What is B2B branding?
B2B branding helps buyers make sense of competing offers from different companies to decide which will best help them solve the needs they have.An effective B2B brand:
- Is clearly identifiable
- Has a well-articulated, long-term purpose and vision
- Has a strong reputation and is perceived positively by its target audience
A strategically developed B2B brand based on audience and market insights enables a company to position its brand as the first choice to compete effectively. Authentic, creatively-expressed B2B brands that are thoroughly distinctive and closely aligned with the way that buying decisions are made, make it easier for the target audience to choose them. A study by Boston Consulting Group and Google found 95% of respondents reported that brand marketing helps a company differentiate itself from competitors.
"B2B brands in every vertical are finding their markets to be saturated, and they're often finding out the hard way. To compete more effectively, they need to differentiate via authenticity, creativity, and individuality."Vanessa Cheal, Head of Brand and Creative Planning, Transmission
The difference between B2C and B2B branding
Business to consumer (B2C) brands sell products and services to individuals for personal use, whereas B2B brands sell to decision makers who are making purchases on behalf of their organisations. B2B brands need to appeal to a group of individuals, each with different organisational and professional needs that are personal to them.
B2C brands have long understood the importance of communicating on an emotional level to build memories that lead to brand awareness and differentiation. A crucial part of this is tapping into the way decisions are made – approximately 95% are based on emotion and intuition according to Harvard Business Professor, Gerald Zaltman.
Many B2B organisations are now realising they must connect with the humans inside the companies they’re targeting. As Tipi Group's Insights Director Jamie Ross-Skinner explained in an interview with The Drum, “you need to look beneath the suit and tie”. However, there’s still an assumption that decision making takes place on a solely rational basis. As a result, B2B organisations tend to focus on features and benefits to showcase their offering, making it harder for their buyers to differentiate between competing options, particularly when the products or solutions on offer are very similar.
There are also different biases and influences on decision making in B2C and B2B organisations. When consumers choose brands, they’re focused on making the best choice for themselves in a bid to minimise the chances of regret; but even in the event of a perceived ‘wrong’ choice, the risk and impact is limited. B2B decision makers, however, are more likely to focus on being able to justify their choice and avoiding blame; the impact of a wrong decision can have serious consequences that potentially impact their colleagues as well as the health of the organisation. As a result, they are more likely to choose familiar B2B brands they can provide a logical reason for choosing, even when there’s an alternative, lesser-known brand that would better resolve the business challenge.
B2B branding is more than communications
In recent years, B2B marketing and brands have wrongly been reduced to simply communications. The logo, colour palette, and other symbols are the outward expressions of the brand used to identify and promote it. They’re sometimes known as brand codes or distinctive assets and they’re very important in signposting a brand for the audience. But they’re not the brand itself.
"A brand is the set of expectations, memories, stories, and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another."Seth Godin, Entrepreneur and Brand Marketing Expert
In this context, B2B brands must be thought about in a wider, strategic context than simply communications; they also need to deliver future revenue and much more besides.There are many benefits of strong B2B branding. These include:
- Growth from new customer acquisition, retention, and increased penetration to existing customers
- Agility to launch new solutions or diversify
- Reduced lead generation and sales activation costs
- More engaged employees
How can B2B companies increase their brand equity?
Brand equity is comprised of the brand assets and liabilities which enhance or reduce the value of an organisation’s basic service or solution provision. It provides value to buyers and other stakeholders by offering them a simpler way to understand and make decisions about one brand or another, such as reasons to pay a premium or recommend it to a colleague.There are two key components of audience-based brand equity:
- Brand awareness: Whether the target audience know the brand exists
- Brand associations: Their view of the brand when they are aware of it, including positive attitudes and perceived quality
Audience brand equity is increased as a greater proportion of the total audience becomes familiar with the brand and can recall positive, enduring, and relevant brand associations. Measuring this type of brand equity is done via brand perception surveys that benchmark a brand against its top competitors on a regular basis to determine rises or falls
"The moniker, 'Say, Do, Believe', comes to mind. In essence, it’s the idea that consumers will only believe in your brand if you're relentless in doing what you say you do."Andrew O’Sullivan, Creative Director EMEA, Transmission
How brand equity drives revenue and profit growth
At Transmission, we believe B2B marketing needs to prove its business value, to draw direct connections between its work and its organisation’s bottom line. Positive brand equity is important because it increases the power and effectiveness of a brand to charge premium prices. If buyers believe the promises and values of a compelling B2B brand, the higher price the buyer is willing to pay results in a greater profit margin, driving up return on investment. This is often the case even though a brand’s solution or service may be very similar to that of a competitor. As Warren Buffet once said, “the single most important decision in evaluating a business is pricing power. If you’ve got the power to raise prices without losing business to a competitor, you’ve got a very good business.”
