B2B Branding: Why the B2C Playbook Won’t Always Cut It
B2B’s layered, lengthy, and relationship-driven buying cycle places unique demands on the company’s brand.
B2B branding: what is it? How is it different than B2C branding? And why does your company need it?
Easy digital access to information has changed the business-to-business marketing landscape, raising customer expectations for the buying process. As such, B2B brands have had to adopt more sophisticated, personalized tactics, leading some to announce that B2C and B2B marketing are blurring.
However, while it’s true that B2B marketing has taken on a different tenor in recent years, significant differences remain between the business and consumer branding worlds. B2B branding is often more targeted and more personalized, appealing to the specific needs and expectations of different decision makers at different times in the decision-making process. B2B brands must allow for greater flexibility in the underlying messaging that supports them, because each decision maker and influencer will have different criteria and biases. Like B2C brands, however, the B2B brand must convey a top-level value proposition succinctly and with impact, even if supporting messaging is nuanced and even quite detailed. And contrary to much conventional wisdom, successful B2B, like their B2C counterparts, must resonate on an emotional as well as cognitive level.
Misconceptions about B2B branding
Ours is a society that privileges binary logics: black and white, pro and con, true or false. However, in branding — as in most things — “reality” often lies somewhere along a spectrum. When reading thought leadership about the differences between B2B and B2C branding, we often see them portrayed 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 are limited to professional roles; B2C personas focus on personal lives
Thinking this way often results in B2B corporate cultures that value sales above brand — or even ignore brand altogether. Companies do this at their peril, however, because in reality, B2B and B2C aren’t polar opposites. Savvy, emotionally appealing branding isn’t only for the consumer world.
B2C and B2B branding: Both built on emotion
Perhaps the largest misconception about the B2B marketplace is that it’s dry and emotionless. This just isn’t true! At the end of the day, B2B buyers are humans. They can’t simply switch off their emotional side; it will always creep into decision-making, even if subconsciously. Furthermore, for better or worse, the work/life divide is becoming more blurred every day. What helps at work, helps at home. There’s no profiling someone purely by their job title.
As such, emotion matters in B2B branding. A lot. In B2C branding, we frequently think of emotion as something that sways decision in the moment: a gut feeling, an intrinsic attraction, a childhood nostalgia. Think about lifelong users of JIF peanut butter or “Love: it’s what makes a Subaru a Subaru.”
Emotions don’t typically work this way in B2B branding, but that doesn’t mean they’re not important. Instead, emotion is something more considered and relationship-based. B2B buyers still want to feel assured and empowered by their purchase decision. It’s not just dollars and cents, or nuts and bolts. Building a successful B2B brand is about communicating the functional and emotional benefits of a product or service. Yes, your software may be a cutting-edge innovation, but what does that mean for your customer? For their customer? More productivity, more job satisfaction, more financial security. Yes, you may offer an unprecedented level of support, but what does that mean for your buyer? Less stress, more uninterrupted hours, more time for truly transformative work.
Meaningful differences between B2C and B2B marketplaces
With the caveat that successful B2B branding, like B2C branding, is grounded in emotion, there are important ways that the two marketplaces and approaches to them differ.
1. B2B has longer buying cycles than B2C
As previously noted, most B2B customer journeys are significantly longer and more convoluted than those in the consumer realm. While a long customer journey in retail may be a matter of weeks (browsing online, asking around, making a short list), the buying cycle in B2B can be months or even years. In fact, three-quarters of B2B new business deals take more than four months to close.
2. B2B companies have many layers of decision making
Part of the hold up in the B2B purchase cycle is that decisions are rarely made by a single person. Many players must be swayed for a company to make a larger (or even small) expenditure. Although an individual may be tasked with compiling an initial shortlist, Harvard Business Review reports that an average of 6.8 people are involved in B2B solutions purchases. These people are likely to come from different departments — in addition to the department that will actually use the product, executive leadership, purchasing, and legal are often brought in. Additionally, they’re from different levels of experience. While the employee who puts together the shortlist may be relatively junior, those who are evaluating it may come from the C-suite.
3. B2B purchase decisions are more considered
Many B2C decisions come down to a gut feeling, but this isn’t completely the case in B2B. In this space, decisions are highly researched and discussed. This isn’t to say that decisions totally logical, but the emotions that guide them are informed by months of comparison and conversations. A B2B purchase is less about a subconscious attraction and more about the feelings of empowerment and security that come from being engaged with and informed by a vendor.
4. B2B engagements rely on human-to-human relationships
In consumer markets, shoppers can frequently make it to the point of purchase without directly interacting with anyone from a brand. There aren’t any sales reps in the cereal aisle! However, because of the scale of B2B purchases and the length of B2B buy cycles, human-to-human relationships are paramount in B2B branding. A buyer’s rapport with the representatives of a potential vendor can make or break the engagement. What’s more, such points of contact are not a one-time thing; in a six-month-long journey to purchase, a prospective client will have multiple conversations, meetings, and emails with multiple representatives of a B2B solutions provider.
