The Four Essential Elements of a Winning B2B Brand Strategy
Analyzing the traits that define successful and effective B2B brand strategies.
Companies rebrand for myriad reasons, and each resulting brand is — or should be — unique. But there are four essential elements shared by winning B2B brand strategies: authenticity, individuality, cohesion, and adaptability.
1. Authenticity: Stay true to your brand foundations
All brand strategy engagements should result in an authentic brand. And brand strategy is not always a revolution — we don’t recommend ripping up and discarding all existing brand elements. If the resulting re-brand is at odds with — or is too distinct from — the heritage brand, then chances are the strategy may not be authentic to the company. A successful brand strategy respects and celebrates the foundations: the brand elements (personality traits, values, voice, etc.) that shape internal and external perceptions of an organization or a product. Research plays a crucial part in protecting and sustaining this authenticity. Material reviews, industry research, internal and external interviews, and interactive workshops are a few tools that push the ensuing brand strategy beyond the surface level, uncovering legacy brand elements that should be retained — those that bond the organization together and set it apart — and those that need to be jettisoned. Pinpointing the heritage elements that merit preservation can help ensure authenticity.
For example, if research reveals that audiences admire an organization’s mission, then this mission should find its way into the brand strategy. Existing brand equity is precious, and you want to preserve any elements that bolster it. That said, an authentic brand strategy still allows for change. Brand strategy carries the brand into a new chapter, so the strategy should refine the foundational brand elements so they support the story the re-brand will tell.
EXL’s brand refresh demonstrates the power of authenticity. Historically, the consulting firm EXL touted its technology offerings, including AI, robotics, and advanced analytics. Yet brand research revealed that clients were most impressed by the company’s people — their expertise, their industry knowledge, and their commitment to client success. The resulting brand strategy is built around the concept of “Digital Intelligence,” the necessary combination of human and machine that results in better outcomes. “Digital” preserves EXL’s technology roots, while “Intelligence” adds a new and differentiated component — a new concept that is nonetheless authentic to what EXL has always been.
2. Individuality: Own your own brand identity
An effective brand strategy not only tells an authentic story, but it also tells a distinctive story. A brand — inclusive of a company’s voice, messaging, and purpose — has to stand out in the marketplace. To craft a distinctive brand strategy, the brand needs to avoid concentrating on industry table stakes. Table stakes can’t be ignored: if a data science company doesn’t message around data security, its audiences will understandably question whether or not to entrust their IP to the company. But if a brand is focused on table stakes and table stakes alone, it’s stuck in an echo chamber, essentially indistinguishable from the other players in the space. For a brand to separate itself from the pack, it has to move beyond the required messages and take ownership of its differentiators. So during our research phase, we take care to identify a handful of elements that authentically set a company apart and potentially help it overcome the issues it faces.
Stephens, a leading financial services firm, competes in a market increasingly defined by messaging uniformity. To combat this sea of sameness, the Stephens brand is built on the idea of independence, a compelling message that focuses on the firm’s independence from Wall Street’s herd mentality. While competitors try, unsuccessfully, to distinguish themselves by promoting overused concepts like “client-centricity” and “transparency,” Stephens stands apart by promoting a spirit of independence — an independence that enables them to spot opportunities other firms overlook. In short, a successful brand strategy builds a brand that’s a circle in a world of squares — a brand that audiences easily, intuitively recognize as different from and above the rest.
3. Cohesion: Unite under one brand
B2B decisions are complex, involving many decision makers and influencers with differing needs and priorities. What an IT team homes in on might differ from what the sales team prioritizes. What the executive team wants from the brand might vary from what new recruits are looking for from the brand. A winning B2B brand strategy, then, unifies these varying threads: it speaks to all decision makers and influencers. But to adequately address their nuanced concerns, a successful brand strategy must also be supported by targeted, specific messaging to address these wants and needs.
Corporate brands often encompass multiple offerings, and at times, these offerings are diverse in nature. An asset manager, for example, might have a suite of offerings for institutional investors, and another for individuals. While the institutional investor might focus on the manager’s investment process, the individual investor might focus on fees. The brand needs to embrace both, essentially identifying the DNA that runs through everything a company does for all of its audiences. It should clearly articulate the what, the how, and the why that unifies each and every offering. And again, messaging is crucial: an all-encompassing brand strategy should be supported by nuanced messages that directly talk to the diverse audiences for the diverse offerings.
An effective brand strategy must appeal to internal as well as external audiences. For a B2B brand to succeed, employees must buy into it. They need to rally around a defined purpose and identity. Employees engaged around a brand are motivated employees, and this creates results. The challenge is to find a brand that resonates with clients as well as employees (supported by different messaging, of course).
For context, let’s look at PGIM Real Estate. We partnered with this global real estate platform to create a brand built around innovation, the company’s demonstrated ability to structure and market first-of-their-kind investments. Research showed that this was a message that the marketplace longed to hear. But research also revealed that employees didn’t view their company as particularly innovative, despite a track record of many “firsts” in the industry. The brand had no hope of success unless employees bought in to it. So, we launched the new brand with an internal town hall, in which the CEO, supported by a brand video, drove home the innovation message. A follow-up campaign targeting the company’s global workforce effectively converted employees into ambassadors for the new innovation brand.
4. Adaptability: Build a brand that works for today and tomorrow
Successful companies don’t stand still. They launch, acquire, merge, expand. Successful products are always improving, too. And successful brands need to be able to change with the product or company they represent. When beginning a branding assignment, we always talk to senior management about their vision for the future, because we want to create brands that can take them where they want to go without significant alteration.
Several years ago, we developed a new brand for one of the world’s largest executive search firms. The brand was built around the concept of “True Partners.” Our client, unlike many of its competitors, was a private partnership, so its professionals are “true partners” in the success of the firm. This makes them zealous in ensuring that their clients are positioned for success — “true partners” in identifying the talent they need to outperform. Following the brand launch, the firm acquired new businesses that moved it into different, but adjacent, areas. Fortunately, in building the brand, we had developed messaging to support solutions beyond executive search; as “true partners,” the firm didn’t merely find talent for clients — it helped to develop and assess talent. With only a bit of fine-tuning, the brand has continued to support a much more diverse organization.
Authenticity, individuality, cohesion, and adaptability: achieve these elements, and the brand strategy is primed for enduring success. At every stage in the development process, it’s vital to step back and assess whether these elements are coming through. Is the research uncovering what makes you authentic and different? Does your language resonate with all audiences, internal and external? Will your strategy and design take the company through anticipated (and unanticipated) changes? By keeping these targets in focus from the start, the chances of a successful brand launch are exponentially increased.
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