Four trends in B2B marketing that make branding more important than ever
B2B buyers are more sophisticated than ever. They have access to a wealth of information about every solution to every challenge their business may be facing. Many technology solutions make switching vendors simple — if not entirely painless. Strategically minded and budget-conscious, prospects are juggling decision criteria and competing interests in ever-changing ways.
For a B2B brand trying to get a buyer’s attention, this means fighting in an increasingly crowded headspace and an increasingly crowded market. Breaking through demands more than just a list of features and specs — you need to capture the imagination. A customer must be able to picture the impact an offering will have on their business. It’s the job of a strong brand to ensure that this picture lasts when they walk out of the room (both physical and virtual) or when they click off the company website.
In our more than 20 years of B2B branding experience, we’ve seen the landscape change. Not only are buyers more sophisticated, but across industries, marketers are innovating how, when, and where they connect with prospects and build relationships with customers. In this dynamic and exciting landscape, it is important to stay up to date on the factors influencing brand building, and not just in the B2B space. Here are three major factors influencing B2B marketing. These trends illustrate why it is more important than ever for B2B organizations to build compelling brands that respond to and leverage the opportunities of the modern marketing landscape.
1. Technology and social media can amplify or dilute your story. Handle with care.
Any branding agency worth its salt will tell you that you need to develop a clear, authentic, and differentiated brand story. This was true well before the influx of technology or social media and makes up the core of what we do.
The process for defining a brand story looks something like this: talk to company leadership, employees, a few clients, maybe a couple of prospects, review current materials, and then filter that research through a branding lens to alight on a unique and compelling story. Conceptually, this process remains largely unchanged, though there have been several significant shifts based on modern communication mechanisms.
Social data can give valuable, but incomplete, insight.
Brand marketers may now have access to a wealth of direct customer feedback via social networks. Product reviews, message boards, social engagement, Glassdoor, and more give insight into the interests and mindset of current customers. In marketing research, customer insight is a holy grail. Understanding what they want, why they purchase, and how they engage means we can build a brand that will uniquely meet their needs while hitting the right emotional chord to build a lasting bond.
But some researchers spend entire careers determining the best way to phrase questions to get unbiased insight into the mind of the customer — so thinking you can read online reviews and understand the complexity at work in your buyers’ decision-making process is foolhardy. It’s important to understand limits to the information that can be gleaned from social channels, and what asterisks there are around this data. With those caveats, we can uncover trends among users that help us understand audiences and translate that insight into compelling and relevant brand messages.
If you can see it, anyone can see it.
If this information is available to us, it is available to your prospects when they are searching for solutions. Insights from engagement and user-generated content on social need to be incorporated into our understanding of current market position. And even with all of the caveats around these inputs, we do know that negative reviews have an outsized impact on perception. This is true for both product reviews and reviews of employee experience on sites like Glassdoor. Learning where and how your company shows up online helps us get into the headspace of potential clients.
2. More data points lead to more touchpoints.
Technology and social give us access to greater information than ever before about how customers respond to and engage with products. It also gives us insight into the landscape prospects will encounter. And it considerably expands the number of touchpoints a company has with its audiences. Previously, they might have seen you at a conference, exchanged a few phone calls, and met at their offices. Now they interact with a multichannel social strategy, robust email marketing, webinars, and podcast appearances. While this is a tremendous opportunity to build awareness, it also multiplies potential failure points. A simple and compelling brand story can unifying brand messaging across this complicated and interconnected landscape.
3. The line between B2B and B2C tactics is blurring.
B2B buyers don’t live in hermetically sealed B2B bubbles. They engage with consumer brands regularly, in both their personal and professional lives. Imagine an executive on her commute to work listening to her favorite podcast. She hears back-to-back ads for a mattress that comes in a box and an email marketing system to help her grow her business. The line between these two segments is not as clear as it once was.
Still, a major difference between B2C and B2B marketing is the importance of long-term personal relationships within many B2B businesses. Whether this is due to long and complex sales cycles, the nature of consultative work, or the ongoing support necessary to deliver meaningful results for clients, these relationships often grow into trusted partnerships. What this means for branding is that your brand story and the messages that reinforce it live with the individuals that build and maintain these relationships. While some B2C brands require this type of investment in relationships, it is common for these interactions to be far more transactional.
