B2B marketers take a fresh look at brand strategy
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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.
Sometimes your channel is your brand
“There is very little loyalty left. Manufacturer X is mercenary. They just want to make money, and I’m mercenary. In other words, Manufacturer X doesn’t care about me, and I don’t care about Manufacturer X. They just make a good product.”
This quote from a recent study sums up the state of many of the channel relationships we see across a range of technology and industrial B2B markets. In tight economic times everyone is looking for ways to protect or increase revenue streams. Channel partners want exclusive territories and the luxury of carrying your competitors’ products. Manufacturers use channel partners to extend their geographic reach and then make plans for selling direct. This situation may be unavoidable, but it is important not to lose sight of the importance of your channel partners in defining your brand image and equity among your end-customers.
In our research across a range of B2B verticals and product categories we often find that end-customer perceptions are shaped entirely by their experience with the product and with their local distributor or VAR – customers often have no meaningful knowledge of the manufacturer outside of these experiences. This can also extend to loyalty where end-customers rely on a trusted distributor or VAR to help them select the best products for their business; if their partner recommends switching brands they follow that advice. In addition, while in principle many end-customers find the idea of buying direct appealing there are often internal barriers and hurdles to doing so.
For many manufacturers their channel partners will continue to have the most direct contact with end-customers and remain a critical component of revenue streams for the foreseeable future. Therefore it is important to understand the role your channel partners have in the buying process and the influence they have on end-customer perceptions and decisions. Even when positive channel relationships exist, it is not unusual to find that channel partners lack the product knowledge or business process expertise to promote the manufacturer’s products effectively.
Manufacturers sometimes worry about asking the opinions of channel partners; they assume all they will hear are requests for lower prices. Some channel partners will indeed cry price, but most are interested in a legitimate dialog with the manufacturers they partner with. Bringing in the end-customer perspective into the conversation can be instructive for both sides.
Regardless of how you approach this conversation—internal outreach, conferences or primary research—knowing more about the role your channel partners have in shaping your brand will help both you and them be more successful.
Why likability matters
Unless you’re isolated from every media outlet on the planet these days, you’ve heard something in the news about candidate likability in the various races for national, state, and local office. Nationally, voters “like” Obama more than they do Romney. Here in the tight Senate race in Massachusetts, voters “like” Republican Scott Brown more than Democrat Elizabeth Warren.
Why so much focus on likability over metrics such as experience, intelligence, ideas, competence, etc.? Likability has been a top predictor of electoral success in every presidential election since 1960. Remember 2000, when voters said they’d much rather sit down for a beer with Bush than Gore?
Likability is also one important criterion we use to test advertising. Even as advertising and advertising research have become much more sophisticated over time, likability continues to be a useful predictor of effectiveness. Clients sometimes push back on the relevancy of “likability” as a metric. They see it as too simple, or as not strongly related to their overall communication goals, such as whether the ad campaign will motivate consideration and purchase. Although it seems simple, likability is actually a higher-order perception that combines trust, relevance, empathy, and authenticity. All of these are good predictors of consideration and purchase – we tend to buy from brands and people that we trust and that understand our needs and values. “Do you like this ad?” is also a question that people can answer easily and honestly, whereas it is harder to get a reliable answer to the question “Will you buy this product now that you’ve seen this ad?”
So just as likability will continue to be an important predictor of electoral success, it will also continue to be a useful predictor of advertising effectiveness.
Across a diverse range of b2b and consumer product categories studied by Isurus in the last six months, the messaging strategies that best resonate are ones that speak to short-term benefits. Messages that speak only to long-term benefits failed to motivate buyers, even when the eventual benefit is very meaningful (a life-saving therapy, a significant ROI, etc.). The research showed that people purchase for a mix of short and long term benefits (especially for large investments) but the benefits that spark interest and get them to investigate the category tend to be more short term in nature.
The challenge for many of our clients is two-fold:
- First, the major benefit the purchase provides is long term and will take 3, 5 or 10 years to realize. If you buy this technology, over time your IT organization will save 20% in infrastructure costs. This medical procedure may help cure cancer in your family in the next 10-20 years. These are the real benefits these offerings were ultimately designed to deliver. The offerings weren’t developed with a short-term benefit in mind.
- Second, these offerings compete for budget with many other options that do offer a short-term benefit. That short-term benefit is not on the same scale as a double-digit ROI or life-saving treatment, but it is real and quickly realized by the buyer.
This focus on short-term benefits may reflect the increasing prevalence of immediacy in our culture. We are constantly connected, with access to information, feedback, and social relationships in seconds; the idea of waiting years to see results may be increasingly unreasonable to many of us. It may also reflect uncertainty about the economy, where consumers and businesses prefer to focus on benefits today because the future is too unpredictable.
Regardless of the cause, Isurus’ recent work suggests that marketers will be well-served to understand to what extent their target market is motivated by short-term or longer term benefits. If the target market does require a short-term benefit and the offering is not well-suited to deliver it, be prepared to re-think the value proposition. For some offerings, the best strategy will be to balance minor, short-term benefits with the more significant but longer term value. Another strategy may be to focus on the emotional benefits provided in the short term.