Has Content Marketing Made Branding Obsolete?

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Confession: as a died-in-the-wool direct marketer, I am a branding cynic. My general attitude towards branding is summed up in the old maxim:

“Branding is what your agency calls your campaign when they can’t measure it.”

Now that’s not to say that a brand isn’t real, for some. Starbucks is a successful brand. And so is Nike. And Coke. These companies thrive, in large part, not just on the quality of their products but upon their image, and the general, emotional view that their customers have about the company, and how those customers believe the company aligns with their own personal beliefs or preferences or aspirations, or however else you care to define a brand.

But does a B2B company, particularly an early-stage company, need branding? I would argue: no.

What makes branding even more irrelevant for most B2B companies today is the very nature of modern demand generation: namely, content marketing. If generating leads depended even in small part on how consumers felt about your company, branding might have a role to play. But successful demand generation today has little to do with your company, and much more to do with your content.

The leads that you generate from a white paper about best practices, or a Webinar about ROI, or an infographic about industry trends, or (ahem) a blog post about a “hot topic” all serve to make your brand irrelevant. To reinforce this point, most successful demand generation content has nothing whatsoever to do with the company or the product, and everything to do with the topic, or issue, or business challenge that the same company and product can solve.

Where brand might yet have a role to play is in lead nurturing. Once a prospect enters the lead cycle, the conversation turns from an interest in a particular topic to why that prospect should do business with your company. At that stage, the image that your company portrays, your “brand personality” (to borrow a phrase) comes into play. Does your brand speak credibility, authority, and stability? Or does it convey a company on the cutting edge, a company that understands its customers, a company that (gasp) doesn’t take itself too seriously? All may impact on the rate at which you convert that casual interest in solving a particular business challenge into a sales ready lead, an opportunity, and ultimately, a deal.

When start-up clients ask us if they should invest in “branding,” we tell them: no. They’re better off investing precious marketing dollars into identifying, and engaging with, those prospects feeling the “pain” that their product or service can address. Once the challenge turns to converting leads to prospects and opportunities and sales, then, and only then, does brand becomes more significant.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Howard Sewell
Howard has worked in marketing for 25+ years, and is president of Spear Marketing Group, a full-service B2B marketing agency. Howard is a frequent speaker and contributor to marketing publications on topics that include demand generation, digital marketing, ABM, and marketing technology.

5 COMMENTS

  1. I disagree with this thesis on so many levels, it’s challenging to know where to begin. One area I’d quickly cite is how brands are becoming both the content they represent, in B2B and in B2C, as well as the media for conveying their content and ideas. Per this January, 2010 Marketing Profs article by Gordon Plutsky, for example: “People are more comfortable getting their news from multiple sources—a perfect environment for any business thinking about stepping in and becoming a trusted source of information. And that’s the general logic: When your company educates its current and prospective clients on its field of expertise instead of pitching them products or services, it effectively becomes a reliable source of information and entertainment. In other words, your company (or brand) becomes the media and is in a position to provide thought leadership and build customer affinity. You’ve established your company as a trusted resource; as a result, your customer feels more confident buying from you, and you have increased your ability to measure results in terms of generating leads and creating incremental sales. Though traditional advertising will always serve as a means of general awareness, private media channels encourage brand loyalty and affinity, allowing companies to speak directly to their customers and prospects in a controlled environment. Add a bit of good research to the equation and brands are able to create content that resonates specifically with the needs of various audiences and current customers, as well as content that supports permission-based marketing tactics that will woo their prospects.”

  2. Howard

    I can think of at least one B2B brand that is doing fabulously well without any/much content marketing. Nor does it spend much money on branding based advertising campaigns. What this company does have is product brands which have an awesome reputation – the products are great, they do what they are designed to do, they are superior to the competition….

    So brand as reputation building based on real value added to the customer, to the world, is well and alive and will continue to be. Branding – the advertising/promotional process will continue to change. Arguable, content marketing is the most recent and possibly hot practice of “branding”. Put, differently “Hey guys, branding ads don’t work anymore like they use to, so lets do some content marketing”. The problem is that the people with this mentality suck at generating content that creates value. Now that is another topic.

    To sum up: an organisation still needs to build a brand. And now the best way to build a brand is to create awesome value for your customer and let the customer build your brand through word of mouth and word of mouse.

    And i have been known to be wrong. Always open to being wrong, learning and adjusting. So if I have got it wrong then please do educate me.

    Maz

  3. Maz –

    As you noted, brand/corporate reputation and image are critical to driving customer behavior, every bit as much as customer experience and employee behavior. Companies failing to appropriately recognize, and act on, this key brand-related factor do so at their own peril: http://www.customerthink.com/blog/rethinking_the_behavioral_impact_of_corporate_reputation_and_image. And though, like you, I’m always open to having an incorrect perspective changed by new/better factual information, I seriously doubt whether either of us could be considered wrong here.

    Michael

  4. I agree with Maz that value is the strongest way to build a brand. Value that the customer can’t get elsewhere. Such as superior product, amazing experience, even really low price.

    That said, a brand reputation is created in many other ways, even by those that don’t buy or use a product/service, or have a service experience. That includes prospective buyers in their experiences trying to decide if the company/solution is what they want.

    This is where Howard’s point about content marketing makes sense to me. Lead “nurturing” — generally meaning content marketing of one kind or another — helps build the brand too. If the content and the nurturing experience is well done, it will help elevate the brand’s reputation, even if the prospect never buys. And that can pay dividends for the brand when the (non-buying) prospect recommends to a friend.

    I explored the importance of the buying experience in two posts:
    * B2B Marketers, Analyze This: How Do Prospects Score YOU on Their Experience? (http://bit.ly/feuwAQ)
    * B2B Sellers, Wake Up! Adopt Buyer Experience Management, or Get a Pink Slip from Customer 2.0 (http://bit.ly/SctS6I)

    Bottom line: every experience with a brand (even advertising) leaves a mark!

  5. Whether a prospect, current customer, former customer, or merely a member of the b2b or b2c consuming public, brand is almost always a component in all perception of a product or service, and an intrinsic element in supplier selection and purchase – and failure to select and purchase.

    As my colleague Judy Ricker, who is Market Probe’s EVP of Brand and Communications Research (and was formerly the President of Harris Interactive’s Brand Research Group) likes to point out in her brand passion presentations: “The word "brand” is derived from Old English meaning "burning stick” (and ultimately from the Indo-European word meaning "to be hot”)” In other words, the concept of brand has a lot to do, as you point out, with both reputation and image, for customers and non-customers alike, and for customers through the buying and using experience, and in touchpoint interactions with the company.

    And, specifically with regard to the customer experience, increasingly we are seeing companies endeavoring to personalize, or otherwise decommoditize, transactions and long-term relationships, which I addressed in a CustomerThink post from mid-year 2011:
    http://www.customerthink.com/article/customer_advocacy_and_the_branded_experience. We are witnessing this occurring, as a means of strategically differentiating a brand’s perceived value, in many b2b and b2c industries.

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