B2B marketers take a fresh look at brand strategy


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Jeana McNeil

Jeana McNeil
Vice President

B2B marketers take a fresh look at brand strategy

Not long ago brand strategy and strategic brand management languished on the sidelines of B2B marketing. Branding is now experiencing a resurgence. B2B marketers (and their bosses) increasingly embrace the notion that business decision makers are people after all, and that emotions strongly influence business decisions.  This year’s ANA/BMA16: Masters of B2B Marketing Conference highlighted success achieved by AON, GE, TD Ameritrade Institutional, Hiscox, and others in engaging with business decision makers at a human, emotional level.

Presumably, B2B buyers have always been humans, so what explains this renewed recognition that in B2B that brands are powerful tools that need to be managed strategically?

Two of the factors are 1) increasing complexity and 2) talent management.

1) Complexity

Brands help humans simplify the world.  Brands are short-hand summaries of complex sets of information, experiences, and emotions.  The field of behavioral economics provides compelling evidence that people rely on heuristics to make decisions throughout their daily lives. These cognitive short-cuts are even more essential as people face more information, more decisions, and more demands on their time.  In a recent study, 65% of executives agree that an increasingly complex business environment has made it more difficult to base decisions on purely “functional factors,” such as cost, quality or efficiency. Companies contribute to decision complexity as they become larger and more complex through M&A, expanded product lines, and ever growing feature sets. As a case in point, AON’s global rebranding and Empower Results strategy began in part as a reaction to realizing that customers and even employees struggled to answer the question “what does Aon do?”  A clear, compelling brand rises above the clutter and complexity inherent to many large businesses.  It enables customers and prospects to connect their needs to your business, and it helps unify employees around a shared idea.

2) Talent management

Many B2B companies compete not just for customers, but also for talent.  Brands are powerful tools for engaging employees behind a shared idea, and address employees’ needs for a sense of purpose, prestige or self-identity.  Technology talent provides easy examples.  Google, Apple, Amazon and others need top developers to continue to innovate. Their brand image helps attract the best and brightest who want to be a part of the company’s vision. In constrast, companies without a brand identity attract people who are looking for a job. The power of brand in talent management is relevant to more than just market leading technology companies.  Many companies struggle to attract and retain Information Security talent in the face of more data breaches.

Brand is especially important for engaging Millennial talent: Research with this generation shows they want a sense of purpose at work and show less loyalty to employers.  GE’s latest brand campaign addresses the talent problem head-on by using employee characters to showcase GE as a digital industrial company.   In one ad, a woman working on an aircraft engine explains how digital and industrial fit together at GE through a humorous exchange with a family touring the plant. The brand message tells GE’s story of what it means to be a digital industrial company, and that Millennial talent should give it a second look.

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Complexity and talent management are just two of the compelling reasons to invest in a brand strategy, and ensure the brand is well-managed.  B2B marketers increasingly recognize that a strong brand is one of their most important assets. However, recognizing the importance of brand management is one thing, executing a brand strategy is another. One of the first steps most marketing experts recommend is to understand the brand’s existing position and equity – how does the market (not you) view the brand relative to competitors. This exercise consists of understanding 3 key market dimensions:

  1. What vendor attributes and characteristics does the market use to evaluate vendors?
  2. In the eyes of the market, how does your brand perform on these criteria?
  3. In the eyes of the market, how do competitors perform in these areas?

This analysis can be conducted informally based on internal knowledge, or using a formal systematic approach.

The results will highlight your relative brand position, and identify opportunities to strengthen and differentiate the brand going forward.