B2B Branding: Why the B2C Playbook Won’t Always Apply

B2B’s layered, lengthy and relationship-driven buying cycles place unique demands on brands.
graphic of b2b-b2c

Branding is branding, right? Not when it comes to the complex world of B2B relationships and purchase decisions. Today, there’s wider appreciation for how powerfully emotion can influence all buyers—even in the often technical, specs-ruled world of B2B sales. But it’s still risky to broadly assume B2C branding approaches can grow your B2B brand.

B2B branding is the process of creating and sustaining a compelling, differentiated identity for a company in the unique business-to-business marketplace. A strong B2B brand builds affinity and loyalty over extended sales cycles, with volumes of information being shared via both digital platforms and live brand representatives.

The B2B brand relies on targeted messaging, visuals and experiences to engage prospects just as a consumer brand would. The journey to B2B purchase, however, bears little resemblance to the consumer experience.

To ensure you’re building a brand that can meet the needs of B2B decision makers and influencers, it’s helpful to consider:

  • Where this conversation started
  • What B2B branding shifts can be justified by similarities between B2B and B2C buyers
  • Core differences between the two marketplaces
  • The ramifications for each point of difference that should inform B2B branding

Let’s dive in.

Why B2B brands eye B2C approaches

B2B and B2C marketplaces were once described and/or treated as complete opposites:

  • “B2B is all about price and specs; B2C is all about emotion and impulse”
  • “B2B buyers want to see a vendor’s expertise and scale; B2C buyers want to know how a product will make their life better”
  • “B2B buyer personas can be limited to people’s professional roles; B2C personas should focus on personal lives”

Then digital access to information transformed the B2B marketing landscape. Customer expectations for convenience and support rose. And B2B brands responded by:

  • Investing in more audience research and stakeholder profile-building
  • Adopting more personalized sales tactics
  • Shaping more compelling online journeys and experiences

This led some thought leaders to announce that boundaries between B2C and B2B marketing were “blurring.” B2B CMOs and other marketing leaders—understandably—started wondering if they were leaving value on the table by rejecting branding ideas that seemed “too consumer.”

The role of emotion in both B2C and B2B branding

There are B2C best practices that belong in the B2B world. Successful B2B brands, just like their B2C counterparts, create messages that resonate on emotional levels as well as rational ones.

We’ve written about the myth of the all-rational B2B buyer. Human beings can’t switch off their emotions; feelings will always influence our decision making. At home, at work, at retail looking for a product or online looking for professional services, people want to feel good about the choices they make.

That’s why we tell our clients: You need to find an emotional sweet spot with your buyers. Successful B2B branding shines a spotlight on both the functional and emotional benefits of a product or service.

Yes, your software may represent cutting-edge innovation. But what does that mean for your buyer and their customer? People are motivated by promises of:

  • More productivity
  • Deeper job satisfaction
  • Greater financial security

Yes, your customer service department may offer an unprecedented level of support. But to drive a sale, your buyer must see the connection between that service and daily personal benefits like:

  • Less stress
  • Fewer interruptions
  • More time for truly transformative work

An approachable brand personality (often including an approachable, relatable brand voice) can help introduce emotion into B2B relationships. In DeSantis Breindel’s work for Thornton Tomasetti, a global structural engineering firm, we humanized the company by building their new brand personality around the team’s love of a good challenge—something their clients share.

B2C brands have invested in developing distinct personalities and voices for a long time. Because personality and voice engage audiences’ emotions, we recommend our B2B clients do the same. They represent rare examples of when B2C brand strategies can translate pretty directly and effectively to the vastly different B2B world.

Meaningful differences between B2C and B2B marketplaces and their ramifications on branding

Recognizing that successful B2B branding (just like B2C) can influence audiences by triggering emotional drivers, big differences remain between the two marketplaces. Each difference comes with ramifications, and it’s a good idea to consider all of them whenever building or refreshing a B2B brand.

