Isurus article featured in Quirk’s Marketing Research Review
"Research is a process where you can spend a lot of money and come up with zero. Isurus guides me quickly through the key decisions, helps me avoid the pitfalls, and makes sure I walk away with high-value implications."
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The February 2019 issue, focused on B2B market research topics, includes our article “Overcoming Inertia: How to understand sporadic customer journeys in low involvement B2B categories” .
The Isurus team is honored that Quirk’s selected our article for the B2B issue in 2019, and made it the featured cover story. Quirk’s is an industry-leading publication, and provide valuable thought-leadership for insights professionals, as well as product marketers and marketing professionals seeking research expertise.
“The best thing about doing this is that I got to have coffee with my Dad in the barn every morning until he passed. Now I have that cup of coffee with my son and will as long as he stays involved.”
This statement paints a clear and vibrant picture of a small business owner’s emotional drivers. It surfaced in a series of qualitative in-depth interviews and encapsulates an emotional theme that ran through the interviews. It speaks to one of this audience’s core values and influences even their most rational decisions. B2B marketers hunger for these types of insights as they look for ways to bring a human element to their messaging and positioning.
The resonance of the theme and its usefulness for developing customer personas and journeys stems from the methodology that uncovered it – qualitative in-depth interviews. B2B marketers and their agency partners often face resistance from internal stakeholders who doubt the value of insights that aren’t expressed as a statistical projection of the market. But in-depth interviews provide the time and format that enable an individual to make the journey from superficial reactions to overly rational answers, and finally to what it means to them personally. As a full disclosure, it’s not always as clear or powerful as connecting with a father who has passed on but relative to surveys, big data and social listening – it gets you closer to the human side of the B2B buyer.
This is not a criticism of surveys, VOC programs, and other more quantitative methodologies. We routinely use those approaches because they provide robust insights needed for branding, market sizing, pricing, and bundling strategies. But when you want to understand the human side of a B2B buyer, qualitative in-depth interviews are one of the best tools in the research tool box.
But having a tool in your tool box isn’t enough. You need to use the tool correctly. The most common mistake B2B marketers make when using qualitative in-depth interviews is to treat it like a survey and create a list of 50 specific questions. You also cannot simply ask, “How does xyz make you feel? How does it connect to you as a person?”.
So, what should you ask?
Qualitative research structured on the following guidelines are more likely to yield insights about the personal and emotional drivers in business decisions.
Limit the number of topics and questions: Three to four topic areas with a few broad questions within each is a good place to start. This gives the interviewer flexibility and time to probe, follow-up on unexpected insights that arise, and gives the respondent time to linger over their answers.
Focus on their needs and challenges: B2B marketers, or their stakeholders, often want to focus the questions on their product and service – “How do you abc? What challenges do you encounter when doing this specific task?” This doesn’t mean you cannot ask specific questions; just be careful not to turn your conversation into a survey.
Change the question frame: Ask questions that make them take an outside view of themselves: How they think their colleagues view them, what they hope their colleagues will say about them after they retire.
Use projective exercises: Picture sorts, word associations, and other exercises help respondents articulate emotional or personal dynamics that shape their business decisions. And remember, the insight is not which picture they select, but why they selected the picture they did.
Let them talk: Some of the best insights come at the end of a section when the respondent says, “One more thing.” It might be the last thing they say, but often the best articulation of what they’d been circling around in their previous responses. If you force-march the respondent to get through a long list of questions, these insights don’t have a chance to surface.
These guidelines can be scary for those unfamiliar with qualitative research. For some B2B marketers and stakeholders it can be easier to justify the investment in research (time and dollars) if they see a long list of discrete questions they will get answers to. And in truth, not every human-focused in-depth interview provides grand insights. But you must be willing to take the duds to get the gems.
This highlights the importance of gaining consensus on the overall objective of the research and what its outputs and uses will be. In some cases, the best approach will be to explore specific needs and challenges around a list of product attributes. But if you want to want to understand the human side of a B2B audience, let them talk.
Set it and forget it is the attitude in many low involvement categories – data security, business insurance, telecommunications, etc. Inertia keeps businesses from proactively evaluating alternative solutions or vendors. If the product or service is good-enough businesses don’t have the motivation to evaluate their options.