Look to B2C for brand training best practices.
Because customer interactions on the B2C side are often more routine, brand communication training for all customer-facing employees is often thorough and consistent. Examples of this could include the script you hear when you call your health insurance company or the greeting you receive when you enter a big-box store. While this can’t — and shouldn’t — be replicated for B2B branding where messages and relationships are often too complex for a canned script, the idea of comprehensive brand training for everyone in an organization is increasingly important. Precisely because telling a consistent story is both so important and so challenging, rebrands or major marketing initiatives at B2B organizations are often complemented by training. Training not only engages employees with the strategy and details of a brand or marketing project, but it can also build unity and connection across functions.
Emotional resonance is vital for both B2C and B2B.
When we think of the emotional resonance of some of our favorite consumer brands, we may feel they inspire excitement or aspiration. They want to make us better versions of ourselves, whether it is a gadget that puts us on the cutting edge, a pet food that makes us feel like a loving owner, or a new pair of sneakers that will get us across the finish line.
A common misconception we hear about B2B brands is that buyers are purely rational, and emotions play only a small role in decision making. There is considerable research to the contrary. One of the primary differences between how B2B buyers engage emotionally with brands has to do with what they are trying to achieve personally. Many of the brands we work with provide products and services that can make or break an organization’s strategic goals — and our clients’ personal career ambitions.
So the core of the emotional connection for most B2B businesses is trust. The investment clients make in B2B brands is considerable and spans financial, professional, and personal implications. When we understand that building trust is inherently emotional, we can frame the way we approach brand engagement to tap into this crucial relationship.
B2B branding can be just as nimble as B2C branding.
The last, but possibly most important, idea B2B brands can lift from B2C brands is agility. While not all B2B brands fall into the trap, many lack speed when it comes to marketing. While product teams may adapt to client requirements quickly and client leads respond in real-time to changing needs, marketing is not always given the resources in B2B organizations to listen and learn from the marketplace.
The goal of any brand is to create an enduring connection between a company and its customers — so it’s never advisable for an organization to frequently rebrand. That said, strong brands have the flexibility to respond to and iterate on what customers need so they stay relevant and compelling. They also create a framework upon which new offerings, messages, or initiatives can be built in a way that amplifies existing messages and consistently builds brand. And marketers must be prepared to jettison ideas that are no longer serving the core value of the brand. Consumer brands are very good at expanding and contracting with the needs of diverse audiences, something we can learn from as B2B marketers.
4. Brand ownership is more democratized than ever.
Long before COVID-19’s profound impact on the centralized workplace, there were major shifts in the tactical ownership of brand communications across B2B companies. Instead of tight control by one person or group, brand tools are distributed across organizations. Instead of bottlenecks in the production department, templates are shared through an easily accessible online portal. Instead of being top-down, it’s about collaboration and accountability. Knowing that brands are increasingly democratic in execution, marketers must offer tools that make it easy to roll out effective and consistent communications across touchpoints.
Brand architecture is critical to growing a brand.
A foundational document that can do a lot of the heavy lifting in both empowerment and standardization is a formalized brand architecture that organizes all of the internal and external entities within an organization. Clarity around how a brand is organized can do double duty in helping teams communicate clearly and consistently, as well as communicate value to the market. OneSpan is a great example of how we’ve helped a client do just this, using brand architecture to communicate a change in business strategy and to align with the new brand.
Brand guidelines need support.
Another tool we rely on to unify brand and marketing initiatives within our clients’ organizations is brand guidelines. These can include a variety of elements, ranging from global brand strategy and visuals to nuanced voice and tone direction to highly targeted messaging across audiences. But guidelines are only as good as their implementation, which needs to include comprehensive training. Make sure employees embrace the strategy and messaging of the brand, and know where to find — and how to use — the tools they need.
Look to the future to build a B2B brand that lasts.
Marketing does not stand still — both agencies and organizations must keep abreast of the trends and shifts influencing the B2B landscape. Building a solid brand foundation can help weather these changes and deliver solid results.
About the author Lillian Pontius-Goldblatt is a strategy director and brand storyteller at DeSantis Breindel, where she leads projects in partnership with global B2B clients. Her brand work aims to unite how organizations operate with how they exist in and respond to the real world.
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