The B2B Brand: The Great Forgotten

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First things first, you might be wondering why you should bother spending your time reading this pretty long piece on the importance of brand value for B2B companies. And to be fair, that’s a pretty good question!

I am not an academic, and we all know that there are already tonnes of articles and white papers on the subject. That being said, I have mostly worked with B2B companies from the very start of my career, and I would like to use this opportunity to address a point that I think a lot of B2B businesses keep on missing.

Over the past 40 years, we have seen the continued introduction of new definitions for the concept of the ‘brand’; each one another attempt to best capture its essence. Sometimes we connect to a definition intuitively, and immediately identify with their ethos. Other times we’d like to give whoever coined it a short sharp shake. Either way, they all are ultimately useful in keeping us on our toes – and encouraging a healthy level of debate.

We instantly recognise the brand concept when we think about huge B2C companies like Nike or Apple – but can we do the same with B2B companies? B2B brands have not yet all reached the same level of maturity in marketing terms. Whilst some have a strong reputation, thanks to some serious investment in strong communication campaigns, others are struggling to break away and create their own space. Niche market specialists are often all together too silent, or their efforts are not targeted, which is like herding cats.

Whilst the Marketing and Communications function has long since been considered a highly standardised and essential cog in the B2C world, this couldn’t be further from the truth for B2B companies.

Imagine for a second that someone asked you for your definition of a B2B brand and you answered: “something that captures a sense of brand identity, reputation and value in a business to business relationship”. You would probably be met with a blank look or a sorry smile. If we are being totally honest, most of us would most likely reply with something like: “ something to do with a product in a trade exchange between two companies?” and leave it at that. Communication is still often seen purely as a cost, whilst marketing is virtually non-existent, and far too unprofessional when it comes to anything that isn’t product related. At a time when traditional economic patterns are being challenged, B2B companies need to start seeing their brand as a key asset for success. They should constantly be on the look out for new, more effective, creative and measurable tools to help push their brands.

Today’s customer has changed drastically. They are increasingly demanding, critical and disloyal. They juggle between smartphones, tablets and laptops and have access to a lot more information than we had 10 years ago. Nowadays, it is the customer who calls the shots and decides where, when and how things happen – whether you like it or not! Are B2B customers really that different from B2C customers? Does this shift in behaviour effect B2B companies the same way it does B2C brands? Are B2B companies in a weaker position to respond to this increasingly exacting customer?

B2C customers are often understood as a group of sensitive, cognitive, affective and sophisticated individuals; interesting yet complex to comprehend. However, in many people’s minds, the B2B customer is not even human – more like a robot programmed to make rational choices.

Enough with the caricature! If you truly believe that for some reason, a superior power removed the B2B customer of all emotion, and that they are individuals free from neuroses unlike the rest of us, then expect to receive that sorry smile from me! Of course, B2C and B2B customers are different in some ways, but to disregard the role that emotion plays in influencing B2B purchasing behaviour is just absurd. Thankfully, the myth of the unfeeling B2B consumer is slowly crumbling, and the emotional aspect of the decision making process is becoming more widely acknowledged. B2B companies such as IBM, Maersk and General Electric are at the forefront of their brand building missions, but most B2B companies still have some way to go.

Emotions are what organise our thoughts and effect our judgements and decisions. In the land of B2C, many marketers understand that emotions often trigger the urge to buy. Through their communications, they rouse emotional responses in the right hemisphere of the brain. They play on feelings of fear, love, desire, guilt, pride or even a sense of exclusivity.

When we decide to buy a new product, we are motivated by both rational and irrational choices, with the latter, (often but not always) the dominant impulse. This is why some of the best forms of communication are the ones that touch the heart and not the brain – they create an emotional need and stimulate a logical and rational justification. Put simply, it is important to understand that emotions trigger the consumer affective state, adding to the potential creation of a positive attitude towards your brand.

In B2B, we’re currently facing a growing homogenisation of offerings and customers. Unless you are a specialist in a niche market, it is increasingly difficult to compete solely on quality, price and delivery. There’s now a need to find another level on which to compete – and communication is one of the unexploited arenas in which B2B companies should prepare to do battle.

Zoe MerchantThe B2B Brand: The Great Forgotten

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