A brand is the most important strategic asset your business will ever possess. Yet even the most experienced marketer might struggle to communicate the concept in a single sentence. Furthermore, if you were to approach the majority of today’s business-to-business organisations, they would probably tell you that branding finds little application in a market allegedly filled with dispassionate decision makers. However, an increasingly competitive market landscape is eroding this reality – if, indeed, it ever existed. B2B marketing must follow the example of its consumer-focused counterpart and embrace the notion that a strong brand has the power to differentiate, build and protect those it represents in the face of incessant commoditization.
Stamping your agenda
We’ve moved far beyond the historical definition of a brand: “The name, term, sign, symbol or design, or a combination of them, intended to define the goods or services of one seller or groups of sellers and to differentiate them from those of competitors.” And we’re also moving past more current definitions of brand as a ” trustmark” or reputation, a culture or corporate identity. It is simply impossible to reduce the complex notion of brand down to a mere logo. A brand is undoubtedly much more than this, incorporating both tangible and intangible benefits and identifiers for what it represents. As the culmination of the end users’ experience of a business, product or service, a brand is comprised of a multitude of marketing encounters, actual performance and perceived identity. Properly developed and applied, brands can be used over and over again to create new value.
As a promise of both rational and emotional reward, a strong brand will generate a resonance impossible to reproduce. Once developed to this point, branding has the power to fulfil a range of business objectives. For example, with a strong brand, a business is able to sustain price premiums, reduce risk and create a kind of shorthand for end users who will immediately recognise everything it stands for, thereby narrowing the choices the purchaser has to make. Largely this process is intangible, reliant on more abstract concepts such as association. (Do you ask for cola or Coke?)
The Human Factor
Naturally, it helps that during the Coke-buying process your decision was not complicated by the presence of a buying team, a complex performance matrix and specifically developed test criteria. However, regardless of the attempts to make B2B wholly objective, is it really plausible to suggest that unconscious programming of this magnitude evaporates when the consumer enters the office? Of course not, and this is the myth that B2B is beginning to face up to. Traditionally, this sector has not been the most brand aware. However, the belief that the critical emotional component within purchasing is limited to the personal consumer is distinctly misguided. Are we honestly suggesting that we are suddenly devoid of all human emotion as soon as we assume ‘work mode’? As B2B marketers, by ignoring the inevitable human factor, we also ignore a whole host of opportunities to differentiate our offering. Assuming that this is in place, brands function as important social influencers, and this is a phenomenon that is not limited to the consumer environment. In B2B arenas, brands are symbols of quality, reliability and risk reduction, in addition to being significant aspirational targets. In a corporate capacity, we may like to think we are above the allure of peer group approval but then again, ‘no one ever got fired for buying IBM,’ right? In short, we wish to mitigate risk and will be reassured by purchasing a brand name synonymous with quality and reliability. Perhaps there was a time in both B2C and B2B environments when products and services could be marketed solely at income brackets. However, as markets evolve, so does the customer chain. The breakdown of a homogeneous society necessarily means developing an understanding of wider influencers such as lifestyle and value systems. This is exactly what proper brand development seeks to address and what successful B2B companies have already recognized. In part two of this discussion, we’ll further investigate the “Brands by Design” fundamentals and their specific relevance in technology markets.
The value of branding in B2B environments is epitomised by modern technology markets. Traditionally associated with a reluctance to invest in brand, this industry is accustomed to spending vast amounts on technical facilities and capital equipment. Technology markets are especially reticent to channel resources into what it often identifies as abstract concerns and until recently, this attitude was acceptable. Previously, demand for technology predominantly centred on product functionality and cost, conforming to the stereotype of today’s B2B model. However, technology suppliers were forced to re-examine this approach as their markets matured. As new technologies grew commonplace and supply grew dramatically proliferated, wider differentiation became essential. Added to this, the effect of increasingly short product lifecycles has further created a need for brands which can exist outside of individual products and services. The continuous introduction of new and competing products, updates and enhancements has forced technology suppliers to look beyond their conventional reliance on product attributes alone. In this respect, a strong brand has the capacity to restore stability to an overcrowded marketplace, and combat the downward price spiral of commoditization.
The continual collapse of market boundaries is another factor that today’s technology markets must contend with. The advancing nature of technology has led to a growing climate of convergence, meaning that products are increasingly able to transcend the confines of specific industries. Even if a product is renowned for its application in one particular field, it can often be reduced to near anonymity when transferred into another. Absurdly, this situation can work against even the most innovative products (Sorry I’m not getting these two or three sentences) or services. It is a truism that your most absolute strengths will inevitably become your most destructive weaknesses, a philosophy that has extreme relevance in the case of technology markets. As a consequence, it is vital that businesses develop a brand that can exist outside of their specific product markets and that will stimulate end user confidence even in alien environments. To take up the famous IBM example once again, the multinational’s successful transition from hardware provider to business consultancy was ultimately, a direct result of a powerful B2B brand.
Like the majority of modern markets, technology markets have been significantly affected by the growing influence of the internet. While online is fast becoming a key purchasing channel, most buyers will be aware of the element of risk that is perceived to be heightened by this medium. Strong branding activity will inevitably become more important due to its ability to generate trust. Equally, as the internet dramatically increases the content channels open to technology marketers, fiercer competition means that prospects and customers are now more skilled at filtering out the noise. As such, it is imperative that technology markets and the B2B sector in general, partner with marketers that understand the full scope of their concerns and objectives.
Resistance is Futile
Successful brands build strong customer relationships for perhaps the very reason that B2B has historically resisted investing in them. A strong brand is based not just on tangible benefits but on intangible drivers with the capacity to provoke strong emotional responses. For less progressive B2B environments it is perhaps something of a culture shock to invest in strategic branding activity. However, in line with increasingly competitive markets, evolving industries, converging technologies and the increase of content channels, resistance to the significance of branding can only be destructive. Individuals react not to reality but to their perception of it. You may have the most superior product offering in your market, but if your market does not believe it, or if they do not know who you are or what you stand for, this will go largely ignored. Ultimately, business prospects demand facts. However, they will also respond to an overt recognition of their human propensity for emotional stimulation. At the very least, in the B2B environment a powerful brand will hold the attention of your prospects and convince them to process the facts.