Brand equity is also a key factor in building trust. For example, as well as driving preference, strong brand equity often means that new solutions or service extensions launched under the same brand gain traction more quickly than for a completely new brand. That’s because brand equity has already established a trusted reputation in the marketplace. With brand trust an important, yet declining, cornerstone of buying decisions, and with 81% of consumers saying they refuse to do business with brands they don’t trust, brand equity is ever more critical.
Additional benefits of positive brand equity
Other benefits of positive brand equity include improved customer loyalty and repeat purchase, and upstream attraction from suppliers who offer preferential terms because they’re keen for a brand to be their customer. Brand building creates a virtuous circle: as a brand gets bigger and stronger, brand equity and loyalty increase, and communications become more effective and impactful.
The team at Data 2 Decisions led by econometrician Paul Dyson have found that, contrary to what marketers think, brand size has by far the biggest impact on return on investment, with creative quality and multimedia among the other drivers of profitability.
Contrary to what marketers think, brand size has by far the biggest impact on return on investment, with creative quality and multimedia among the other drivers of profitability.Source: Kantar survey in collaboration with Econometrician, Paul Dyson
Employees are also both heavily influenced by, and contribute to, brand equity. A standard approach to employees sees financial reward given in response to recruitment, performance, and retention. While these are an essential part of the employment contract, used in isolation, they commoditise employment, offering little differentiation between a role at one company and a competitor. However, where a brand approach to employee experience is followed, positive employer brand equity grows, conferring financial benefits on a brand in the form of reduced recruitment costs and higher retention. They attract smarter, harder working employees who are more willing to accept lower-than-average salaries because they’re keen to work for a brand they believe in.
- Meaningful purpose: Having a reason for existence beyond just commercials. An inspiring vision or highly innovative ambitions, often linked to ethical, environmental, or social causes, galvanise and motivate employees.
- Shared authentic values: When an employee shares the same values as their employer, the more likely they are to be loyal to the brand and positively present the brand.
- Delivering on promises: It’s important to ‘walk the talk’. Brands that say more than they do are likely to frustrate employees with false promises.
Staff and the level of service they provide to customers is often a major differentiator between B2B brands. This therefore makes it somewhat surprising that many of them continue to undervalue this element of brand management. For example, Transmission’s State of B2B Brand Building Report found that customers are prioritised over employees with 48% of respondents admitting they collect insights from their employees “occasionally, rarely, or never”.
Why brand awareness is important
Brand awareness is a measure of how well-known a brand is among its target audience. It is the foundation of all marketing and sales decision making. No buyer, whether in a B2B or B2C context, can begin to form opinions and make choices until they know that a brand exists.
The importance of brand awareness lies in its ability to make audience decision making much easier, particularly at the start of the buying process when purchasers are forming a shortlist of brands that might solve their challenge. When a problem first arises, a buyer consults their memory for brands that can potentially help them solve it, using predominantly 'system one' thinking – quick, automatic, intuitive shortcuts; those with greater awareness and familiarity are more likely to be recalled.
So, the first role of a B2B brand is to build and continually refresh the memories of its target market. It means focusing on how we want the buyer to feel by communicating on an emotional level to build these memory structures. This is also important for out-of-market buyers who aren’t interested in (and will probably be irritated by) seeing repeated lists of features, prices, or ‘buy now’ call-to-actions which are not currently relevant to them. For these future buyers, the B2B brand needs to build positive associations and feelings that are easily assimilated, by the subconscious, ready for later activation.
Brand awareness supports trust
Trust is one of the biggest influences on decision making; it provides buyers with confidence that they’re making the best choice and it makes repeat purchases more likely. Brand awareness helps to build trust in several ways. Storytelling and showcasing the outcomes other buyers have enjoyed, for example, offers a powerful influence and endorsement of the brand. Where current or previous buyers are high profile or have a strong brand reputation themselves, the psychology of social proof means that a buyer will derive a ‘safety in numbers’ or a ‘if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for us’ mentality.
