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What is brand experience? Yashumi Kasumi, Innovation and Creative Manager at IKEA, says,“A brand experience resembles the experiences you have with the people in your life…[it is] literally everything you have seen and heard — or even felt or smelt or tasted — about a brand.” This reflects a shift in the meaning of the term. Where it once described discrete events or activations, today it’s a “360 degree” experience.

Holistic impressions are increasingly important to today’s B2B buyers:

  • In 2017, 90 percent of B2B customer experience (CX) professionals predicted that buyer expectations would increase by 2020.
  • McKinsey reports that up to 80 percent of “word of mouth” marketing stems from customers’ experiences—which are often negative.
  • A SiriusDecisions report found that 80 percent of B2B buyers cited customer experience was the most significant reason they chose to work with a specific provider over another.

Thinking holistically about brand experience means examining all touchpoints — not simply those that happen at point of sale or point of service. It’s digital world, and B2B brands are increasingly digital. However, some B2B brands have stalled when it comes to creating the stellar digital experiences expected by clients and prospects. Now more than ever, B2B companies must build digital platforms that provide the personality, sensory engagement, personalization, and speed that contribute to an overall excellent brand experience.

Going beyond generic online B2B brand experiences

When you think about a “corporate” website, what do you picture? Too often it’s something a bit stuffy: text-heavy and imagery-light, bland and poorly organized. The text is bloated, full of buzzwords and industry acronyms. The graphics are likely minimal — and probably blue. Photography is generic and probably stock: smiling, attractive professionals who could work anywhere, for any company.

These sites are boring and uninspiring, yes. But more importantly, what is this kind of online brand experience saying about a company? Whether the site’s visitors are conscious of it or not, they’re getting the message that this potential partner is slow to change, technologically-challenged, and — worst of all — uninterested in its customers’ experience. For most companies, this isn’t reflective of the actual experience of working with the company. So how can their online platforms better reflect their values, strengths, and commitments to clients?

Imperatives for digital B2B brand experiences

There are five critical pillars of effective digital brand experiences:

1. Don’t be afraid to have a personality

A website is a great place for brand storytelling. It can be explicit — corporate histories and brand manifestos — but it can also be subtle. If the brand were a person, what words would it use? How would it talk? We frequently see companies develop a brand voice and writing guidelines, but only implement them on high-profile pages. This inconsistency produces a negative brand experience. It’s jarring for visitors, and puts questions in their heads about the authentic company culture. So make sure to train all content-creating employees to infuse the brand voice in all externally facing communications.

Online content strategy can also help a brand’s human side shine through. The topics and tone will contribute to the digital brand experience. Does the company publish formal white papers? Or is it more of a culture of bloggers and influencers? Does it focus on research? Or provide educational or documentary content? For example, Stephens, an investment bank, has produced an online film campaign called “This is Capitalism” that profiles historical pioneers in American business.

2. Evoke the senses

Websites and apps may seem like purely visual media. However, to build a rich brand experience, companies must consider how they can evoke multiple senses on screen. This includes investing in differentiating visual design systems and custom photography, and also thinking about ways to incorporate film, audio, and even touch. Video can bring the company’s in-person, on-the-ground experience to life for prospective clients. For example, in a campaign called “GE Brings the World to Work,” GE asked its employees to film highlights from their day-to-day work. GE edited the footage and set it to music, but the series authentically and compellingly captures a slice of life in a GE facility. B2B companies with mobile apps may also consider how haptics — effects related to touch — could enhance the user experience.

While not one of the official five senses, a sense of direction is also a big part of a customer’s brand experience. When visitors are confused by a site’s architecture or navigation, their satisfaction plummets. Frustration, confusion, irritation: these are not feelings companies want associated with their brands. User experience (UX) research can help determine how audiences prefer to navigate the content, providing a more seamless experience.

3. Personalize online brand experiences

Personalization is the art of using behavioral research to tailor a user’s experience with a brand; it is the “holy grail” of online marketing. McKinsey reports that personalization can reduce acquisition costs by as much as 50 percent and lift revenues by 5 to 15 percent. As pointed out by Walker Information, because of B2B markets’ high-touch, relationship-based sales cycle, B2B companies have always had a powerful capacity to personalize brand experience. But now, with the prevalence of independent online buyer research and e-commerce options, some online customer journeys seem less personal than ever. How can we marry the digital and the personal?

Here’s where data comes in. Although it requires a significant investment in research (quantitative and qualitative), developing an intimate understanding of your customers’ journey will allow you to design the platforms and create the content that reach them where they are, when they want it. Keep in mind, however, there is no “average customer.” No business has a single customer journey; audiences have segments (and microsegments) that may have very different desires, motivations, and experiences. A good digital experience project will focus on several customer personas and design several corresponding customer journeys.

At its simplest, digital personalization may mean creating highly relevant online content, advertising on your audiences’ favorite pages, or organizing your website’s pages by vertical or role. However personalization is getting more and more granular. Corporate sites may remember a user’s preferences and display content accordingly. AI, robotics, and machine learning enable personalized tools such as product recommendation quizzes and chatbots, mimicking the in-person experience.

However, in all your technological implementation, don’t forget the enduring value of real human interaction. It doesn’t need to be face-to-face, and it may not need to be as frequent as it once was, but direct contact between a sales rep and a prospect is still a reliable high point in the path to purchase.

4. Simplify brand and product portfolios

For today’s time-pressed B2B buyers, an ideal brand experience is one that is quick and easy. Websites and apps go a long way to make this a reality, but they sometimes fail when legacy portfolio models make buyer research seem like entering a maze. While face-to-face sales presentations may have given reps the opportunity to help prospects navigate a complex portfolio of sub-brands and product names, these offerings can be confusing to potential clients conducting web research.

Platforms, bundles, and descriptive naming can go a long way to clarify things for customers. In addition to simplifying site navigation, these strategies emphasize services over products and better accommodate incremental innovation.

5. Use discretion

Sometimes the most technology-savvy decision for your brand experience is to not develop a technology at all. When a new digital innovation hits the market, enthusiastic companies often rush to tap into it for themselves. However, not every bell and whistle is appropriate for every B2B brand. Mobile apps represent a prime example. Many firms rushed to develop one, and many firms found them largely unutilized. But really, how appropriate are apps for B2B markets? They may be useful those with an e-commerce component, but why would a professional services firm design an app? What would be its effect on the brand experience? This isn’t to suggest there aren’t professional services apps that do have value — it just means you should find yours before investing in one. A relevant new digital channel can make a customer’s experience richer, demonstrating customer-centricity and innovation. However, an irrelevant offering, or worse, an inappropriate one, may actually lower client satisfaction and make a company look less technologically sophisticated.

It’s clear that B2B companies can’t afford to offer a lackluster digital brand experience. As brick-and-mortar, face-to-face brand interactions become less frequent, marketers and technologists must work together to create online experiences that are personal, compelling, and relevant for client and prospects. Websites and apps are convenient, yes, but they have the opportunity to be much more. They can be powerful platforms for creative storytelling and engaging design that supports a company’s higher-order messages.

For more about digital brand experience, contact us.

About the author

Hannah Foltz

Hannah Foltz is a Senior Strategist at DeSantis Breindel. When she isn’t stuck on the L train, she is diving into research and helping develop positioning and messaging platforms for B2B companies.

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