Who you are: What you say
"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."
-Vice President of Marketing, Enterprise Content Management System Provider
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.
Are you hard to work with? It matters.
Do your internal processes pull customers and prospects closer to you or do they push them away?
Research shows that companies and individuals that find a vendor easy to work with demonstrate higher levels of loyalty and likelihood to recommend. They use the vendor more fully, e.g. buy more products, use more features. They will even use technically inferior products and services when a vendor makes their lives easier.
This point sounds obvious. But as vendors develop internal processes to improve efficiency and management effectiveness they can accidentally lose sight of how these processes impact customer experience, loyalty and even their brand image. For example: A sales process designed to provide consistency across a diverse sales team may force prospects through a protocol that makes them feel that the sales rep isn’t listening to their needs; or an invoicing protocol that is ideal for a vendor’s internal accounting needs may be confusing or maddening to customers.
So how do you identify the unintended consequences of your processes on the customer experience? You have several options. Start with a common-sense review of your processes. A more systematic approach is to create a customer journey map for each process. And, if you want to be cutting edge, apply neuroscience to see what’s going on in your customer’s brain.
1 Common-sense, Self-examination
An easy first step is to engage in a bit of common-sense, self-examination of any given process (sales protocol, ordering, internal hand-offs, etc.). First outline the process’ broad steps and parameters; and then ask yourself two questions:
- Who receives the primary benefit from how the process is structured and executed?
- If you personally had to go through the same process with one of your vendors how would you feel?
If the benefits of the process primarily accrue to your organization or if you would personally find annoying or troublesome, chances are it has a negative impact on prospect/customer experience and perceptions.
This basic evaluation can highlight easy fixes. It can also help your department/organization start to think in terms of customer experience, rather than internal operations. A critical aspect of this is to consider is the emotional component a customer’s experience. Negative emotions like frustration, mistrust, or anger stick with a customer much longer than the specific details of the experience. These emotions become embedded in the brand’s perception, and are difficult to dislodge.
A simple way to formalize the investigation is to add a question to your customer experience surveys: How easy was it for you to… (place an order, get an answer to your question, etc.)? Alternatively, combing through the open-ended responses in your NPS survey may identify trouble spots.
2 Customer Journey Mapping
Customer journey mapping systematically captures the broad steps customers go through in their overall relationship with your firm. The technique can also drill down on the steps associated with a specific process (e.g. sales interactions, customer support). Simply defining each of the steps a customer/prospect must go through can identify trouble spots that hide in plain sight. Perhaps there is a lack of official transition from being a new customer to an established customer. Perhaps in-person training is only available in major metro areas. Etc.
Defining the steps in a process may identify intuitive problems such as those above. However, it will not necessarily identify all of the areas customers find confusing or hard to deal with – something that seems obvious and simple to you may feel complicated and opaque to customers. Primary research with customers and prospects can bring the market’s perspective into your customer journey maps and ensure they reflect how the market feels, not what you think.
Advances in neuroscience now enable you to literally see what is going on in your customer’s brain. Tasks and activities that are hard to navigate put a greater cognitive load on the customer’s brain. Neuroscience applications measure cognitive load in real-time to identify the specific points in a process where individuals struggle most. As promising as this technology is, the field is new; the viable applications of the approach are limited; and, the tools available are mixed. Buyer Brain’s Effort Assessment Score© is a good one to investigate to get a better understanding of how neuroscience is being used today.
Regardless of how sophisticated your approach, it’s worth putting some efforts toward evaluating how easy it is for your customers to do business with you. All of their experiences with you—not just your product/service—influence their perceptions of your brand, their loyalty and likelihood to recommend you to others.
Many B2B purchases are delayed or abandoned due to the uncertain outcome of the decision. Prospects compare the certainty of the status quo (good or bad) to the potential (but uncertain) benefits of a new solution and opt for the “devil they know”. The implication: B2B Marketing and Sales can help prospects reach a purchase decision by reducing uncertainty for the new solution, and increasing uncertainty of the status quo.
A recent study by Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business shows that individuals favor certainty of outcome over potential benefits – they choose a certain loss of $100 over a chance to flip a coin with the chance to pay $0 or $200. Complexity exacerbates the problem. With more moving parts in the equation, people find it increasingly difficult to envision how the future will play out.
It turns out it’s not Go with the devil you know. It’s Go with the devil you know over anything else – unless you are absolutely sure about the other option.
Companies and B2B markets tend to follow the same pattern: The more conservative the company or market, the more dramatic the effect. The preference for the known plays itself out daily across markets and organizations.
