B2B Brand Positioning: Five Big Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them
There are many ways B2B brand positioning can go wrong. Here’s how to do it right.
Brand positioning. It’s a concept pioneered by branding legends Jack Trout and Al Ries in the 1960s that has since become the essential foundation upon which all of an organization’s marketing is based —from print campaigns to digital engagement, sales outreach to recruitment efforts, content strategy to customer journey mapping. Defined as the essential story behind a company, brand positioning serves as a starting point for consistent, focused, and differentiated communications and outreach. When executed properly, brand positioning extends beyond marketing to influence everything a company says and does, from recruiting tactics to innovation strategies to the type of technology it invests in.
B2B Brand Positioning Pitfall #1: Rushing the research
Research is fundamental to the success of any B2B brand positioning project, shedding light on employee, customer, and marketplace perceptions to reveal the ideas, attributes, and differentiators that can form the basis of a truly distinctive brand. But far too often, we encounter organizations cutting short the research phase of a project or eliminating essential research components altogether.
From budget constraints to timeline considerations to mistaken assumptions that internal stakeholders already have the information they need to correctly position the company, there are a number of reasons B2B organizations decide skimp on research. However, a comprehensive research effort is the single most important contributor to a powerful B2B brand positioning strategy. Not only does research often challenge or even contradict existing assumptions, it’s also the only way to unearth the details and nuances that can transform high-level, run-of-the-mill ideas into truly differentiated brand positioning concepts.
While there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to research, in our experience, the most effective brand ideas are built on a rich assortment of research findings that together tell a complete story of the company and the role it plays in the world: internal perceptions combined with external perspectives, qualitative insights accompanied by quantitative data, and in-depth competitive analysis supported by a broader breakdown of industry trends.
B2B Brand Positioning Pitfall #2: Blending in rather than breaking out
One of the most common discussions we have with our clients revolves around what it means to have a differentiated brand positioning strategy. In general, brands that set themselves apart prioritize the intangible over the tangible, the emotional over the functional, and the “why” over the “what.” This is what differentiates the Disneys, the Nikes, and the Apples from all the rest — and it’s no different in the B2B world.
But we often come across B2B brand positioning concepts that are based on what an organization does or has — in other words, on the services, capabilities, features, and functionalities it has to offer — rather than on its deeper purpose or the fundamental benefit it provides to its customers. This tendency is particularly prevalent in the B2B tech industry, where the race to get ahead by being the first to launch the next cutting-edge capability can creep into top-level positioning at the expense of more resonant messaging.
Branding around the “what” is often the easiest or most logical approach, but functional positioning isn’t conducive to the emotional connection that can lead to an increase in sales and loyalty — it also makes brand differentiation incredibly difficult. Capabilities generally tend to be very similar within any given competitive set, which is why you often see me-too messaging within specific industries where functional branding is prevalent. Differences in capabilities or services are often too insignificant to warrant representation at the highest level of the brand, and even when there are more significant differences, the competition is bound to catch up at some point.
Research is critical for uncovering the more substantive story beneath surface-level capabilities and services. Additionally, effectively switching to more customer-centric, purpose-driven B2B brand messaging may require an employee training for what some may consider to be a major – and potentially uncomfortable – shift.
We often encounter individuals or teams who think taglines and B2B brand positioning strategies are one and the same, but a tagline does not a brand positioning strategy make. While a tagline can be great shorthand for a brand positioning strategy and play a significant role in rallying an organization around a single brand idea, on its own its not sufficient for building widespread brand awareness and recognition.
In the best brands, the direction and spirit of the positioning strategy comes through in everything the organization says and does, and a tagline is just one of many brand expressions. It should be supported by more substantial and detailed verbal strategy components like a positioning statement and audience messaging. Even more critically, it needs to be accompanied by experiential elements that make the brand real for internal and external audiences.