5. B2B targets precisely; B2C casts a wider net
While it’s true that B2B brands must be able to communicate benefits to multiple kinds of stakeholders, they do have the benefit (or challenge) of speaking to a comparatively narrow audience. Many B2B companies offer fairly specialized solutions. Think: digital authentication for highly regulated industries or accreditation for business schools. Consumer brands, although making significant investments in persona development and targeted ads, are ultimately speaking to much larger audiences. A fast-fashion retailer’s addressable audience might be something like: upwardly-mobile women between the ages of 18 and 35. That pool of potential buyers is still much larger than those for, say, a cargo ship.
6. B2B employee engagement is mission critical
As such, it is vitally important that all employees at a B2B company are engaged with the brand and empowered to speak about it to clients. Employee engagement is important in all markets, but especially so in B2B, where relationships are equally, if not more, crucial to sales than advertising. Of course sales and new business staff are the first we think about when we talk about “living the brand,” but over the course of a client’s lifecycle with a company, they will interact not only with them, but with employees from support, legal, billing, and more. Each member of a B2B team should be able to channel the company’s corporate messaging into communications with clients.
B2B Branding: How It Meets Its Unique Objectives
Because the B2B marketplace has significant differences from its B2C counterpart, so too does B2B branding. While consumer marketing is often about standing out on a shelf or onscreen, B2B branding needs to incorporate a more robust behind-the-scenes communications strategy. This means agencies must draw from research to create powerful and tailored messaging, sales empowerment tools, content programs, and employee engagement initiatives.
1. Research-driven B2B brand strategy
Impactful B2B branding relies on research — internal and external, qualitative and quantitative. B2B brands have to speak convincingly and compellingly about their clients’ specialized needs. To develop a positioning statement and communications strategy that accomplishes this, DeSantis Breindel recommends thorough research that captures the perspectives of clients, prospects, and employees. In addition to uncovering important insights about purchase drivers and pain points, research also provides important benchmarks in an increasingly metrics-obsessed climate. By comparing follow-up surveys and interviews with previous results, companies can begin to gauge the effectiveness of their marketing tactics.
2. Robust messaging platforms
Because B2B buying decisions are more considered and discussed than those typically made by the average consumer, messaging platforms in these markets need to get far more granular than those in B2C. While there should be a primary, high-level messaging framework, it should also be extended into more tailored playbooks for certain roles, audiences, and issues. For example, while working for an economic consulting firm, DeSantis Breindel created not only a generalized messaging platform, but also six practice-area messaging playbooks and two recruiting messaging playbooks.
3. Content strategy
A vital corollary of B2B corporate messaging is a powerful content strategy. Since the B2B buying process is so lengthy, relevant and regular insights, surveys, and blog posts can keep you top-of-mind with prospective clients. However, the key terms here are relevant and regular. A brand-centered content strategy and a consensus-built editorial calendar will result in the high-impact, high-frequency pieces that demonstrate value to clients and prospects.
4. Employee engagement and training
In B2B, rallying employees around your brand isn’t a nice-to-have; it’s a need-to-have. They are one of the most important channels through which prospects and customers will experience your message. However, you can’t expect employees — especially those outside of sales and marketing — to effortlessly “absorb” brand pillars into their day-to-day routine. Even simply handing them a messaging playbook won’t guarantee they know how to use it. Instead, you must take an active role getting them excited about and empowered to fold brand into their own actions and communications.
It’s ideal to begin this early, in the research phase, so employees feel like their opinions have been incorporated in your brand. Company-wide surveys are a start, but in-person workshops are an even more personal way to involve employees in the branding process—as well as to generate insights for brand strategy.
One way to assure the brand is embraced by employees is to ground it in a purpose — the reason the company exists for external audiences. When a brand is framed this way, it’s easier for employees to not only buy in to an inspiring mission, but to imagine how they would talk about the brand to prospects and partners. At launch, and in ongoing workshops, purpose-oriented employee engagement workshops can help team members understand their role in bringing the company’s purpose to life. For example, when DeSantis Breindel worked with law firm Lathrop Gage, post-launch workshops asked employees to envision the ways their diverse roles helped clients “see beyond” a single legal issue in order to leverage solutions to help grow a stronger business.
B2B branding is indeed different than B2C branding — but not in the way that many think. Rather than being dry and spec-focused, the best B2B branding vibrantly communicates the benefits of a product or service. To do so, successful B2B brands tap into both the emotional need state of working professionals and the specific nuances of their industry. And B2B brands, in contrast to their B2C counterparts, only succeed when employees are inspired to understand them, communicate them, and live them.
To learn about how to address the unique branding needs of your B2B market, contact us.
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