Reduced cost and time of demand generation
B2B brand marketing is sometimes wrongly pitted against performance marketing which is focused on lead generation and sales activation. In truth, they work most effectively when they’re intelligently integrated together (see diagram of Binet & Field model below). While maintaining or growing brand awareness might not get due credit, most salespeople would admit that it helps to reduce the time and cost associated with lead conversions.Tips for successful brand awareness
- Building brand awareness is not a one-off, short-term activity: B2B brands must commit to campaigns that run over several months, and ideally have some form of always-on brand awareness activity.
- Multiple, consistent exposures to the brand are needed to build memorable associations: It’s far better to focus on distinctive and creative brand campaigns with a simple message that is communicated repeatedly to maximise the chance of it being remembered.
"With B2B brand awareness, less is usually more when it comes to positioning and brand codes. Too many concepts and ideas that don’t join up tend to confuse the target and leave them unclear on what the brand stands for or how it can help them."Louise Davis, Senior Creative Planner and Strategist, Transmission
Consider also that only a tiny proportion of a B2B brand’s prospective customers are ‘in-market’ (highly likely to purchase in the current period or buying cycle). Building brand awareness must start and target future buyers who are not currently in market so that when they are in market, they think of the brand. Therefore reach – building awareness with as many prospective buyers as possible – is important too.
Measuring brand awareness
Although brand awareness is a subjective concept, it can be monitored through surveys and qualitative research. The typical measures are:
- Unaided awareness: The proportion of the target audience who can remember the brand (and some of its competitors) without any prompts.
- Top of mind: The proportion of those who recalled the brand unaided and who also listed the brand first before any competitors.
- Aided awareness: The number, or proportion of, the total market who can recall a brand when prompted with a shortlist of competing brands.
Differences between brand equity and brand salience
While brand awareness measures overall visibility, brand salience is the extent to which a brand is thought of during the buying process. A B2B brand with a high salience has a strong presence that the target audience recognises and recalls when they need to buy a product or solution in that category for their business. It’s also known as mental availability or situational awareness.
Brand awareness is a great start but unless it’s linked to a buying situation, it’s hard to turn this awareness into qualified sales leads and revenue. Salesforce – one of the world’s most well-known B2B brands – had this exact issue. According to their own brand survey, aided awareness of Salesforce was over 90% - a very high level of awareness that many B2B brands can only dream of. However, when the same audience was asked what Salesforce does, disappointingly, only 20% knew. Relevance is critical – a brand needs to have awareness, but that awareness must also be linked to relevant buying situations when they arise.
"Strong brand awareness is the cornerstone of B2B brand building. However, it doesn’t count for much unless that awareness can connect with a relevant buying situation. Today’s B2B brands need to be careful not to forget that point."Chris Bagnall, CEO and Founder, Transmission
Category entry points
Buying decisions are not initiated online, but a step or two before, in the buyers’ mind, or more precisely, in their memory. Therefore, one of the primary goals of B2B brand marketing is to build relevant memories. As a prospective buyer transitions from being ‘out-of-market’ (not interested in purchasing) to being ‘in-market’, the brands that have built and continued to nurture relevant links to their brand will be the first to come to mind and be considered by the buyer. Even when a buyer moves to a search engine for more information, research shows that brand familiarity and positive associations sourced from the buyer’s memory have a proportionately greater influence on the shortlist considered.
As Jenny Romaniuk of the Ehrenberg Bass Institute explains, “category entry points (CEPs) are the cues that category buyers use to access their memories when faced with a buying situation”. These cues might relate to personal motives or emotions, but they can also be connected to external cues such as a particular time or location.
Ideally, understanding CEPs is based on the knowledge of the sales and marketing team, as well as the target audience. Once a shortlist of the most appropriate CEPs has been formed, brand associations can be built throughout customer touchpoints and wider marketing communications. For example, a general category cue of business banking might generate suggestions such as Barclays or HSBC. A more specific category cue such as business banking for start-ups will generate different results, perhaps some of the low-fee challengers such as Tide or Revolut.
Cueing in a way that’s aligned with how buyers think and make decisions is a more effective way of driving brand salience and building a pipeline of future customers.
How to start brand building
Brand building starts by establishing a robust brand platform:
- Purpose: The reason the brand exists, beyond just making money.
- Vision: The desired future goal (what the organisation wants the brand to become).
- Positioning: The distinctive market space the brand is aiming to sit in.
- Values: The cultural beliefs and principles that articulate how the brand behaves internally and externally.
- Proposition: What makes the brand valuable and unique to its audience and better than the competition.
Not all brands need all these elements, and some call them by different names. The point is to have clarity and agreement on what the brand stands for and how it’s framed. Keeping it easy yet distinctive for the target audience to remember is crucial given the competition for their attention.