The purchase journey for these products and services consists of long stretches of inertia, interspersed with periodic spikes in interest in alternatives. During the inertia phase businesses pay little attention to the category: They don’t think about how things could be better or keep tabs on vendors or trends in the category. They remain happy with the status quo.
Product/service failures and significant price increases jolt business out of their comfort zone. They reach out to peers and advisors, conduct online searches, read online reviews, reach out to vendors, take sales calls, etc. Once they make their decision to switch vendors, or maintain the status quo, their inertia returns. They stop paying attention to the category and their awareness of vendors and options rapidly dissipates.
This buying journey cycle is a significant challenge for vendors that operate in these categories. If your product or service is a low-involvement one, convincing prospects that it’s worth their time to look around outside of their sporadic spikes in interest may require more sales and marketing resources than you have available.
It might make more sense to take steps to ensure you can take advantage of the opportunities when they do arise.
Be where they look
Although their need may be urgent, most prospects look into only a handful of vendors: Those they’ve used before, are familiar with, find in a simple online search, know their peers use or are recommended by their trusted advisors. To improve your likelihood of being in this initial consideration set:
- Keep track of, and contact with, individual customers and prospects when they move to new employers
- Attend industry events as a sponsor or attendee
- Identify the trusted advisor channels you can feasibly influence
- Invest in optimizing search results
- Advertise to maintain brand awareness (this varies in importance by market)
Understand the Failures
The purchase trigger in low-involvement categories tends to be a failure, or cost increase, rather than a proactive desire to improve the status quo. Prospects will be interested in the potential benefits of a new solution, but their first priority is to ensure they don’t get burned again.
When you understand the what, where, why, who and how of the typical failures that motivate prospects to switch vendors, your sales and marketing processes and communications can speak directly to these concerns. Convincing a prospect that the failures they experienced will not happen with you will be as compelling as the additional benefits your company provides. If a prospect feels at risk of the same type of failure with a new vendor, they have little motivation to switch.
Recognize the Price Shoppers
Some switching in low-involvement categories is merely price shopping. If you are the low-cost vendor in your category this works to your advantage. If you aren’t, don’t count on these customers for the long-term if you happen to win them. While some may come to understand the value your product/services provide, many will eventually leave for a better price.
Learn from new customers and recent losses
Your new customers are a great place to start to understand the types of failures that prompted them to switch, and how your company made it into their consideration set. Losses can provide similar insights – they may not have selected you, but something motivated them to evaluate options.
We recommend conducting interviews with the customers and losses themselves, rather than relying solely on the opinion of the sales team. Sales reps tend to focus on the benefits of your product/service that resonated with the prospect, not the failures that got them motivated them to evaluate their options in the first place.
Who you are: What you say
Over the past two decades we’ve help many B2B vendors refresh their brand platform. We notice that some B2B vendors struggle to differentiate the themes and characteristics that can be the pillars of their brand platform from those that may be critical to the market, but do not represent sustainable and/or unique brand positioning.
To help clients identify the difference between the two we use a simple construct that distills things down to the core distinction.
Although almost a cliché at this point, IBM still stands out as an example of effective brand management and continues to illustrate the difference between brand development and market messaging.
We all know the story of how IBM moved from type writers, to mainframes, to desktops, to the internet, etc., etc. We know that the core of its brand platform is using technology to improve business productivity and that what drives productivity evolved over time. After all it’s International Business Machines – not International Business Typewriters.
But did you know that in 2015 IBM bought The Weather Channel’s analytics and modeling technology (it rents it back to The Weather Channel)? IBM recognized that short and long term weather patterns have the potential to disrupt supply chains, manufacturing, deliveries, even purchases. The Weather Channel’s technology enables IBM to incorporate predictions about weather and climate condition into their forecasting models it builds for its clients. These insights in turn help clients plan for disruptions and improve overall productivity.
IBM can talk about this new capability and how it helps businesses adapt to the challenges brought on by client change. Doing so takes advantage of the general awareness, increasing urgency, and broad media coverage of the implications of a changing climate.
