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

B2B branding: What is it? How is it different than B2C branding? And why does your company need it?

B2B branding is the strategic effort to create a memorable, differentiated identity for your company in the business-to-business marketplace—enhancing perceptions and relationships by meeting the needs of other businesses and the people who work for them. Through carefully targeted messaging, visuals and experiences, a strong B2B brand communicates its value throughout extended sales cycles—building affinity and loyalty.

Easy digital access to information has changed the B2B marketing landscape, raising customer expectations for the buying process. As such, B2B brands have had to adopt more sophisticated, personalized sales 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 worlds of business and consumer branding.

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 quite nuanced and detailed. And contrary to much conventional wisdom, successful B2B messages, like their B2C counterparts, must resonate on emotional as well as cognitive levels.

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 branding—or even ignore branding altogether. Companies behave this way at their peril, however. In reality, B2B and B2C aren’t polar opposites. Savvy, emotionally appealing branding isn’t only for the consumer world, even though it may be leveraged very differently in B2B contexts.

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 human beings. They can’t simply switch off their emotions, which 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 appeals to people at work also appeals to them 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 a decision in the moment: a gut feeling, an intrinsic attraction, a childhood nostalgia. Think about lifelong users of Jin 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 in the B2B world is something more considered and relationship-based. B2B buyers still want to feel assured and empowered by their purchase decision. It’s not just about dollars and cents, or nuts and bolts.

Building a successful B2B brand is therefore about communicating 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 for 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, marketing must help your buyer connect that service to personal daily benefits like:

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

An approachable new brand personality can set the stage for relationships grounded in these types of personal benefits. In DeSantis Breindel’s work for Thornton Tomasetti, a global structural engineering firm, we differentiated and humanized the company by basing their new brand personality on the team’s love of a good challenge—something their clients share. 

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

Most B2B customer journeys are significantly longer and more complex than those in the consumer realm. While a long customer journey in retail may span weeks (starting with online browsing, asking around and making a shortlist), the buying cycle in B2B can last months or even years. In fact, three-quarters of B2B new business deals take more than four months to close.

2. B2B companies’ decision making has more layers

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.

B2B decision makers are also likely to come from different teams. In addition to the department that will use the product, executive leadership, purchasing and legal will often weigh in. Additionally, these stakeholders often have 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 all B2B decisions are 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 well-informed by—a vendor who develops trust and understands their challenges.

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 the brand. There aren’t any sales reps in the cereal aisle!

However, because of the scale of B2B purchases and the length of B2B buying 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. And 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, while making significant investments in persona development and targeted ads, ultimately speak to much larger audiences. A fast-fashion retailer’s target audience might be “upwardly mobile women between the ages of 18 and 35.” But that pool of potential buyers is still much larger than that for, say, a cargo ship.

6. B2B employee engagement is mission-critical

Employee engagement is important in all markets. But it’s especially critical in B2B realms, where relationships are arguably more crucial for driving sales than advertising. Sales and new business staff are the first we think about when we talk of employees “living the brand.” But over the course of a client’s lifecycle with a company, they will interact not only with sales but with people who work in customer support, legal, billing and more. 

As such, it is vitally important that all employees at a B2B company are:

  • Engaged with the brand
  • Able to channel the company’s corporate messaging
  • Empowered to speak about the brand and embody it in relationships 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. They must prepare to engage every layer of B2B purchase decision making over extended periods of time.

1. Research-driven B2B brand strategy

Impactful B2B branding relies on meticulously gathered insights—internal and external, qualitative and quantitative. B2B brands have to speak convincingly and compellingly about their clients’ specialized needs, and it will take work to discover and analyze them. 

To develop a positioning statement and communications strategy that accomplishes this, DeSantis Breindel recommends research that captures the perspectives of: 

  • Clients
  • Prospects
  • 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 new B2B brand strategies.

2. Robust messaging platforms

Because B2B buying decisions are more considered and discussed than those typically made by the average consumer, messaging platforms in B2B markets need to get far more granular than those in B2C. While there should be a primary, high-level messaging framework, a B2B company will also need more tailored playbooks for certain roles, audiences and situations. 

Consistency is simply needed across far more contexts in the B2B world. 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. Engaging content strategy

A vital corollary of B2B corporate messaging is a powerful content strategy. Relevant and regular insights, surveys and blog posts can keep you top-of-mind with prospective clients through extended buying cycles. Variety extends empathy to stakeholders who are buried under marketing pitches; B2B video content can offer a refreshing break from reading.

However, the key terms here are relevant and regular. A brand-centered content strategy and thoughtful editorial calendar (designed to support the journey toward the purchase decision) can deliver the high-impact, high-frequency pieces that demonstrate value to clients and prospects.

4. Inspiring employee engagement and training

In B2B, rallying employees around your brand isn’t a nice-to-have; it’s a need-to-have. Employees 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 routines. Even simply handing them a messaging playbook won’t guarantee they’ll know how to use it. Instead, you must take an active role in getting your teams excited to live the brand through their actions and communications.

It’s ideal to begin B2B employee engagement efforts early, in the research phase, so teams can feel like their opinions have been incorporated into the 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 ensure the brand is embraced by employees is to ground it in a purpose—a greater reason the company exists to help external audiences. When a brand is framed this way, it’s easier for employees to not only buy into an inspiring mission but to imagine how they would talk about the brand to prospects and partners. 

At launch, and on an ongoing basis, purpose-oriented employee engagement workshops can help teams understand their role in bringing the company’s purpose to life. For example, 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. Post-launch workshops asked employees to envision the ways their diverse roles might help clients “see beyond” in order to leverage stronger solutions.

In conclusion, 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 personal benefits of a product or service, born of empathy for each audience’s challenges. And it positions the company as a trusted, helpful companion on the long, winding road to purchase, prepared to engage and support employees at every level within the organization.

To build a strong and successful B2B brand, companies must tap into both the emotional needs of working professionals and the specific nuances of their industries. And for B2B brands especially, employees must be inspired to understand, communicate and live the brand.

To learn more about how to address the unique branding needs of your B2B market, contact us.

Originally published on May 28, 2020.

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