The role of B2B brand building is evolving as more B2B organisations recognise its importance. Our State of B2B Brand Building report found that 61% of marketing decision makers say brand building is a strategic business priority and 81% say brand is “very important” to revenue growth.
A successful brand platform is founded on research and insight that ideally includes:
- Stakeholder alignment: Initially, internal stakeholders need to ensure they are aligned on goals and business objectives, as well as the priorities against which the brand must deliver and how this will be measured.
- Brand awareness, sentiment, and engagement: How the brand is currently perceived, particularly in comparison to competitors. Brand surveys also help to uncover the biggest issues and gaps between what the audience thinks and the view of internal stakeholders.
- Customer and prospect brand perception: Conduct surveys and qualitative interviews that get to the heart of your audience’s biggest challenges, what they value, and their current perceptions. It’s also about understanding how, when, why, and where solutions in this category are purchased.
- Competitor benchmarking: Intelligence on what competitor and alternative brands are offering and how are they perceived, as well as where they might be better or worse than the brand in question.
- Macro market trends: The economic and political issues that affect the industry alongside structural market and related sector changes that might influence the target market in the future.
- Human-centred, emotive personas: Audience needs, challenges, and persona creation is not just demographics but understanding how we want them to feel about the brand. Analysing decision-making behaviour, and how this might need to be influenced, is important too.
Although it’s tempting to skip this research phase because a brand assumes it understands its stakeholders, or wants to save costs, the vast majority of B2B brands find it a hugely valuable investment that informs more effective marketing and saves costly mistakes later on. Insight gathered from the research informs brand platform and brand strategy from which the brand proposition is built – this forms the foundation of brand building.
How to create a B2B brand strategy
Developing a B2B brand strategy begins once you have a thorough understanding of the brand’s current situation. This includes what is (and isn’t) working for current customers or clients, the competitive landscape along with insight on brand perceptions, and the major brand health indicators.
The first element of the B2B brand strategy is identifying the target market. Beyond industry verticals, demographics, and job titles, building detailed personas helps to identify the specific needs and challenges of the target audience. Taking it a step further, consider the length of the buying cycle to scope the proportion of the market that is ‘in-market’ and actively looking to purchase, and the proportion that are ‘out-of-market’ in the current quarter or buying cycle; this helps with objective setting and deciding how to split the marketing budget. Research may also have provided insight into common buying triggers – the point at which an out-of-market target transitions to consider themselves in-market – also known as CEPs which may influence positioning and communications during campaign execution.
Positioning is the meaning and messages for the target audience that encapsulate what the brand or product can deliver, better or differently than competitors. Brand positioning should have broad reach across all buyers whether they’re currently in or out of market. Its focus is on future sales, intended to emotionally prime prospective buyers since this is shown to accelerate effectiveness over the medium to long term. More details on how to think about positioning are covered in the next section.
Distinctive brand assets
Brand assets are the codes that make a brand identifiable and distinctive – the way the brand displays itself so that the target audience immediately identifies it. Logos, shapes, and colour palettes are the most obvious codes but there are many other brand assets that are used to good effect such as fonts, company founders, packaging, characters, and aural symbols (think Intel chime).
B2B brands are notoriously conservative when it comes to creativity and being distinctive. The key is to be selective (a small number of strong codes is easy for the audience to remember), creative (avoid the sea of sameness at all costs), and sympathetic to the unique brand positioning. Finally, they need to be used effectively and consistently, acting as a continual reminder to the target audience; filtering into the subconscious minds of those not in market and providing a perceptual bridge to the audience that’s in market and likely to be a sales activation target.
Strategic brand objectives need to be linked to business and financial goals and focused on changing consumer behaviour and perception. For example, if the business goal is to become market leader in a particular sector, the corresponding strategic brand objective might be to increase consideration by the total audience by a certain percentage in each time period. To set these objectives, a bespoke purchase funnel based on the buying cycle and journey along with a brand tracking study that provides consideration and preference metrics is needed. Brand associations, often referenced in the brand positioning, can also be used to set strategic brand objectives. However, performance metrics such as website visits and social mentions should be reserved for demand generation and communications campaigns.
The final element of a brand strategy to consider is the brand architecture. Many B2B organisations operate a branded-house structure whereby the company name and services or solutions are the same so the question doesn’t arise. Organisations with sub-brands, endorser brands, or those that operate a house of brands structure should consider whether it is optimised to support delivery of the brand strategy. Having multiple different brands could make sense given market dynamics and the competitor set in some sectors or for companies with large marketing budgets. But multiple brands can also potentially create audience confusion and lower profits.