1. B2B targets new customers precisely while B2C casts a wider net

Consumer brands appeal to vast audiences. A fashion retailer’s target consumers might be “upwardly mobile women between the ages of 18 and 35.” They’ll invest in buyer personas and targeted advertising, but that pool of potential buyers is still much larger than that for, say, a cargo ship.

B2B companies typically offer pretty specialized solutions. (Think digital authentication for highly regulated industries or accreditation for business schools.) That means their industry targets are narrow. They can assume a fairly educated audience for their messages—people who already understand the greater value proposition and need details about the offering sooner.

B2B Branding Ramification:
The specializations of your branding agency matter

B2B companies need to work with branding partners who know their industries as well as they do. For prospects to engage, the value proposition (along with every message that supports it) needs to signal deep knowledge and understanding for industry-specific challenges.

2. B2B has longer buying cycles

Most B2B customer journeys are significantly longer and more complex than consumers’. While an extended consumer journey in retail might span weeks (starting with online browsing, asking around and making a shortlist), the typical buying cycle in B2B can last for months. Three-quarters of B2B new business deals take more than four months to close. In some cases, the process can take years.

B2B Branding Ramification:
Your engagement strategies must have staying power

B2B brands must be rich and deep enough to sustain engagement over extended periods of time. They need to shape a shared journey with their prospects, signaling awareness for where they are in the process and maintaining a helpful cadence of messages and information.

3. B2B purchase decisions are more considered

Many B2C decisions can come down to a gut feeling. But the sheer scale of most B2B purchases demands intense levels of due diligence. Buyers’ decision making involves masses of research, along with deep discussions both within the company and with vendor reps (see differences #4 and #5 below).

Remember, B2B buyers will act on their emotions. Compared to consumers, they’re simply more motivated by feelings of security and confidence in a) their new partner’s understanding for their situation and b) their decision to recommend or approve purchase of the new solution.

B2B Branding Ramification:
As many decision drivers as possible must be unearthed and explored

To connect with prospects deeply enough to inspire feelings of inner safety (a high bar), B2B brands need to invest in rich, meticulously gathered insights—internal and external, qualitative and quantitative. Only by truly understanding people’s thoughts, feelings and decision drivers can B2B brands craft positioning and messaging platforms that speak to their audiences’ specific needs.

DeSantis Breindel recommends research that captures the perspectives of: 

  • Clients
  • Prospects
  • Employees

This insight-gathering can uncover vitally important details about buyers’ pain points, along with their sometimes surprising reasons for choosing one vendor over another. Feeling heard or well-informed by a brand that really “gets it” can be a deciding factor. There are times when rewarding that kind of emotional benefit just feels intuitively right.

These are the moments when your brand shines as a differentiator. No apples-to-apples comparison of services, rates or product specifications can help a B2B brand find its edge over competition in the realm of human instincts or ambitions. If your prospect’s greatest hope is to advance their career by enabling leaps forward for their business, for example, that’s extremely valuable information.

4. B2B engagements rely more on human-to-human relationships

In consumer markets, shoppers can make it to the point of purchase without interacting with anyone from the brand. There aren’t any sales reps in the cereal aisle.

Even with all the digital communications that buyers receive and online platforms they visit, B2B choices are still influenced by months of communication with brand reps. There will be personal conversations, meetings and emails, sometimes with multiple people. The buyer’s rapport with these representatives can make or break the deal.

B2B Branding Ramification:
Employee engagement must bring the brand to life within your people

Employee engagement is mission critical across B2B workforces—from sales and new business staff to customer support, legal, billing and any other internal team that connects with customers. As your ambassadors, they must be trained and inspired to live the brand. Only their authentic engagement with your B2B brand story can bring it to life for prospects and clients.

It’s best to launch employee engagement early, in the research phase. People love when their employers value their perspectives during times of change, as it means their opinions can have a real impact.

Including employees early also positions them to learn about emerging customer insights shaping the rebrand. Later, in their direct interactions with prospects and existing clients, those same workers will be able to speak and respond as if they understand these audiences’ needs because they do.

One way to ensure employees will embrace their new B2B brand is to ground it in a purpose—a greater reason the company exists. Sharing a purpose inspires people in ways that no product attribute can.