- As prospects go through their evaluation process they ask for more information, details, case studies, etc. in an effort to bring certainty in their decision. In a recent post Make it easy for prospects to buy we explored how providing all the information prospects request doesn’t help get prospects over the hump and to the buy decision – it bogs them down further.
- Flip through a B2B trade publication and you’ll see that many of the ads look the same and don’t change much over time. Behind the scenes, B2B marketers ask their creative agencies to help their brand stand out in the marketplace. However, most B2B brands stick with the original creative strategy because its performance is more certain.
- Research reports that present the data as %’s often get more attention than qualitative insights because a number feels more certain than a description – whether it is or not.
- It took almost a decade for most markets to become comfortable with cloud software solutions. They knew the cloud offered significant benefits over their on-premise solutions, but most companies didn’t want to move until they saw that the cloud was here to stay and that everyone else was doing it too.
Pain points trump benefits
Perhaps the most basic, yet important, manifestation of this trend is that solving pain-points represents a more effective sales and marketing strategy than selling benefits. Here’s why…
- Pains are certain. Concrete. They are something specific the prospect knows it needs to address. Once a pain gets significant enough the desire to find a solution outweighs the uncertainties that come with new approaches and vendors.
- Benefits are hypothetical. If a prospect does x, y, and z, they should receive the benefits. Benefits raise questions: What if a key assumption turns out to be false. Benefits come with more professional risks. Unrealized benefits lack the certainty of the status quo.
The insights from Pfeffer’s research and the day-to-day experience of B2B sales and marketers leads to one conclusion: B2B sales reps and marketers need to change the uncertainty equation.
- Increase the certainty of new solutions
- Decrease the certainty of the status quo
Increase the certainty of new solutions
Recognize and acknowledge the uncertainty
Left to their own devices individuals and businesses can easily overestimate the things that can go wrong with a new approach or soluiton. By acknowledging the risks that exist, vendors can set the parameters of what the risks and uncertainties actually are. This can include letting prospects know where other individuals/companies run into trouble, what needs to be in place for the solution to be a success, etc. Acknowledging uncertainty not only frames the issue, it increases the knowns associated with the new solution.
Create specific certainties
Reducing the number of unknowns (even minor ones) makes options look more appealing. This phenomenon is known as zero risk bias which is the tendency to prefer options that completely eliminates some risk factors in a decision but leaves other untouched, over options that may produce a greater overall reduction in risk, but do not eliminate any individual risk factor. The preference for options that completely eliminate some risks likely stems from the reduction in complexity – it reduces the factors that have to be considered in the decision.
Examples of certainties that B2B vendors can create include:
- Concrete implementation processes and milestones
- Metrics of how other customers use the solution, e.g. 75% of customers select this approach
- Definitive outcomes, e.g. the ads will stand out from competitors (which is different than saying they will be effective)
- Customer satisfaction scores
- Guarantees / Shared risk models
Raise the uncertainty of the status quo
While the status quo feels stable to individuals and organizations, it’s not. Sales and B2B marketers can point out this false sense of security by asking questions or providing data that highlight the actual uncertainty associated with prospects sticking with the status quo: Your market appears to be changing in this way, how will that effect you? These new entrants have entered the marketplace, what does it mean for your market? etc. etc.
There is no single approach or silver bullet for changing the certainty equation. Prospect perceptions of, and preference for security are rooted deep. We suggest a few starting points:
- Examine the customer journey to ensure you understand their status quo and pain points.
- Identify the benefits of your solution that are most believable to the market, and therefore have greater certainty.
- Analyze the Marketing and Sales Process. To what extent does your approach (advertising, collateral, sales process, etc.) reduce or increase certainty for the buyer?
These steps will help sales reps and B2B marketers look more certain in an uncertain world.
In honor of the upcoming Presidents’ Day, here’s a look at one of the most respected traits Washington and Lincoln shared that can provide guidance to everyone from the CEOs to product manager and market teams.
They saw the world the way it was, not the way they wanted it to be, or thought it ought to be.
This trait has been universally viewed as a key to their ability to develop effectives strategies at two of the most critical points in our country’s history. It gave them a clear and objective view into the situations they faced and a realistic estimate of the strengths and weaknesses of their positions.
This may sound easy, but for many of us our desires, biases and enthusiasm for our products, companies and teams color our perspectives and prevent us from seeing things the way they actually are. Here are two techniques for viewing our markets and positions within them more like Washington and Lincoln; and one from Benjamin Franklin who while not a president had plenty of sage advice.