How to achieve optimal brand positioning
Brand positioning is the distinctive market space that we choose for the brand. However, although brand leaders may have a desired position, it is the target audience that really determines the brand position: the image they have of the brand in their hearts and minds results from their interpretation of the signals received from the brand. In their book Positioning: The Battle for your Mind, marketing experts Al Ries and Jack Trout suggest that positioning is not what you do to the brand so much as what you do to the mind of the prospect.
To be effective, brand positioning must be simple and distinctive. If the brand positioning is overcomplicated, there will be a lack of clarity, leading to confusion and misunderstanding, creating either the wrong brand image or the audience having no opinion. Focusing on a set of up to five attributes that you want the brand to be associated with is easier for staff to repeat and the target audience to remember.
The difference between brand positioning and demand positioning
Brand positioning is aimed at all buyers and is the enduring north star from which all other brand and marketing activity flows. Studies show the best way to build memory structures is to be:
- Emotionally engaging
- Designed to generate feelings and sentiment towards a brand that are stored in the minds of prospective buyers
Specific product or service offerings might each have their own positions (laddering up to the brand position, of course) and different sections of the target audience might also be targeted by a specific position, for example, those which are current, in-market leads. Typically, these shorter-term positions are characterised by more rational, persuasive language and include call-to-actions which move buyers through the sales funnel.
B2B organisations have historically leaned towards positioning for demand generation but are realising they need to make space for more emotive B2B brand positioning that focuses on future buyers.
Key building blocks of brand positioning
The components of positioning are unique to each brand. It usually comprises a combination of the company’s origins and favourable, distinctive (avoid genericisms!) qualitative associations. The latter might be inspired by existing loyal customers and by analysing perceptual maps showing how a brand compares to the competition. Brands that can clearly identify emotional benefits and which are fastidiously buyer-focused tend to have greater success in achieving their desired positioning.
Once agreed, the brand positioning should be consistently expressed and communicated through every channel. Effectiveness can be measured via annual brand perception surveys which monitor changes in awareness, perceptions, and sentiment in comparison to competitors.
When rebranding is necessary
A strong business case for complete rebranding is rare. At the extreme, it means discarding all that is associated with the brand – good and bad – and replacing it completely. Effectively, the brand must create new associations in the minds of its target audience, requiring significant budget and time to establish its new reputation. It also means rebuilding trust with the target audience, again not something that can be done quickly. As already indicated, creating relevant and easily recalled memories about a brand in the mind of the target audience is the holy grail of brand building – to discard this by rebranding is usually difficult to justify.
Although rare, negative brand associations brought about by corporate disaster or criminality are one of the few situations in which rebranding is the only option. Where buyer, employee, and stakeholder trust has been completely broken, breaking ties with the founding principles and purpose of the company becomes a necessity for business survival and reinvention.
"Rebranding isn’t usually an attractive proposition. It’s more of a ‘break glass in case of emergency’ moment when a business has no other chance of survival."Vanessa Cheal, Head of Brand and Creative Planning, Transmission
Alternatives to rebranding
In most cases, brand revitalisation – waking up a brand that has lost relevance with its audience – is a preferable approach. Where a brand survey shows declining brand health indicators, further qualitative research can indicate why. Common examples might include:
- A lack of perceived innovation
- The entrance of new competitors with compelling alternative offers
Others, however, might begin to realise that their ageing audience and original brand positioning don’t resonate with current and future buyers in the way they did when the brand was originally established. This doesn’t mean changing to suit the latest fad or trending hot topic, it means moving with the times to remain competitive and relevant to the audience. For example, being agile in the workplace in the early 1980s meant having an invention called a laptop; in the 2020s, the concept of workplace agility has moved on substantially.
The brand identity and its assets, which are often an outward focus of brand refreshes, need the same thoughtful approach. Creativity and authenticity will always be key – being faithful to what makes the brand uniquely distinctive and individual. However, that doesn’t always mean a wholesale change of visual identity; some of the most well-known global brands have barely changed. Often the key to their longevity and enduring brand recognition is the fact that they’ve resisted the temptation to change core brand assets such as their logo. General Electric (GE) offers a great example.
Most brands are simply a little stale and need effective management. That means going back to the brand foundations, being laser-focused on the audience, the needs they have, the value they perceive in the brand, and offering clarity of brand position.