Most believe B2B branding is unique; we believe that’s BS

Christian Markow and Barry Saunders have spent decades thinking about brand strategy and customer experience while working on top-notch brands, such as GE, Chick-fil-A and Target. They also lead Joe Smith, Padilla’s brand consultancy. I sat down with Christian and Barry a few weeks ago to discuss how B2B companies should approach branding.

Christian Markow
Christian Markow
Barry Saunders
Barry Saunders

Q: How is digital disruption affecting B2B branding?

B2B customers have been influenced by extreme improvements in customer experience and design on the consumer side. Everything we deal with in our daily lives – from the way we pay bills, buy stock and order sandwiches – influences how we think about our business relationships. So we have wonderful, dynamic, interesting and joyful experiences that are equally influenced by both digital and human interaction on the consumer side, but then our B2B interactions are total “BS.” They’re laden by horrible procurement processes, impossible invoicing and a customer experience with sales people who just spit stuff at us. Or we end up in the silo the salesperson represents when we need a solution from across the enterprise.

There’s good news. B2B businesses are reacting to the transformation that’s happening on the consumer side – they have no choice – and they’re undergoing rapid change. Part of the change is a digital transformation intended to improve customer experience. And part of it is redefining what customer experience means inside a B2B organization.

GE recently went through this exercise and is a great example. Five years ago, GE’s CEO started a process of simplification across the organization that involves understanding the world from their customers’ perspectives. Back then, their brand tagline was “Imagination at Work,” which was big and altruistic. It was about coming up with ideas. It’s still the foundation of what’s inside of them, but now they’re layering in a story that explains commercial value in a way that’s emotionally resonant – a platform that positions GE as the digital industrial company. While becoming the digital industrial company may not seem emotional, they are sharing it in a way that truly is. The business strategy and brand platform are inextricably connected. They focus on helping GE’s customers advance by interacting with their customers in real and meaningful ways.

Q: B2B buyers are thought to be more pragmatic while B2C buyers are more emotional. How does this impact the B2B branding process?

There’s research that shows it’s quite the contrary. B2B buyers are significantly more emotionally tied to purchases, especially a multimillion-dollar purchase, because of the professional value and risks that are involved versus a consumer deciding between Apple or Samsung.

Most B2B companies don’t understand this. They need to flip functional value propositions into value props that communicate emotional benefits – that is, how their products or services help customers achieve their purpose.

Cisco has done an amazing job making this shift from functional to emotional. They’ve developed a brand position that sets the stage for not just a marketing campaign – and their marketing is good – but a content marketing campaign. Visit their website and all of the stuff there is about “There’s never been a better time than now.” Cisco is issuing white papers on what that means from security and infrastructure perspectives. They’re training for customer experiences on the sales side that help deliver that message. They’re developing offers and services that can help customers analyze and implement that kind of mindset into their own organizations.

In that sense, brand is not a messaging program. It is a business directive that says, “We’re going to separate ourselves from our competitors by changing our customer experience through our content marketing strategy, our overall marketing program, and our sales and customer service.” And Cisco has skillfully driven that philosophy down into the entire company.

Q: I’ve heard you two talk a lot about purpose, and the “convergence of making and meaning.” Break that down for me, will you?

There are three different kinds of companies out there:

1. Companies that do a really good job making stuff but don’t understand their customers very well. And their teams inside, they like their jobs, but they’re not inspired to work there. There’s little conviction.
2. Other companies make an okay product, but they’re one of those purpose-driven, meaningful companies. They have this higher purpose. They’re connected to it. They’re more empathetic to their customers, but they haven’t driven it into the product or service experience yet.
3. But the companies truly killing it pull these two things together. What they’re doing is focusing on connection, which is understanding your customer’s needs and desires, and then understanding how to develop and deliver products and services to meet them. They’re perfectionists.

Apple sets the bar. The brand works well because they nail service delivery. All these things that we now expect in user experience across both their consumer and B2B brands, Apple has spent a billion dollars inside the house to make sure it’s a two-step process for you. Your experience strengthens Apple’s brand. The magic is in those subtle, unexpected moments, like when you open a new iPhone and it makes that vacuuming whoosh sound. Or when a small coffee shop owner flips the iPad around at their counter for a customer to swipe and finger sign for a cup of Joe. Those are purposeful experiences. They reinforce the story about the quality of the products and the detail that goes into everything Apple does.

Q: Most marketers buy into this stuff but don’t act on it. Once you understand a brand’s purpose and narrative, how do you do the change management to implement it?

Often, we’ll work with companies that run into this problem. They’ll say, “I’m running this process exactly the way I’m supposed to, but it’s not working. What’s the matter?”

Research tells us that employees will lead and implement change when they help craft the story. So leaving the brand building to the brand and mar/com team is the first mistake. Your brand has to be built as a core business asset. And for it to be built as a business asset, it’s got to be built by representatives who will benefit, both internal and external. A sales guy or gal who’s been along on the journey will be more inspired and motivated to implement a brand evolution, as will your customers and all other stakeholders along the value chain.

I’ll add that it takes small steps, and it takes time. Many company leaders forget how long it took for great brands like GE to reach their current state. They get frustrated and bail when they should let the brand purpose take hold and stay the course.

Q: Will you help me understand the value of brand for a B2B company?

You have two choices as a brand: You can let the public decide what you stand for, or you can tell them and show them who you are and engage them in that story so they can discover it for themselves.

Brand does a lot of things for companies to improve value. The power of brand increases the intrinsic value of a company, it changes the company’s stock price and allows for product pricing premiums. It also increases internal employee engagement, which boosts productivity.

A good example of this is IBM back in the 1990s when the company was in trouble amidst an industry that was changing rapidly due to the internet. When its new CEO (Louis Gerstner) came on board to transform the company, he changed the company culture and focused on differentiating IBM from its competitors. IBM’s brand purpose and its solutions transcended the functional attributes of digital information and e-commerce to “e-business.” It was a game-changer for IBM and helped re-establish the company’s market leadership. The cool thing is that IBM is at it again with Watson and its “cognitive business” solutions.

Also, look at what LinkedIn achieved with its brand before it got bought by Microsoft. Was it really worth a 50 percent premium? It’s all based on the value of their B2B brand, the experience it delivers and, more importantly, what the company believes in and its vision.

Q: Do you have a client example that will help wrap this up?

One of our transportation clients has a big communication department, and they spend a lot of time writing stories about corporate social responsibility. We noticed a cover story in their monthly magazine about an employee who rides around picking up recycled paper and bringing it to the regeneration unit where they crush it down to make toilet paper.

Not a bad story. Wrong audience. You think this transportation client’s competitors are inspiring and engaging employees with stories about toilet paper? This client has 30 to 50 communications professionals – they were all focused on telling the wrong story.

And when this client did tell stories about their products, they were boring – just a list of features and benefits. They weren’t talking about how their products helped a customer save millions of dollars in a single year, or how their innovations have decreased noise pollution to change the lives of entire communities.

What we’ve done is reset this client’s organization around a purposeful brand strategy. We’re building out a new marketing program and new content strategy that tells stories that make their purpose matter. They’re getting there, and it’s been a lot of fun!

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