1. Identify your biases: Most of us are biased in the areas that matter most to our success. A simple way to identify these biases and blind spots is to make a list of the conditions that must be true for your product or strategy to be successful. Examples could include that the market considers a problem a priority to solve relative to other challenges, or that the market is dissatisfied with existing solutions, or that your sales reps will set 10 appointments a week. Once you have the list of conditions, objectively review the assumptions and evidence underlying each condition. The areas where you may be over- or under- estimating threats and opportunities will become apparent.
2. Make reference class comparisons: Individuals and teams tend to be inherently optimistic about their plans and strategies. We expect things to go well, and closer to the best-case scenario than to the worst. Reality usually falls somewhere in between. Most new endeavors will encounter the same challenges as previous internal efforts and/or as businesses that have faced similar situations. When planning product introductions, acquisitions, and sales & marketing campaigns look back at previous internal efforts and at case studies and examples outside the organization to see how these efforts panned out as a starting point for your forecasts. All things equal, your new product, campaign, etc. will likely follow a similar path. If you think that your efforts will go better, faster, etc. make a list of the reasons you believe that your efforts will be different than the norm. Then use Tip 1 to make sure you don’t have any blind spots or faulty biases.
3. Use Franklin comparisons: When most of us look at the strengths of our products or favorite sports teams we tend to forget that many competitors share those same strengths or have different strengths that compensate. To compare your offering to competitors (direct or indirect) make a list on the left side of a piece of paper of what you think your strengths and weaknesses are. On the right side, make a list of what the market thinks the strengths and weaknesses of your competitor are, not what you think they are. When generating the competitor list Tip 1 can help eliminate the biases you may have. Once the two lists are complete compare them and cross out any points of parity and offsetting conditions, e.g., the competitor’s brand equity offsets your better functionality. This exercise helps identify the mindsets and perceptions your sales & marketing efforts will encounter on the ground.
These three techniques will not make you as brilliant a leader as Washington or Lincoln, but they will help you see your market how it is, not how you want it to be. Paraphrasing Franklin, these techniques will make you wise and help you develop strategies that avoids common pitfalls and to set realistic expectations.
Making an effort to imagine yourself in your customers’ shoes may give you a false sense that you understand what your customers want. This counterintuitive statement stems from research conducted by Johannes Hattula of London’s Imperial College and his colleagues. Fortunately there are steps you can take to ensure you are not projecting your opinions onto your customers.
Dr. Hattula’s research indicates that the more empathetic you are (or try to be) the more likely you are to assume your customer preferences would be similar to your own. Put another way, when you try to put yourself in your customers’ shoes you actually think What would I do or want in this situation, rather than What might someone else want. This is engrained into our culture: The Golden Rule says Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Unfortunately from a psychological standpoint the more empathetic a person is the more likely they are to use their personal feelings to predict what someone else would want. The research indicates that the effect doesn’t change with age or experience.
You can see this effect in your home life. Have you ever wanted to do something nice for someone who was having a bad day but found that the person didn’t appreciate your efforts or worse was annoyed by them? While they probably appreciate the effort, perhaps it backfired because you did what you would want in their situation, which isn’t necessarily what they would want.
These same dynamics can play out in the business world. Product managers with higher levels of empathy believe they understand the market thoroughly and are more likely to ignore research and data that conflicts with their views than less empathic managers. Sometimes they are right – but the Steve Jobs of the world only come around so often. As researchers we see this effect when conducting focus groups: Clients observing the groups fixate on an individual who most closely resembles their own views.
This tendency isn’t all bad. In fact, it is the core of many successful businesses whose customers seek out vendors that match their attitudes and philosophy: A conservative investor may seek out a conservative bank or a bleeding edge tech start-up may seek out the advertising agency that pushes the limit. This works well for existing products and relationships. However, when a vendor introduces new products or enters new markets, mistaking your perceptions for those of your customers can create problems. It can be seen in the number of product introductions that fail despite the product team honestly believing they are creating what the customer wants – their intention is good, but the execution misses the mark.
Fortunately there are easy steps you can take to ensure the level of empathy you have for your customers doesn’t backfire.
- One of the easiest is to remind yourself of your biases. In Dr. Hattula’s research, simply reminding people that their own biases exist reduced much of the egocentric effect. It makes you step back and think rationally about what is important to you and how it may be different than what others want.
- Group decision-making counters the effect. Since individuals have different opinions, the discussion helps people recognize their own biases and perceptions.
