Is your brand hard or soft?

English: Macro photograph of coca-cola bubbles...When we think about brand storytelling, hard and soft are not the first descriptors that come to mind. But these two categories often make a huge impression in a customer’s or prospect’s mind.

A hard brand isn’t necessarily solid or tough, but it may be perceived as selling “hard goods” or having some type of physical presence. A soft brand isn’t necessarily fluid or yielding, but it may be perceived as selling “soft goods” or services.

It’s actually rather difficult to pin down exactly, but I’ll bet you have an immediate response when I ask the following:

IBM ~ HARD or soft?
Microsoft ~ HARD or soft?
Coca Cola ~ HARD or soft?
Pepsi ~ HARD or soft?
BMW ~ HARD or soft?
Mercedes ~ HARD or soft?
United Airlines ~ HARD or soft?
Vigin Airlines ~ HARD or soft?
Sears ~ HARD or soft?

What did you think? For me, IBM, Pepsi, BMW and United Airlines are all “hard” brands. They possess some quality of what I perceive of as a hard brand. Microsoft, Coca Cola, Mercedes and Virgin Airlines are all “soft” brands in my mind.

Sears is interesting. They did such a good job with their “Softer Side of Sears” campaign that I am not sure how I associate them ~ perhaps as both a hard and soft brand depending on context.

You can see from my perceptions, and perhaps your own, that hard and soft are completely subjective. Why, for example, do I consider Coca Cola to be a “soft” brand and Pepsi to be a “hard” brand? Both manufacture similar products, but I perceive the Coca Cola brand story to be softer than the Pepsi brand story.

Now, the BIG question: is it better to be a hard brand or a soft brand?

The answer depends entirely on your objective. Hard brands bring the perception of strength and solidity, while soft brands bring the perception of grace and fluidity. The one thing that I can say with great certainty is that once you have answered whether your brand should be perceived as hard or soft ~ or some significant combination of the two ~ you MUST strive for consistency in your messages.

What does that look like? Take a page from the leaders:

IBM is building a “Smarter Planet” not an “Easier Planet.” They are focused on a strong, goal that falls withing the definition of what a hard brand should do for its customers.

BMW is building the “Ultimate Driving Machine” not a “Fun Riding Car.” They are focused on absolute perfection of engineering when it comes to automobiles.

It’s not easy to determine that you are going to be a hard or a soft brand ~ but often that perception may already be in the minds of your stakeholders. And should you choose to change that perception  as Sears did, you must do so in a clear way that differentiates you from others in your category.

So, is your brand hard or soft?


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