However, while IBM may take advantage of the current visibility of, and interest in, adapting to a changing climate, IBM will never incorporate predicting the weather into it’s brand platform. Weather analytics are just a tool that IBM uses. Yesterday it was typewriters. Today its predictive analytics that forecast the impact of climate change on business operations. Five years from now there will be other issues and new tools to talk about. IBM will talk about those new tools. But their brand will be the same – they will help clients be more productive.
Unfortunately, examples like this give a false sense of how easy it is to determine what makes sense as a brand platform theme and what should be used as a point in time messaging theme. In sectors closer to the commodity end of the continuum there is often less distinction between the vendor and the product. This makes defining a brand platform more challenging, but no less important. There are also some themes that have the potential to be a brand platform for one businesses but not another. Sustainability provides a good example of this duality.
The simple Who you are—What you say construct provides a starting point for evaluating what category potential brand characteristics fall into. The following provides a brief example.
Hospitals factor HIPAA compliance considerations into almost every decision they make. As a result, companies that sell technology solutions to hospitals might consider making helping hospitals stay in compliance a part of their brand platform.
Using the construct, they would ask: Is helping hospitals stay HIPAA compliant…
- A characteristic that would continue to be true even if we change our offerings?
- Is HIPAA compliance core to what we do, or a byproduct of it?
- Would it still have value if staying HIPPA compliant became less challenging?
- Will there be less challenges with being HIPAA compliant ten years from now?
The answers to these questions will vary by individual vendor and circumstance. However, for most technology vendors, HIPAA compliance is important to deliver and message to, but not something that represents a part of a brand platform.
Refreshing a brand, or creating a new one, requires much more rigorous an analysis than the simple questions in this brand construct model. However, a brand refresh can also put individuals and teams in a state of analysis paralysis. The simple construct questions can help teams get unstuck when they feel overwhelmed and provide a guiding principle to help keep everything in perspective.
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.
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.
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:
- What vendor attributes and characteristics does the market use to evaluate vendors?
- In the eyes of the market, how does your brand perform on these criteria?
- 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.
Building the corporate brand
A new book “The People Powered Brand: A Blueprint for B2B Brand and Culture” makes a compelling case that the oft-neglected B2B corporate brand is actually of greater importance than product brands and that more companies should treat the corporate brand as a valuable asset.
To be fair to corporate marketers, many companies face entrenched barriers to building and managing a corporate brand. Here are a few that we come across regularly at Isurus:
- Mergers and acquisitions: Many companies are a collection of acquired products. Individual product brands (some of which were formerly corporate brands themselves) operate independently with little linkage to sister brands or the parent corporate entity. Until the business evolves to create meaningful value for the customer across product brands, it can be argued that the corporate brand only matters to the investment community.
- Performance measurement: In many companies business performance is measured at the product level. Mid-level and senior managers are evaluated and rewarded based on financial results for products, leaving little incentive to invest in corporate branding.
- Functional orientation: Many B2B companies have a strong technical orientation in their culture with a tendency to focus on functional attributes instead of the attitudes and emotions that define relationships with customers. It is often a tough sell to convince decision makers in these cultures of the value of branding (at any level, product or corporate level).
All of these factors contribute to a broader, perhaps inherent challenge in corporate branding: Many companies simply don’t know what their corporate brand is. And the process of defining a corporate brand can be problematic. For example, we’ve seen conflict develop as product teams push for a corporate brand that best represents their individual product line’s interests.
Isurus has worked with a number of mid-size and large B2B clients engaged in defining corporate brands, usually as the result of M&A activity. The research process can prove especially helpful in mitigating barriers and paving the way for defining a corporate brand management strategy. Through a discovery process drawing on external and internal perceptions, research leads to a more complete understanding of what defines the corporate brand beyond its individual product offerings and how that meaning can be articulated in a compelling corporate value proposition. In cultures dominated by a strong technical orientation, research provides credibility for corporate branding by quantifying existing perceptions and the relationship between brand strength and desirable outcomes like loyalty, repeat purchase behavior, etc.
The bottom line? Corporate branding in B2B is hard for lots of reasons, but don’t let these barriers prevent your company from using this valuable asset.