- Soliciting outside opinions or using market research can provide a less biased view of the market’s wants and needs.
Regardless of what you do to counter the effect it is useful to remember that as people we have an innate tendency to assume other people want the same things we do. Perhaps the new Golden Rule for marketers should be Do unto customers as they want to be done unto – leave your wants out of it.
A common concern with focus groups is group think. In most cases what appears to be groupthink is actually poor moderation – the moderator fails to control dominating personalities and elicit comments from the quiet ones. Beyond being strong moderators to further combat the possibility of group think Isurus includes individual exercises in most focus groups. This ensures we collect feedback from everyone and provides the more timid participants with a stick in the ground they can stand by when aggressive participants try to sell their point of view.
That said, recent research coming out of Yale University and published in the journal Psychological Science provides some interesting food for thought. Erica J. Boothby, Margaret S. Clark, John A. Bargh found evidence that shared experiences amplify how we feel about them. We find positive experiences more positive when we see someone sharing the same experience – we find our individual desert more delicious if others are having and enjoying a desert as well. The same goes for negative experiences, sitting in the jury waiting room feels worse than it is partly because there are others with you sharing the experience. The effect isn’t conscious. People don’t change their opinion based on what they think the group feels, they actually have more intense feelings about their experience. The effect isn’t great, but it is big enough to be measurable.
If supported by further research the implications for creating better work and social environments are obvious. As researchers we should ask ourselves, “Is this relevant to focus groups?”. Maybe. In instances when there is strong consensus—either positive or negative—on the appeal of a product or messaging concept the amplified experience phenomenon may kick-in. Individuals may find products slightly more appealing than they would when conducting an evaluation in isolation. They may also find an ad concept more offensive than they would if they actually saw it at home.
Regardless of what further research says about the amplified experience, thoughtful and effective research designs address this issue as well as the other challenges associated with focus groups. These include:
- Guides that explore current situations, pains, motivations, and mind sets
- Moderators that can control the dominant personalities and draw out the meek
- A holistic analysis that goes beyond participant reactions to the concept
- Applying experience and sound judgment to the data
Following these principles ensures that focus group research does not fall into any traps that exist – the known ones and the ones surfacing in the areas of behavioral economics and psychology.
Improving the B2B Customer Experience
Accenture recently released the results of a study of how B2B companies perform in providing the customer experience (CX) B2B markets want today. A summary infographic of the results can be found here: Start Playing to Win, Stop Playing to lose.
The customer experience the report explores is generally defined as the sum of all experiences a customer has with a supplier of goods and/or services, over the duration of their relationship with that supplier. In a thematic sense B2B customers have started to expect their interactions with their suppliers to be similar to their consumer experiences. They don’t expect to buy enterprise software or raw materials on their smartphone. But they do want their experience to be focused on their needs and for complexity to be reduced as much as possible.
The three statistics that jumped out us to from Accenture’s report are:
- 70% of B2B executives believe their customers constantly reevaluate supplies and partners in an ongoing search for the best results and CX.
- 85% believe their long-term financial goals are linked to how their customers view their CX.
- Despite its perceived importance only 24% of B2B companies are “masters of the customer experience” as defined by Accenture.
The report goes on to outline how to systematically evaluate, manage and improve the customer experience business provide their B2B customers.
One of the key steps in the process is developing a thorough understanding of what customers notice and value. If you’ve been in the market long enough intuition and common sense can get you close to what is important to B2B customers. However, they can also overinflate the importance of some factors and undervalue others. They best way to understand what is important to your customers is to engage with them directly. Qualitative research can help identify the dimensions that customers find important and quantitative research can profile the relative importance of the dimensions. Once you know what is important to customers you can evaluate your investments and performance in those areas and make adjustments where necessary.
The research can be informal or formal, although Accenture recommends using hard metrics to evaluate your performance. You can handle the process internally or turn to an external research consultant such as Isurus. Regardless of the approach you take the end goal is the same – developing a customer experience road map that matches what your customers are looking for.
A tension exists between most marketers and their advertising agencies. Agencies want to push the envelope as far as they can to create advertising that cuts through the clutter and engages the audience. Marketers—especially B2B marketers—tend to be conservative and worry that edgy advertising will alienate customers and prospects. Who’s right? Research conducted by Jonah Berger of the Wharton School and Zoey Chen of the University of Miami indicates that both may be.
