As a former CMO, and go-to-market advisor to tech companies, I see many B2B companies struggle with brand in terms of how it fits into a messaging framework, how much emphasis to place on it and how much to expect out of it.
I think of brand as the icing on the cake. Or the sizzle on the steak. You still need the rest of the cake, which is the core of your messaging framework. Brand can provide that extra ingredient to make it stand out.
So how do you leverage brand to enhance the rest of your messaging framework?
What is a Brand?
Brand is the emotional connection to your company. It is who you are, why you do this, what you stand for, your core values and beliefs, all rolled into one ideal. It is your opportunity to connect with like-minded people who will join in your mission, or aspire to your vision. Listen to the master Steve Jobs describe what brand means to Apple from a few years ago.
Many B2C companies live and die on brand because it represents a very critical aspect of their business. Often they are selling commodities such as water, clothes or food, and brand is their primary source of differentiation. Even when there are slight differences in competing products, a premium brand such as Evian, or Prada or Cartier can establish differentiation and command a price premium. Brand can become so powerful that emotion drives consumers to spend thousands of dollars more for the cachet of a Rolex or a pair of Jimmy Choos compared to their competitors. Aw the lure of brand!
The B2B world is different. Brand plays a role, but it’s a complimentary role, in a broader messaging framework. In the B2B world, the dominant messaging component is a Value Proposition, which is the value the seller’s product and company can uniquely do for the buyer and their company.
A lot of B2B marketers make the mistake of taking a B2C approach to B2B messaging, and assume a brand is enough to carry the messaging if it is strong enough. It’s not, because the B2B buying process is radically different from the B2C buying process.
B2B buying decisions are largely unemotional and made by groups of stakeholders representing different departments and interests in a company. You’ll have a functional area that will be the primary user like sales, marketing or development along with their operations team. IT is always involved if it’s a technology solution. Finance typically gets involved for larger monetary purchases, and you may have procurement at larger companies. These groups are the epitome of unemotional, rational fact-based decision-making groups. They’ll compare product capabilities very closely, might trial one or two products, and will assess the value they can expect or maybe even try to calculate an ROI. They’ll look at a company’s financials and assess its stability and long-term prospects, check references with other customers to validate vendor claims, and they’ll negotiate hard on price and terms. A typical buying decision can take 6-9 months for a large company. A short sales cycle would be 2-3 months.
B2B buying groups would never buy Prada!
And if this wasn’t enough, the B2B buying process is getting more complex, not less. Research from CEB published in Harvard Business Review found that the number of people involved in B2B purchase decisions has increased from 5.4 to 6.8 in just two years. This makes it difficult for buying groups to agree and can result in cautious, risk-averse decision-making and lowest common denominator purchasing.
The key to successfully navigating a B2B purchasing process is not brand, but a strong value proposition.
Value proposition is the core of your B2B messaging platform (Figure 1) that clearly states what value you can uniquely bring to a customer. Based on unique differentiators and key benefits to the customer, this value proposition is the essential value that you, and you alone bring, and represents the core of your sales pitch. All of your sales reps should be pitching the value proposition on every sales call. It should be clearly stated on your website and incorporated into all of your content and messaging. All your employees should be able to easily state it. It represents the foundation of your B2B messaging framework, and is your calling card into new accounts.
B2B Messaging Framework
Figure 1: B2B Messaging Framework
And yet, it’s amazing how many companies have horrible value propositions. Or none at all. This is because developing a value proposition forces you to leave your perspective of building and selling a product, and take on the perspective of customers who have business goals they are trying to meet, priorities they are trying to juggle and initiatives they are executing on. You need to speak their language of business objectives, requirements and results, not your language of product capabilities and features. The value proposition is what connects the two.
Make sure your value proposition does not consist of a highly detailed product description that can’t ignore any feature. Nail a clear unique value proposition, prove its merit thru the B2B decision process and you’ll go a long ways toward winning that B2B sale.
So how can you use brand to accelerate this process and tilt the table in your direction?
Every purchase has a champion who will carry the flag for the initiative, drive the purchase decision through the evaluation group and shape the evaluation one way or another. Ultimately they will own the decision and the initiative that this purchase is part of, and their influence on the process is huge. This champion often sets the “short-list” of vendors who will be evaluated for the purchase. If your brand resonates with the champion and they believe you can meet their needs, you’ll be invited to compete for the business.
Brand can also subtly tilt the table of the purchasing group. If your company’s brand is highly regarded and deeply respected in the industry, this can help the purchasing group to tilt the evaluation in your favor. Value proposition is still primary – you have to meet their requirements – but brand can create a positive bias in the evaluation rather than a neutral or negative one.
Brand can close the deal.
When all other things are roughly equal, brand and its connection to the purchase team, and in particular the champion, can get you across the finish line. It is the closer, or the finishing touch. Much like B2C where many products are commodities, in B2B when many products can look similar in crowded markets, brand can be the difference between winning and losing.
Brand can get you in the door. Brand can tilt the table during the process. And brand can finish.
Value proposition will always be the cake. And brand is the icing on that cake.
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