Finding the right message for B2B decision makers

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.