The March 2014 edition of McKinsey Quarterly makes the case that providing a consistent experience across all customer interactions is more important to satisfaction and loyalty than the performance in individual interactions. This runs counter to conventional market research wisdom, which says that not all customer experiences are equal in driving customer satisfaction and that the goal of research is to uncover the key drivers. While we are not ready to endorse McKinsey’s point of view just yet, it does deserve consideration.
McKinsey’s POV focuses on the feelings and perceptions customers take away from a range of interactions – not replicating the same interaction. A familiar way to conceptualize this idea is as meeting customer expectations across all interactions. Consistently meeting expectations builds trust in the brand, which leads to greater satisfaction and a higher likelihood to recommend.
The large number of customer interactions in many B2B sectors raises the potential for considerable inconsistency in meeting customer expectations. These interaction touch points include trade shows, websites, sales teams, technical sales reps, implementation teams, training teams, account managers, and customer support. This makes providing a consistent experience that meets customer expectations difficult.
In our research B2B decision makers often tell us that they have significantly different experiences as a prospect than they do as a customer. It is not unusual for the interaction chain to unfold as follows: The marketing team ensures that the company’s collateral, trade show material and website present a customer focused organization. The sales team provides a lot of attention to prospects and assures them that the product will meet their needs and work as expected. In some cases senior executives get involved to show the prospect how important they are. To this point the prospect’s experiences are fairly consistent and they set up certain customer expectations.
However, once they become a customer things don’t always go as planned and the consistency of their experiences changes. When the implementation team gets into the details of the customer’s operations they sometimes realize that they cannot deliver what was promised. How this event is communicated and handled does not always meet the customer’s expectations. The executives that were once highly accessible don’t proactively stay involved with the customer. When something goes wrong the customer often finds that technical support has been outsourced to an offshore provider.
It is not that vendors aren’t trying. Most companies have some policies and processes in place to ensure a consistent experience for the customer. It is just that the execution is hard, especially because different functional areas are often evaluated and rewarded on conflicting metrics. The sales team for getting dollars through the door, the implementation time for staying within time and budget, and the customer support team for resolving customer issues quickly and cheaply. This approach can help maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of individual departments. Unfortunately it can also result in departments focusing too much on their own performance and forgetting about the most important thing – ensuring the customer’s experience meets their expectations.
A focus on the total customer experience must cascade down from the executive team. If they do not make it a priority, each functional team will maximize its own performance relative to how it is evaluated and rewarded. Even if the executive team wants to improve consistency in the customer experience it can be difficult to know where to start. One potential place is in existing customer satisfaction and NPS programs.
Using existing customer survey data most companies can create a consistency index or score that identifies the delta between satisfaction across different functional areas (product, customer service, etc.). In the simplest sense if a customer rates the product a 7 and customer service a 4 their consistency score is 3. These individual scores can be averaged to measure the company’s consistency of experience. The goal is to get as close to zero as possible. Some companies may want to look at subgroups to prioritize specific customers (e.g. platinum customers). This overall approach aligns with McKinsey’s recommendations for mapping the customer journey.
A consistency focus provides a fresh perspective on identifying the areas that are most important for companies to address. In some cases low performing areas may have been previously identified as lacking a strong correlation with customer satisfaction and thus receive less attention and resources. However if their performance creates an inconsistency in the customer’s mind it might detract from overall satisfaction. Conversely, although it is always more important to focus on areas that need improvement, it may be worth looking at high performing outliers that create customer expectations that other functions cannot match – put another way, don’t make implicit promises that you cannot keep.
It may be possible to add or rephrase questions to ask directly about consistency. The simplest would be to ask, “How consistent have your experiences with XYZ been?” A more nuanced approach would be to ask if an individual customer interaction meets the expectations that were set by earlier experiences with the company.
The value and practicality of each of these ideas will vary by company and situation. At an overall level we think it is worth thinking about how to ensure you are consistently meeting your customers’ expectations. The goal is for customers to view you as a trusted reliable partner, not as a box of chocolate where they don’t know what they are going to get.
