Latest industry views and advice

March 26

What can B2B marketing people learn from the latest thinking about B2B brand strategy and brand building?

Rarely, but occasionally, a business event becomes a seminal event in the lives of those attending it.

I’d contend that the inaugural Business Marketing Club NW event held at Salford’s Lowry Theatre on 22 March was such an event. In what might be perceived as the slightly off-grey-tinted world of B2B marketing, PR and communications, a dash of colour goes a very long way.

Having been an active participant in B2B PR and marketing communications for quite some time (as you wouldn’t ask a woman’s age, don’t ask me how long) it was gratifying to see a younger generation of B2B marketers benefiting from top class knowledge and insight into the work they might be doing for some time to come.

The backbone of this knowledge comes from a joint research study between Upp B2B, Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) and some of the companies that took part in the study. This was supported by input from Brother UK and Allie Johns, senior digital marketing lecturer at MMU.

Doing justice to the depth and breadth of learnings from this event is difficult; however, here goes:

Some top-line points included:

  1. Brand

Is, for the first time, the top driver in B2B spend.

  1. Investment in brand

A shift from a “price” to a “value” discussion, plus omnipresent touch points with customers, is affecting investment in brand.

  1. B2B myths

The ideas of B2B as more product-focused and a more rational than emotional purchase are enduring myths.

  1. B2B vs B2H

B2B businesses should think more in terms of “Business-to-Human” rather than “Business-to-Business”.

  1. Brand vs marcomms?

Investing in brand is more than just marketing communications and begins internally with an organisational brand ethos.

  1. Being distinctive

B2B businesses need to “ignite the wow factor” with customers by being distinctive from the first impression.

  1. Having a purpose

Purpose is about a business understanding why it exists and why it matters to employees and customers.

Moving from B2B to B2H

86% of B2B buyers see no real difference between suppliers, according to Beccy Irving, client services director at Upp B2B. Therefore, in the business-to-human (B2H) era, companies need more than features and benefits to cut through.

B2C buyers are accustomed to receiving a more personalised experience, so it makes sense that B2B buyers (as humans first) want personal connections too. And with B2B buyers now comprising 46% millennials and 81% of influencers who are non C-suite, there is a need to engage in a different way. For example, 50% are more likely to buy when they see personal value in it, such as the effect it has on their career or personal image inside their organisation.

Some key points:

  • Emotionally connected experiences start and end with the customer. Who is the customer and how do they think? What are their problems?
  • Customers want to be helped, not sold to. When companies show they understand you and can help you, that builds trust.
  • Adding a feel-good factor creates an emotional connection.

But how does “human storytelling” affect the bottom line in B2B? According to Irving, 64% are more likely to buy and are eight times more likely to pay a premium. She cited the example of software company, SAGE, whose content strategy has doubled customer engagement and now contributes 30% of the company’s business leads.

Manchester-based B2B business, Brother UK, has also seen the benefit of creating a more personal connection with customers based on its brand ethos. Taking Brother’s long-standing strapline of “At your side”, the company realised its guiding principle is “closeness”; a very un-B2B but very human-driven approach about building relationships and services to help businesses transform.

Brother UK summed it up in a new mission statement: growing others by getting closer to people, enable them to work smarter and more efficiently so they can achieve more.

The company’s brand transformation permeated from the inside, with the ethos depicted on walls, through staff appraisals, in learning and development, in training for channel partners and through its marketing and sponsorship activity. Ultimately, there was no hard sell, with communications based on content, thought leadership and with a tone of understanding, sharing and growing.

Ultimately, this work has radically altered its position in the market for business technology solutions.

Being distinctive in B2B

“Distinctiveness is a powerful word,” says Allie Johns, Senior Lecturer in digital marketing at MMU, but what does this mean and why is it important?

A generation of younger business influencers and buyers are – as I think we all are – overwhelmed by the sheer amount of content they’re exposed to. In that context, distinctiveness is the power of making a first impression. What follows, Johns said, is a “halo effect” by which seeing something you like creates an all-round positive perception of an organisation. It might also be termed “igniting the wow factor”.

Johns asserts that some people come to your B2B website wanting to be wowed while others are taking a more considered approach to understanding what you’re about. Distinctive brands recognise there are different people with different expectations when considering your company.

