The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Reckoning with B2B Brand Research
To ensure a transformative rebrand, leaders must commit to acknowledging and acting upon weaknesses uncovered by brand research
It’s no secret that the most successful branding projects are soundly based in research. Quantitative and qualitative, employee and customer, internal and competitive—for strategists, research provides a comprehensive understanding of stakeholder’s perceptions of their client.
Identifying a company’s mission and competitive strengths is a huge part of brand research. Strengths and purpose provide the foundation of brand positioning, establishing a business’s points of differentiation and giving its employees, customers, and investors a reason to believe.
However, uncovering more negative aspects of a brand are equally important. Although it can be painful for corporate leaders to hear reports about negative and/or incorrect perceptions of their business, it’s a vital step in the rebranding process. Without addressing the bad—or the ugly—any improvement made by a new brand will be surface-level at best, the classic “lipstick on a pig” problem.
Often, these more negative discoveries will require solutions that go beyond the traditional branding engagement; they’ll call for employee engagement, customer journey optimization, or sustained PR campaigns.
For leadership, especially those outside of marketing, this one-two punch (bad news plus the recommendation of additional projects) can be upsetting, potentially even derailing the entire project. For this reason, it’s important to prime leaders for unexpected and potentially troubling insights that might revealed during the branding process. What’s more, the internal team should discuss plans for next steps should additional needs arise.
Common “ugly” B2B brand issues—and how they’ve been solved
Below, we outline some of the most frequent issues we find embedded in brands. By embedded, we mean those that aren’t caused by a lack of recognition or the need to incorporate a new offering or acquisition. We mean those problems that will need some serious commitment to overcome.
To be clear, experiencing these issues doesn’t mean a company or its marketing has necessarily done anything wrong! They’re most often the result of rapid growth or changing customer expectations. However, they are issues that will, in addition to a strong new brand positioning, require long-term investment to overcome.
Negative market perceptions
B2B businesses long made names for themselves with reputations of expertise and prestige. This is especially true at firms with big-name rosters; those well-respected lawyers, brokers, or consultants. However, B2B customers have come to expect the human-centric, personalized experiences they receive from B2C brands.
When companies haven’t adapted to shifting buyer expectations, they can gain a reputation in the marketplace as being difficult to work with. We encountered this problem when rebranding a large institutional asset management firm: the organization’s refusal to “sugarcoat” clients’ problems was coming across as dogmatic and abrasive rather than transparent. We recommended converting “arrogant” into “straight-talking,” a positive pillar on which to build a brand. But the brand could only do so much: we also advised our clients to take a hard look at its customers’ experiences with its employees and messaging.
Lack of cross-selling
We’ve all heard about the 80-20 rule of sales. A company’s growth can be stymied if employees aren’t looking for opportunities to recommend additional services to current clients. But too often, especially in professional services, we see just this issue.
When working with a consulting firm, we realized there was a lack of cross-selling and dug in further. We found that while consultants were experts about their own field and departmental offerings, they didn’t know enough about what was going on in other areas of the business. This meant they didn’t feel confident about cross-selling.
The company and DeSantis Breindel embarked on a large employee education and engagement initiative, writing messaging guides for each practice, which helped colleagues talk about each other to clients.
While such a project was successful for this firm, for many others a lack of financial compensation also contributes to the problem. This finding, squarely outside the remit of brand, shows how far-reaching the impacts of brand research can be.
Discrepancy between strategic vision and reality
One of the toughest pieces of news to deliver to clients is that leadership’s vision isn’t aligning with material realities or market expectations. Unfortunately, it does happen; we encounter it most frequently in tech companies crafting IPO or other investor messaging. For example, in order to appeal to investors with scalability, a traditional MSS company may try to reposition itself as a SaaS player.
However, your brand saying you’re SaaS isn’t enough for today’s savvy investors—or for employees who are actually doing the work. Companies must actually invest in the technology to make their vision a reality, or they’ll find both market and staff’s confidence waning.
Identification is the first step toward improvement
Nobody likes to talk about their flaws, least of all if they fear identifying them could have negative repercussions for their career. But acknowledging weaknesses—in brand, strategy, or operations—is the necessary first step towards improvement. In other words, you can’t solve a problem unless you name it.
With this in mind, when undergoing a branding project, corporate leadership should invest in upfront research and open their minds to hearing and responding to difficult truths. Only by doing so can a company be sure a rebrand will result not in simply a surface-level makeover, but in true transformative change.
About the author 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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