know more about your organization and maybe even find your biergarten or your Swedish meatball. You’ll understand your soft power.