Ongoing employee workshops can remind teams of their role in bringing the company’s purpose to life. These can also be incredibly unifying gatherings—moments that transform your brand from a marketing idea to an authentic, lived experience your team can share.

Company-wide surveys and in-person workshops are great ways to launch B2B employee engagement. We recommend emphasizing just how important people’s words, actions and behaviors are to the future of the business. It can be deeply motivating for employees to feel included and hear that their daily choices make a difference.

Over the longer term, companies can schedule regular events, messages or experiences to ensure that every employee:

  • Engages with the brand
  • Understands the needs of prospects and existing customers
  • Feels prepared and comfortable using brand messages in their communications
  • Embodies brand values in every interaction with prospects, current clients and each other

When DeSantis Breindel worked with law firm Lathrop Gage, we built a brand story around the firm’s committed mission to help its clients by “seeing beyond” single legal issues/regulatory matters, conventional thinking and approaches. In post-launch workshops, we asked each employee to envision how they could help clients “see beyond” to elevate their experience.

5. B2B decision making has more layers and engages people at more levels

B2B purchase decisions are rarely, if ever, made by a single person. While one team member may be tasked with compiling an initial shortlist, Harvard Business Review reports that an average of 6.8 people are involved in every purchase of a B2B solution.

B2B decision makers are also likely to come from different teams, and these stakeholders can represent multiple levels at the company. In addition to the department that will actually use the product or service, executive leadership, purchasing and legal will usually have to weigh in, too. The employee who put together the shortlist may be junior while those evaluating it may come from the C-suite.

B2B Branding Ramification:
You need rich messaging platforms and robust content strategies

B2B branding must include powerful, carefully-built content strategies and messaging platforms. The needs of all the audiences within a single prospect must be considered—the brand shaping moments that can captivate a junior staffer and win the confidence of a no-nonsense CFO. It’s no small feat to do that well while remaining consistent as a brand.

Relevant and regular insights, surveys and blog posts can keep you top-of-mind with prospects at every level and throughout the buying cycle. Variety helps, as B2B decision makers are usually buried under pitches and marketing emails. (We love to recommend B2B video content. It offers a refreshing break from reading.)

The key words here are relevant and regular. With understanding for prospects’ needs, the B2B brand can build a thoughtful editorial calendar. The goal is to support decision makers with timely information throughout their journey toward purchase. Stakeholder insights and journey maps can ensure that every message resonates and delivers on brand promises.

In some B2B markets, content will need to get seriously granular. A B2B company may need to provide its sales staff with tailored playbooks for engaging different roles at distinct moments. While working for an economic consulting firm, DeSantis Breindel not only created a generalized messaging platform but six practice area messaging playbooks and two recruiting messaging playbooks!

Content needs can seem overwhelming. But when deep stakeholder insights lead, solutions follow.

The bottom line for B2B brand leaders

Creative agencies like ours take inspiration from every industry, vertical and market—including B2C. We’ve been champions of brand empathy for years; we believe in the power of emotion to drive purchase decisions no matter who the buyer may be.

But when it comes to the B2B world’s unique contexts, sales cycles, relationships and needs, we believe in the B2B brand: its layers, its complexity, its remarkable ability to engage diverse audiences over time and move them toward “Yes.”

Effective B2B branding can position companies as helpful, trusted companions who are committed to enhancing partnerships as they move forward. Every insight gathered becomes a benchmark, whether for customer loyalty or employee engagement. Every experience shapes a new chapter of the business’s shared journey with the people it cares about.

Buyers are human; their feelings matter. Their professional B2B context makes all the difference in how businesses should engage them—to build the valued relationships that will define their shared future.

To learn more about how to connect with audiences and drive value creation with a new B2B brand, contact us.

Originally published on May 28, 2020.

About the author

Anne DeAcetis

Anne DeAcetis is a writer and communications strategist at DeSantis Breindel. She is fascinated by how brands can inspire employees, fortify business partnerships and delight consumers to loyalty—by design.

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