Where Do B2B Brands Get Built?

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I’m making these observations about the high-tech sector in particular, but it may be that they are relevant to other B2B environments. I sat through a presentation a few days back from someone who, after declaring that “Post Modernism is the New Black” (I admit to having a full strength WTF? moment at that point), went on to argue that brands were now a commodity.

I thought about this and tried to reconcile it with my experience, and in particular with what I’d learned from conducting a series of “Buyer’s Journey” surveys on behalf of B2B high-tech clients over the past couple of years. And I came to the opposite conclusion: that it’s the brand experience that differentiates the successful companies from the also-rans. Which led to the question, “Where do B2B Brands Get Built?”

There’s no question that ubiquitous access to information has shifted the balance of power from the seller to the buyer, and that the most enlightened B2B sales people (and the companies they work for) see their role as facilitating the buying process, rather than aggressively pushing an all-too-obvious sales process.



I remember reading a recent Booz Allen Hamilton report that concluded that only 15% of a B2B buyer’s perception of the brand values of a vendor came from conventional marketing communications and that the vast majority (85%) came from the interaction the buyer had with the representatives of the vendor.

So how can the marketing function play its full role in establishing brand values in this environment?

Our own surveys tell us consistently that buyers hate being sold to, but love to learn about new ways of solving a problem, addressing a need or achieving a goal. It seems to me that the first thing that B2B marketers need to do is to clearly identify who their most promising prospects are, and what issues really matter to them. Issues based marketing, in this B2B environment, is proving to generate much higher quality prospect responses – measured by how many of them ultimately end up as customers.

This issues-based approach certainly includes the need to get found in the places where your potential prospects go looking when they search for a solution. SEO activities must be informed by a clear understanding of what B2B buyers call the problems they are trying to solve, and not just what the vendor calls their solutions. This may seem blindingly obvious, but it is striking how many high-tech B2B companies continue to take a product-out rather than a problem-in perspective.

Once interest has been aroused, marketing needs to establish a pivotal role in equipping the sales people to have issues-based conversations with clients – and, as the Booz Allen study pointed out, it is these conversations that primarily establish and then reinforce the brand experience. Issues-based sales tools, designed from the outset to support the buyer’s decision-making process are proving much more effective, wherever I have seen them used, than product-based materials.



One simple, but highly effective, example lies in the creation of an “anecdotes database”. Those of us who have seen top sales people in action have probably observed that they gain trust and develop rapport by telling stories about other customers who faced similar issues. Simply collecting together the stories that the best sales people use (this requires that marketing actually talks to sales, which is generally a good thing anyway) into a database that can be searched according to the customer’s issue has proven highly effective at helping middle-of-the road sales people raise their sales competence to something approaching that of their superstar colleagues. There are many other effective tactics for building successful sales tools.

So I think the answer to the question “where do B2B brands get built” is “in every interaction between a prospect or customer and the vendor”. Marketing communications professionals cannot afford to have their sales teams simply make up whatever comes into their heads. But if they make a determined effort to learn what is most important and influential to their prospects, and embed this understanding into sales tools that are designed to be used by sales people to support the buying process, they can have a lot more influence over how their company’s brand values are perceived than the Booz Allen study might initially suggest.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Bob this is spot on and a true reflection of reality.

    I’ve sat in many meetings with corporate marketing executives trying to come up with “silver bullet” messages and brand statements. Normally, what they come up with is only meaninful to them. But on some rare occasions what that one company does is actually different from their competitors. So what.

    What they fail to do is get in the trenches with their customers and really understand what problems they are facing and how what they do actually helps them.

    To support this concept, think about this. Considering the deal sizes ($100M to $1B sized contracts), you would think that large outsourcers (like EDS, IBM, CSC, Unisys, HP, etc) would develop extremely compelling and differentiated proposals for their customers. However, more than ½ of the buyers of IT outsourcing contracts can’t tell the difference between proposals from vendors and ultimately end up deciding upon who they work with based on soft factors such as cultural fit or how well they liked the sales team.

    In the brave new world of targeted account and solution selling, a vendor’s corporate brand will only get them so far. The perception left by everyone who interacts with that customer will become the brand to that account. This trend will absolutely upset the current status quo of ivory tower, monolithic, centrally managed branding to a new model of field developed, customized, and distributed account-specific branding.

    I think this “rabbit hole” goes far deeper than most think. As people start trying to develop account specific brands with a handful of target accounts, they begin to see how disorganized and wasteful the current go-to-market approach is. I’ve seen many organizations halt these efforts because they didn’t want to bring the magnitude of the problem to executive leadership.

    Just my two cents, but keep fighting the battle!!!

  2. Guys, this is so brilliant…

    Scott, you have just described the last 20 years of my life trying to consult to management of many of the largest companies in Australia that were either run by management residing in the US or out of some larger cities in Asia…

    The model they have subscribed to and you have both described here seems to look good in practice and maybe seems smart to a Harvard Management Graduate but, I think it is too common and often when these policies are implemented and look like the management plan is failing, would bring in a team or consultant like me to assess a solution and recommend the possible changes, just like a silver bullet.

    When faced with the ultimate message of what to do and what to look to try, the real denial sets in and they shoot the messenger.

    When the similar solution is later used by a competitor and a large market share is gained, it is just luck.

    I am retired nowadays and watch from afar with the same things that I read still happen over and over again…

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