And if you measure the impact of your distinctiveness, you might want to consider:

  • Perception
  • Persuasiveness
  • Attitude (person’s attitude to your brand)
  • Understanding

B2B brand purpose

 “People want to do business with people they like – they’re looking for clues of what you’re about and reasons to buy from you.”

So said Ann Rimmer, director of brand at Upp B2B. Enabling buyers to do this is based on your brand purpose, understanding why your business exists and why it should matter to anyone: “Purpose allows them to get below the surface, know what your beliefs are and why that matters to them.”

Quoting Harvard research into companies with a clearly defined purpose embedded in their businesses, over a three-year period up to 58% of organisations had achieved more than 10% growth, suggesting a genuine commercial imperative to purpose.

Rimmer highlighted small business insurance specialists, Hiscox, as exemplar of a company united around a single-minded purpose and the determination to be distinctive. In a market renowned for playing on people’s fears to sell products Hiscox, conversely, came up with the purpose to “encourage courage”; recognising their customers were people taking risks to create something who needed an insurance company to stand alongside them as they did it.

“Purpose is a rallying call: it’s a signal that you’re human and you care; it unites employees, delivers value for shareholders and helps companies outperform the stock market,” Rimmer said.

B2B services businesses: brand evolution and growth

The research study jointly-authored by MMU and Ann Rimmer relates B2B brand-building activity and brand leadership to the pursuit and achievement of high business growth.

Based on five case studies involving B2B services businesses investing significantly in branding and marketing activity, the study was – according to senior MMU researcher, Dr Tamara McNeill – seeking to explain how parallel journeys of brand and business growth are interconnected.

The research concluded with five principal insights from the experience of these companies:

  • Brand and marketing are deeply integrated within the business culture and strategic plan and are driven from the top.
  • Brand development is strategic, responding to deeper change within the business and accelerates growth.
  • Relationships with customers are active and strong across the business.
  • Internal communication and reinforcement of brand might be as important as externally-focused activity.
  • Strategic partner relationships can drive growth

But what does this mean in practice?

McNeill said: “Embedding brand and marketing in a business comes from the top. We found that growth businesses going through change and re-thinking brand and strategic re-branding realise there is a need for a new brand identity but also think about where they might go in the future. This really accelerates growth, purpose and distinctiveness.

“They are continually assessing the relevance of the brand to the business and using this as a strategic process and using internal branding to reinforce it. Communicating the brand internally takes staff on a journey; a difficult and critical journey because change is turbulent.”

One of the case study companies in the research, Bolton’s Love Energy Savings – a comparison provider for business energy – has doubled revenue and profits for the past four years. Its managing director, Phil Foster, sums up the company’s growth as “employing great people, knowing your brand and staff understanding the brand”.

And despite being a B2B organisation, he says Love Energy Savings has developed the capability to relate to customers and employees in an emotive way.

“We spend more time internally on mission, vision and purpose,” he said. “They get it and understand it’s making their job easier and feeds into more growth. For every minute you spend talking to customers, spend a minute talking to your staff.”

Implications for B2B businesses

The MMU/Upp B2B research notes that the “process of rebranding often forces more scrutiny of the business, typically resulting in further and more fundamental business change and a clearer definition of offer, in turn impacting on brand development”. It also emphasises how branding and marketing activity “go beyond revenue generation to more fundamentally support sustained business growth”.

Articulating your business purpose, harnessing your distinctiveness, providing a human story and offering solutions rather than selling, these facets in themselves transcend marketing, branding and PR. B2B brand strategy is, as Graeme Lawrence from Join the Dots – another of the research’s case study businesses – said: “Brand strategy is business strategy”.

This is why, I believe, capturing such vital themes and offering almost a best practice blueprint made this first North West BMC event seminal: these themes are the essence of why a company matters, how it touches and changes people’s lives and how – in Phil Foster’s words – it leaves a legacy.

Job roles such as head of brand, marketing and PR give people in those positions a responsibility to galvanise those around them to find and instil the values that will sustain the business. However, they don’t “own” those values, the purpose and the distinctiveness; they are merely custodians while the brand – the heart and soul, the DNA of an organisation – is the collective property of the people in that organisation, persuaded and committed to bring it to life, alongside the ultimate arbiters of the brand’s success: the customers.

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