New research from McKinsey & Company reveals a gap between the messaging themes that B2B companies communicate and the attributes most valued by B2B buyers. While most B2B companies emphasis themes like corporate social responsibility, sustainability, and global reach their target audience is most influenced by messages about honest and open dialogue, responsible supply chain management, and specialist expertise. In addition to this gap, the research also shows a lack of differentiation among B2B brand messages: Most B2B companies are communicating the same themes.
These same overall trends are evident in Isurus’ custom research for B2B clients. Based on our own data and the McKinsey study, we see three implications for B2B marketers:
Role of corporate and product level messaging
The dominant B2B messaging themes in the McKinsey study (sustainability, global reach, etc.) can work well for corporate-level messaging because they are relevant across product lines and can be easier to demonstrate objectively. These themes act as table stakes or are a “nice to have” when selecting a vendor, but don’t typically drive vendor selection. The themes valued by B2B decision makers are much more relevant to purchase decisions—communication, expertise, supply chain reliability, etc. For large complex businesses, messaging needs to accomplish address multiple needs: Corporate messaging builds awareness and equity at a general level whereas product messaging focuses on the value proposition that will drive buying decisions.
Humanizing B2B brands
The common theme among the attributes most valued by B2B buyers is that they are about personal interactions and the human aspect of doing business. Many B2B companies have historically positioned their brand on its functional strengths (e.g., number of locations, number of products, etc.). The transition to positioning on more emotional/relationship strengths is challenging. In some cases, it requires companies to go through a process of identifying these strengths by understanding what really matters to customers beyond functional “feeds and speeds”.
Creative execution does the heavy lifting
McKinsey’s research shows a lack of differentiation among B2B messaging: Most companies in their study are communicating about the same themes. There can be a “follow the herd” mentality among B2B marketers because they tolerate less risk than consumer marketers, which results in homogeneous messages. It is also the case that there are a limited number of relevant themes for a B2B company to position itself around. If customers care most deeply about only a handful of qualities, B2B marketers will need to rely on message execution and creative strategy to differentiate their brand.
Across the board, this research raises some good questions for B2B marketers and their creative partners about whether they are communicating about what’s important to customers and the level of differentiation in their messaging and creative strategy.
Many marketers these days are focused on the importance of “humanizing” the brand in order to be more authentic and engage more deeply with customers. A lot of the discussion on this topic focuses on the opportunities (especially through social media) to showcase the real people behind a brand and engage consumers in two-way conversations.
Humanizing the brand is not a new idea. For many years brand strategies have incorporated an “inside out” perspective, recognizing that the people and culture that make up an organization define parameters for how the brand can be credibly perceived from the outside. What is new is the increasing number of channels that brands now have to express themselves.
With all of these new channels, we risk losing sight of the brand characteristics that matter most to customers and to the business. As with any marketing or branding effort, we need to be thoughtful and strategic about how to humanize the brand in a way that is relevant to the customer and to the business’s goals. Showcasing the wacky personalities behind the brand may be memorable and authentic, but it may not be relevant or work in support of the business’ overall goals.
An effective “human” brand is built on a deep understanding of the real people that are its customers. It focuses on what the customer desires, needs, and values, and even on their foibles. It is by understanding the customer as a real person that brands can engage in authentic, meaningful conversations.
Words matter. Exhibit A: The “fiscal cliff”
I realize that most readers of this blog need no convincing when it comes to the importance of the words we use to name and describe products, companies, and issues. We spend significant hours and budgets thinking about the most compelling, resonant language with which to describe our offerings.
The individuals and institutions that run our country apparently need a reminder of this, in the case of the “fiscal cliff”. As we sit here in mid-November 2012, the looming fiscal cliff dominates the headlines. Congress and the President are attempting to find a compromise in order to avoid the automatic tax increases and spending cuts that would take the country “over the fiscal cliff”. The fear is that if we go over the cliff, the country could enter another recession. If the goal is to avoid recession, where consumer confidence and spending contract, why do we keep calling it a “fiscal cliff”? Even if lawmakers are successful and reach a compromise, the anxiety created by weeks of constant media attention to the “fiscal cliff” will negatively impact the economy. It is a serious issue and decisions need to be made, but can’t we call it something less scary? Even the “fiscal slope” would be better.
For the marketing community, let’s use this as a good reminder that the words we use to name, position, and sell our products do matter.