Have you noticed that ‘B2B’ seem to have become three of the most reviled and dismissed initials around? It’s a dull cliche, and like all cliches it’s a lazy shorthand way to look at things. Time to unravel the prejudice, and expose the 5 secrets of B2B branding (done properly).
The role of emotion in consumer buying decisions is often perceived as being paramount, compared to the arid world of B2B decisions. The 80/20 rule seems to be applied here: emotion is 80% of consumer buying decisions, against 20% emotion in B2B. But it’s impossible to be that cut and dried about the veracity of such figures - and making such a simple division between percentages is missing a crucial difference.
Anything that happens in B2C happens quickly. Nothing in B2B is quick. Procurement is detailed and thorough and exhaustive and endlessly reviewed and slow. About 18 months slow. Sometimes 36 months slow. Call it time to think, but much of that long buying process is spent forging a relationship between buyer and seller. Obviously there is a rational element in procurement. But to us, buying on a relationship means emotion - and one that’s more profound and far reaching than that behind choosing the latest Minecraft edition.
As obvious as it sounds, it’s not said enough that relationships of trust, shared expertise and mutual respect for each other’s roles are key to good business. As well as a fair amount of people who do business together simply because they like each other and we’re all human. Speed and emotion have been made synonymous with advantage, been seen as the obvious raw material of consumer brands and dismissed as irrelevant for B2B - when this view is superficial and the reality more nuanced.
So, if we accept that B2B isn’t an emotional wasteland, what’s the message for branding within that sector?
Understand the nature of the beast. Recognise that there are several layers of relationship. The one between the people who do business with each other, the one between the employed and the employer, and the relationship brand-to-brand, company-to-company. That's potentially hundreds of people selling products, and hundreds building relationships with each other and their peers in their own and other companies. Each needing their own compelling and clear message.
We believe this compelling message is a promise that articulates what the brand is about, motivates people and most importantly galvanises everyone around a single idea. (You can argue that every brand promise is a leap of faith, which brings us back to emotion).
Logistics businesses Yusen and Menzies sit firmly inside the B2B sector, with their focus on moving goods from place to place. But neither Yusen’s offer to “create better connections” or Menzies promise of “your tomorrow delivered today' are offering you a rational buy . They’re not even especially about the service they provide. They are a promise which elevates and expresses a perfect version of your expectations.
And we’d argue, a B2B promise is more essential, far-reaching and fundamental than the consumer version. One is talking about your toast, your jeans, your streaming device, perhaps your car in ways that are often wilfully pompous and opaque. Business is talking about what makes the world work.
Embrace the challenge of being truly different. That’s real and viable because the B2B categories tend to congregate around the same messages and positioning, and everyone seems to have the same five values. Regardless of five values being too many and inevitably too bland, a perhaps not altogether surprisingly 80% of the top FTSE 100 share at least one value. Making them hard to tell apart or remember. But this also means more opportunity to really stand out and create your own clear, defendable territory.
Sadly, the older, more traditional businesses are not moving forward and investing in their brands. They look devoid of personality. They certainly don’t look progressive. All saying the same thing, they’re relying on the expertise and good nature of those who work for them to survive doing what they already do. We fear this is a deeper malaise. Born of historic societal issues and attitudes and while branding can help, UK Ltd first needs some practical soul searching from us as a nation – especially one embracing a post Brexit world.
It’s predictable the tech and digital sectors are embracing a more sophisticated branding approach, perhaps with post-pandemic retail watching on from the sidelines.
Consumer is seen as the glamorous side of branding. It's what people buy, see and have heard of – and in our industry, it’s delivering a sort of glitterball fame that attracts talent. But B2B is actually where the money and opportunity lives - and though less immediately glamorous, it’s where you can find true difference as well as create something genuine and valuable.
#5 Internal & external engagement
If you want to do this properly, and effectively, get inside the company. Use audits, interviews and research to understand the culture and then be equipped to craft the value propositions, promise and behaviours that will take the business further. What's essential for every B2B brand is how it lives internally and how you communicate what is differentiating about it and how that difference is delivered.
It's two sided. Creating the optimal culture and experience for customers, Designing the internal enabling culture, messaging and experience for those delivering it. Always ensuring internal and external meet in the middle because that’s where success is made.
All these messages are tough love because they need to continually answer the ‘what’s in it for me?’ question. Answer while making it obvious that to succeed, everyone has to succeed, take the brand right through from the marketing department to the front of house staff, the security, the cleaners.
Finally, make what your business is about clear externally. B2B brands have to work harder here because they lack the accrued momentum of consumer brands. No cutting corners with content either – the audience knows the truth and if what’s being offered is worthwhile. If anything, this audience is the most discriminating and informed you’ll ever find.
We’ve worked with Kingfisher across their whole range of companies, and we see this truth work in action. For electricians or plumbers or carpenters, the truth of the brand is put to the test every day.
Most of these markets are small businesses that behave much like consumers; the difference being their reputation is on the line every day too. Trusting the brand that supplies them is how their business is built.
Conclusion: this is serious
At the time of writing the ‘do we go back to the office full time’ question is still being debated. While some are embracing the freedom of flexible working, BT is facing its first strike in 30 years as it plans to close up to 270 offices. Many businesses are hoping to naturally settle on a happy medium. But it’s indicative that we all need to have a more emotional commitment to a business brand than a consumer brand, especially one we work for or on.
Because what we’re dealing with are people's real futures and livelihoods. Attracting them and building something that they want to be a part of. That requires not only a proposition that people can get excited about, it needs absolute clarity of vision and really strong leadership that'll work hard on the inside as well as the outside. For brands that people want to be a part of and will inspire them to work in a certain way.
The point in its simplest form is that B2B brands are more emotional, compelling, involving and interesting because they're more important in more ways. The neglected B2B sector deserves brands that express this, not dismisses, ignores or fails it.
Consumer brands, fun as they are, attractive as they are, desirable as they are, part of life as they are, in the end are less important and so less genuinely emotional. Harsh but true.