September 10, 2016
B2Bs buckle down on branding
by Michael D’Esopo & Simon Glynn
It’s not breaking news that brand matters to B2B companies. B2B purchasing decisions are often implicit commitments to buying future products and services. This amplifies the necessity of the reputation, vitality, and longevity of the overall brand beyond the products being purchased.
Yet despite the potential for lifelong customers, many B2B companies do not manage and invest in their brands to the extent that consumer-facing companies do. Often they expect the corporate-level brand management, focused on the company’s reputation, to serve the B2B need. But the agendas are different.
Leading B2B organizations are beginning to treat their brands as a bigger idea — one that extends beyond communications into the totality of how different audiences experience the organization. These brands are positioning themselves beyond the vendor relationship and are becoming trusted collaborative business partners, promising a future relationship beyond immediate value.
Creating that value is about managing the authentic identity that shapes how the company thinks and acts, as well as how it communicates.
B2B brands are creating long-term value for their organizations in three ways:
1. Promise Of A True Customer Relationship
In today’s world of tightly integrated supply chains, companies need deep trust in their business partners. The brand promise in this context is less about conveying what you can measure and verify today and more about building trust and confidence for the future — knowing that in challenging circumstances, your partner will perform as you would like and do the right thing for your business. That’s the test of a true relationship.
While consumer brands form emotional bonds with customers, they don’t often have the daily, human interactions that define real relationships. B2B companies do, often involving thousands of their employees. So beyond marketing communications, how do you empower sales, service, and engineering staff across the world to develop genuine yet on-brand relationships with their clients? The answer lies partially in supporting and liberating your staff to deliver faster and more flexible decision-making, allowing them to respond to customer needs on the ground.
Part of the answer can also be in equipping your staff with the tools, information, and stories they need. For example, 3M gave client-facing representatives lively and actionable examples of 3M innovations as part of a detailed brand guidebook. Representatives are not only familiar with the brand’s innovative themes, but also have interesting facts and stories to share about the products they sell — where the ideas came from and how the technologies are applied. These unexpected details intrigue potential and existing clients, reinforcing brand perceptions and offering transparency around internal processes.
2. Position A Firm As A Partner Versus A Supplier
B2B companies are increasingly using brand to reposition themselves with customers. Businesses no longer want to be seen as suppliers or vendors, selling on customers’ terms. Instead, they want to be understood as strategic partners, working collaboratively in long-term relationships.
CA Technologies used to market single-product technologies. But the company realized that its IT department customers sought more enterprise-wide solutions. Now, instead of selling one-off products, CA Technologies invested in telling a corporate brand story about how its technologies create greater value. This strategic story encapsulates the company’s ability to be a partner that helps business leaders achieve bigger-picture strategic goals, beyond the product transaction itself.
3. Connect With Both Direct Customer Needs And Broader Stakeholder Interests
In B2B, the corporate brand is usually the same as those behind the products and services the company sells. The agendas and priorities of the stakeholders in each case can be different, so the brands need to be managed to address both.
Some companies do too little corporate marketing and rely on the sum of the business-level marketing to tell the overall story. This can work, but it becomes critical to infuse the common corporate positioning into how the business units tell their individual products’ stories, so the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
Rather than talk about its individual product innovations in a vacuum, 3M focuses on where the innovations come from — the previous technology breakthroughs that were exploited and built on. That way they reinforce not just the power of each product, but also the company’s systemic culture and ability to harness the chain reaction of new ideas.
Other companies rely largely on corporate marketing to tell their B2B stories and miss the opportunity to focus on B2B customers. If the corporate story is too centered on social responsibility or institutional strength, it is missing the critical promises for B2B customers about what the company will be like to do business with. Leading B2B marketers create unique strength in uniting the two agendas.
The brand’s values and core tenets can be the same, whether they are used to woo recruits, train employees, reassure investors, or guide sales and marketing messages. When this alignment happens, the brand moves from a message to a belief set, playing a deeper role in truly signifying what a company is about.
When B2B branding succeeds, brand doesn’t just serve to drive leads and sales, but fosters lasting partnerships. B2B firms can secure trust by establishing genuine relationships, offering strategic partnerships and extending the possibilities of brand to influence all aspects of their companies.
Article originally published on CMO.com on February 13, 2015.