To be successful, B2B brands must tell stories that engage customers, influence prospects, rally employees, inspire investors and build communities. With digital channels playing an ever-growing role in B2B marketing, these stories are shared at an increasing, more perpetual pace. Given that, it’s more important then ever for B2B brands to be communicating the right messages to customers and prospects. With all the noise in the digisphere, messaging must be meaningful and compelling to resonate with B2B buyers. Yet, a recent McKinsey survey found that B2B firms and their customers are not always on the same page: there is “a marked apparent divergence between the core messages that companies communicate about their brands and the characteristics their customers value the most.” B2B companies are talking, but how often do they listen?

In a surprising finding, the McKinsey survey shows that B2B messaging is often misaligned with customer’s expectations or needs. While the most important theme to buyers is that a company “cares about honest, open dialogue with its customers and society,” zero percent of firms surveyed by McKinsey stated an affiliation with the theme of honesty and open dialogue.

Why is this happening? It could be that companies are paying closer attention to their peers than their customers. McKinsey’s survey showed “the prevalence of similar messages”: as indicated in the chart above, most brands emphasize analogous themes, “suggesting a tendency to follow the herd rather than create strongly differentiated messages.” It’s an easy trap to fall into – especially without the right information. External research, whether through individual interviews, focus groups or quantitative online surveys, is critical to truly understanding customer needs and expectations, and to validate key messaging.

It’s important to note that although some messages may not be important to external audiences, they may be incredibly important for internal audiences. For example, the McKinsey survey found that customers were not very affected by CSR, however, CSR is certainly of value to employees: according to a PwC survey, 59% of Generation Y participants “said they had or would seek out an employer whose corporate values matched their own, and 56% said they would consider leaving an employer who no longer met their [CSR and sustainability] expectations” – and PwC expects that this number will rise as the economy improves. Thus, for many firms, CSR messaging is most effective when geared towards employees.

In developing brand messaging, audience awareness is vital. Instead of emulating competitors, brands must pay attention to the needs of their customers, and then develop messaging that addresses those needs while showcasing the firm’s unique value proposition. Take a look at McKinsey’s survey here.