Berger and Chen set out to understand the degree to which controversy encourages engagement and conversation. The underlying assumption is that people notice controversial topics and talk about them with their family and peers. To explore this phenomenon they tracked two dimensions of stories posted on an online news site. The first was a rating given by a panel of readers of how controversial the subject matter was on a 7 point scale where 1 was “not at all controversial” and 7 was “highly controversial.” The second dimension was the number of reader comments that were posted for each article over time. For more details on their study click here.
The results show that mildly controversial articles generate the most engagement and reader posts. However, “mildly” is the key qualifier. If the controversy rating is above a 4.6 on the 7 point scale, engagement falls off rapidly. Berger and Chen describe the marketer’s challenge succinctly: To find the “sweet spot where an image or issue generates enough heat to elicit interest but stops short of raising qualms.”
Controversy isn’t limited to consumer advertising. B2B advertising is rarely as risqué as Super Bowl ads or consumers ads that go viral. However, within the norms of individual B2B markets there are conservative ads and edgy ones that create hand wringing among marketers and executives. This may be the use of “#$%&” to represent curse words in the text or not showing the product or including people who do not look like the products historical buyers. The key is to find the right amount of edgy.
A healthy debate between marketers and their agencies will likely result in advertising that balances being controversial enough to garner attention but does not cross the line as defined by the audience. Still according to Berger and Chen the margin of error is relatively narrow. As they say, “A little controversy goes a long way.” There are times when the debate can be enhanced by collecting feedback directly from the intended audience. We often work with clients when the two sides—marketers and their agencies—cannot agree on where the fine line of edgy exists or when agreement exists but so much is riding on the campaign that they want validation they got it right.
In the end marketers should be open to their agencies edgier ideas, agencies should value the constraints their marketers put on them, and the audience is the final arbiter of what crosses the line.
B2B technology vendors often overestimate the degree to which their markets make rational decisions. They forget the human element in business decisions to their detriment.
The results from PWC’s Global State of Information Security Survey: 2014 illustrate the irrational side of B2B decision making. Although enterprises across the globe see data security risks increasing and become more advanced, most have not invested in technologies that address these new challenges such behavioral network monitoring, security information event management platforms, data protection tools, mobile device management tools. Nor do they hold the partners they share data with to data security standards. Yet 74% of organizations overall, and 84% of CEOs, feel confident that they have effective data security strategies in place. A simple explanation exists for this disconnect between these internal perceptions and the realities of data security: Business decision-makers are human. They have limitations in terms of the amount of information they can process, they make decisions based on incomplete information, and their decisions are influenced by emotions to a greater degree than they realize.
The human brain can only process a limited amount of information at one time. When it gets overloaded it simplifies situations into contextual frameworks it can understand. This often happens unconsciously. Wall Street traders have access to vast amounts of information about the companies and markets they invest in. However, their investment choices are often based on a handful of dimensions that they feel most comfortable evaluating. Likewise, data security has grown so complex that even people devoted to it cannot keep up with the latest threats and solutions. When evaluating their comfort with their security position senior managers tend to evaluate the dimensions that they understand. If they feel good about those, they project that confidence to their overall situation.
This tendency to reduce complex situations into simpler frameworks creates challenges for many B2B technology vendors that focus their value proposition on functionality or ROI.
- Many vendors assume that prospects systematically evaluate solutions against each other; most prospects do not. Instead they heavily weight their decisions on a few factors that may or may not be related to functionality. They also rely on brand equity and peer usage as surrogates for detailed evaluations. Some companies recognize these tendencies and bring in external consultants to help review their needs and options.
- ROI pitches can fall flat because many B2B decision-makers do not have a clear picture of the cost of their existing solutions and processes. They view licensing and support costs as concrete. Promised costs savings from efficiencies gained are ambiguous because the decision makers have no real basis for comparison.
- From an emotional perspective any change in processes or vendors is a referendum on the performance of the current team and processes. Unless they are in crisis mode, most decision-makers will acknowledge that things could be better, but feel that they are doing OK and can be defensive. This explains why F.U.D. messages sometimes do not resonate as well as expected. It’s also why many changes in processes and systems come with new management – the new staff doesn’t have any emotional investment in the status quo.
Organizations and individuals also create a narrative of how they perceive themselves and look to solutions that fit within narrative (e.g., we only use large vendors, we use market leaders). This internal narrative may or may not be based on reality and the resulting choices may not be rational.
The implication of these dynamics is that in order to develop value propositions and sales approaches that resonate, B2B vendors must understand how their market actually thinks, feels, and makes decisions. Isurus helps organizations use primary research to better understand their customers and prospects as people, and the influence of emotional and non-rational factors on buying decisions.
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.