The Home Depot’s “How doers get more done” is a customer empowerment promise akin to Nike’s legendary “Just Do It.” The brand is itself a “doer” of a balanced use of what we call hard and soft power. Often, power is equated with worth, valuation, stock price, access to capital, growth, market share, category dominance, etc. This is what we define as hard power. Soft power, on the other hand, is the proverbial velvet hammer. It works through persuasion, preference shaping, and appeal rather than the brute force of corporate deals, acquisitions, buyouts, etc.
In studying the success of Home Depot you will find that this 46-year-old home improvement warehouse category leader employs both powers to fuel its steady growth and dominance. As with any large retail chain, its exercise of hard negotiations and expectations in tiny vendor conference rooms is raw hard power at work. From there, walk down the hall at its store support center HQ, and you’ll see the brand’s soft power on display in a state-of-the-art exhibit showcasing the brand’s beginnings, preferences, beliefs, and charitable causes. The juxtaposition can’t go unnoticed. Creating a proprietary brand of building supplies or tools that can’t be comparison-shopped elsewhere is the leverage of hard power. Endearing the brand by its generous support of Habitat for Humanity (and inspiring its vendors to do the same) is the flexing of soft power.
In the late 1980s, Joseph Nye of Harvard University examined the concept of power from a geo-political perspective and wrote “Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics.” He coined the term “soft power,” which has become a staple of political discourse ever since. But don’t let the label fool you. Soft power is equally powerful, and some would argue more powerful than hard power.
This brings us to the supreme irony of power. Every brand desires it, plans and strategizes for it, and supports its attainment because power means security and prosperity. Yet, the more powerful brands become, the more difficult it is for them to relate to their customer constituency. As with powerful people, powerful brands can become self-absorbed, “believing their own press,” and becoming less empathetic to the very customers that made them powerful. In Home Depot’s case, as with other retail chains, customer alternatives such as Amazon keep the brand’s focus on customer service to stay competitive.
Organic growth is usually a better course than mergers and acquisitions, but often, that’s simply not practical in a rapidly changing marketplace. However, over-emphasis on hard power growth is not the best path to brand building, either. While brands may find power in numbers, soft power balance, as exemplified by Home Depot’s approach, is the combination for ultimate brand dominance.
Paul Friederichsen is a partner and brand strategist at The Blake Project.
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Branding Strategy Insider is a service of The Blake Project: A strategic brand consultancy specializing in Brand Research, Brand Strategy, Brand Licensing and Brand Education