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For years, B2B brands have invested more in sales and products than in brand marketing. The usual opinion was that superior specs and personal relationships would win the day.
Today, however, it is clear that strong branding is critical in the B2B space as it increases the effectiveness of demand generation activities, reduces selling costs, and requires a markup.
Part of the importance of B2B branding stems from evergreen truths: Emotions have always been an important factor in B2B purchases – more than some people imagine. A business buyer is still a human buyer, after all, and choosing the wrong supplier for a critical business process has a detrimental career impact.
In addition, savvy B2B brands recognize that potential buyers can be divided into two groups: in-market and out-of-market.
Only a fraction of the buyers are in the market, meaning they are actively looking for your product or service and are therefore likely to respond to rational product features and benefit marketing. Your goal with respect to the majority outside of the market, on the other hand, is to be memorable enough that when they have a need, these buyers will search for your brand. Emotional messages tend to create such memorable bonds.
Aside from the power of emotions, we are also experiencing major technical and social market changes that reinforce the importance of smart branding for B2B – especially branding that shows how purpose, values and user experience shape the messages and behavior of a brand.
1. Digital transformation
Almost every business today is a digital enterprise, especially in the B2B space where many older technology and professional service providers are integrating software offerings, often with subscription plans.
It’s a new business model and it has turned the B2B sales cycle upside down. To renew and upgrade subscriptions, businesses need to retain and keep their customers engaged throughout their journey of experience (the move to selling is just the beginning). In short, marketers need to view customers as users rather than buyers.
With this in mind, great B2B companies become real resources committed to their customers’ success.
Look at HubSpot, the pioneer in digital inbound marketing. Its brand voice – empowering yet simple – is channeled through every touch point, including its AI chatbots. In addition, it serves as a hub for professionalization resources, providing marketers with freemium content at every step of the implementation of Customer Relationship Management (CRM).
Because HubSpot is accessible – easy to “speak” – and a rich resource for marketing thought leaders, HubSpot delivers a branding experience that lives up to its promise to help customers grow better.
2. Increased competition
Digital transformation is fueling increased competition as traditional barriers to entry fall thanks to scalable technology platforms, remote working, and ample VC funding. It is a challenge for every B2B company to maintain differentiation at the product or functional level.
This is where B2B branding comes into play. Brands need to show that their heritage offers size and resources, but that they also have the ability to adapt flexibly to modern demands and possibilities.
American Express had long since differentiated itself in its exclusivity: Paying with a gold (or platinum or black) AmEx card was a sign of prestige. In addition, American Express became the credit card provider for American small businesses by providing financial incentives for buyers to purchase venues on small business Saturdays.
The program proved hugely successful, increasing sales for small businesses, and also developing American Express’ brand positioning to be highly purpose-driven and differentiated.
3. Sustainability as a business necessity
From year to year it becomes clearer that ecological sustainability is not a “nice to have” but a must for further business success. B2B companies need to make some of the biggest changes to reduce their carbon footprint: Industrial and utility companies cause about half of the country’s greenhouse gases.
In times of change, the brand not only offers orientation, but also the goodwill of the stakeholders. Marketing plays a central role by translating complex board decisions about sustainability into arguments for customers, employees and investors.
In addition, a popular brand can protect against stakeholder doubts. The goodwill gained from years of brand marketing can make the sometimes bumpy transition from brown to green energy easier for B2B companies.
Take a look at Maersk, the shipping giant, for example: its Scandinavian brand is based on humility, responsibility and “constant care”. Maersk’s branding activities have proven extremely valuable to the company, especially in times of crisis.
For example, after one of their cargo ships hit and killed a whale, the brand’s social media transparency and remorse won the respect of many followers, mitigating the potentially negative PR effects of the incident.
4. Millennials as decision makers
Millennials are now well into adulthood and play important decision-making roles. They are responsible for making myriad B2B purchases on behalf of their businesses, from services to products.
Millennials have come of age with mobile banking and Amazon Prime and expect similarly personalized and seamless experiences from the B2B brands they source.
This includes employer brands. According to a study by American Express, 78% of millennials say they want to work with a company their values align with.
Brand marketing is central to articulating and spreading a business ethic. However, this needs to be done in conjunction with employee engagement initiatives that model the desired behavior and reward those who live the brand.
A dedicated workforce is often a B2B brand’s greatest marketing asset – more effective at spreading brand messages and creating a consistent experience than any paid channel. The talent you attract will define the brand you will become.
Salesforce has invested seriously in cascading corporate values across the company. It is known for promoting “stakeholder capitalism,” or the idea that businesses can benefit not just investors, but employees, customers, and members of the community as well.
Salesforce goes the way. Her “pioneers”, as she calls her employees, are empowered to contribute to positive social change as part of their professional tasks. The company’s 1-1-1 program devotes 1% of the equity, technology, and time of Salesforce employees to improving education, equality, and the environment. Salesforce has consistently been recognized as one of the best places to work in America for its efforts.
United in one goal: Great B2B brands
The B2B companies that have risen to the new brand imperative have all located their north star in a more emotional way than products, services or shareholder value.
From HubSpot’s dedication to helping other brands grow better, to Maersk’s unwavering sincerity, enterprise-centric brands enable companies to build human connections with employees, customers and the community while managing the sometimes dramatic changes that drive growth in the today’s fast paced, highly saturated market.
More resources on B2B branding
How to Build a Great Brand | MarketingProfs Master Class
The benefits of green B2B branding
The most important challenges for B2B branding