The biggest danger in equating a tagline with a brand positioning strategy is overlooking components that bring a brand to life, including thought leadership programs, sales and customer experience strategies, and employee and culture initiatives. For a brand to effectively change perceptions, the positioning strategy needs to be apparent in everything an organization says and does. But organizations that don’t think beyond foundational verbal elements like taglines may pay for it down the line.
In the best B2B brands, the brand positioning strategy comes through clearly in all marketing initiatives, informing everything from advertising to events, content marketing to social strategy, elevator pitches to pitch presentations. Whether browsing a company website or visiting a exhibit at a trade show, the brand should come through clearly, no matter the touch point. Effectively carrying through a brand positioning strategy across multiple formats and channels requires careful consideration to strike the right balance between remaining consistent and staying fresh and interesting. We work with our clients to proactively develop comprehensive brand activation and marketing strategies to ensure the brand positioning lives beyond the tagline.
B2B Brand Positioning Pitfall #4: Underestimating the power of employees
If we’ve said it once, we’ve said it 1,000 times: B2B brands are built from the inside out. Given the emphasis on personal relationships and intellectual capital in the B2B world, employee engagement is fundamental to any effective B2B brand positioning strategy. For brand to be successful, employees must grasp and understand the strategy and also have the drive to “live the brand” and spread the word to clients, prospects, and beyond.
In other words, employees should be an organization’s most ardent brand ambassadors. In the best-case scenario, overlooking employee brand engagement efforts may simply mean missing out on an opportunity to organically amplify branding efforts and drive greater brand awareness. In the worst-case scenario, it can mean unintentionally breeding skepticism of or even disillusionment with the brand amongst the stakeholders most critical to its success.
When working with clients, we employ a range of tactics to rally employees around a brand, including in-depth workshops that provide education on the rationale behind the brand and tactics for incorporating it into day to-day work. We also develop internal-facing brand tools, like brand guidelines and messaging frameworks, that serve as quick and easy references to help employees embrace the brand positioning. However, the most effective way to create employee enthusiasm around a brand positioning strategy is by making it real for them by updating and adjusting elements of the employee and customer experience to better align to the brand.
B2B Brand Positioning Pitfall #5: Setting it and forgetting it
Another common branding mistake we see is organizations making a significant initial investment in brand positioning only to let it go stale. Oftentimes this takes place over the course of years, but sometimes we see it happen much sooner. A brand positioning strategy may no longer resonate as strongly as it should not because it needs be overhauled. Rather, it’s often simply that it has been neglected and needs to be injected with new life or slightly adjusted given changes in the business or in the marketplace.
We would never suggest that organizations plan to completely changing their brand positioning strategies every few years. However, we do recommend thinking about brand as a dynamic entity – almost like a living thing – that requires continual monitoring, nourishment, and, sometimes, adjustment.
One key way to make this happen is to “think beyond the launch” and take the necessary steps invest in brand-related marketing activities over the long-term, well after the brand positioning concept has been introduced. While the core tenets of a B2B brand positioning concept should remain relatively evergreen, to keep the interest of important audiences they should be brought to life in new and interesting ways across all marketing channels. This can mean engaging in regular advertising campaigns highlighting different elements of the brand positioning or investing in new customer experience initiatives that continue to add depth and dimension to the brand.
Additionally, once a brand has been established, it should be continually evaluated to determine the extent to which it has taken hold and uncover opportunities for refinement, if any. Regularly conducting brand studies measuring internal and external perceptions will ensure that you understand where the brand positioning stands and can take the necessary steps to ensure that it’s as resonant and effective as possible.
While it there are many ways B2B brand positioning can go wrong, avoiding these common pitfalls will help ensure you get it right. You’ll know that you’ve been successful when you see a positive impact on customer and employee engagement — and on the bottom line.
To learn more about brand positioning, contact us.
About the author Julia is a Senior Strategist at DeSantis Breindel. She draws on a combination of analytical and creative skills to help organizations build strong brands that help them make forge powerful connections with their audiences.
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