B2B Branding and the Skeptical CEO
The CEO sat back in his chair, arms crossed. He appeared quiet and relaxed, but his posture hinted at a state of unease. This was something we’d seen many times before. In fact, we see it almost every time a marketing person invites us in to talk with his or her CEO on the subject of branding.
The company in this story looked something like this:
- Privately held
- Mid-sized organization (faced with larger and smaller competition)
- B2B specialty manufacturer
- Mature business, 30+ years
- Second generation of leadership
- Established customer base
- Defined sales and distribution channels
- Heavily invested in sales personnel and talent
- Sales individuals instrumental in many key buyer relationships
The business was a $30 million specialty-manufacturing firm. It was doing well. Sales were up, but only marginally. And, like many B2B organizations, growth had come primarily from the efforts of an experienced sales team. Marketing was viewed as a necessary evil; an expense; something to be employed only in extreme situations, or in a reactive manner.
As a result, the marketing budget was vague and undefined. It was a moving target, one that would ebb and flow along the tide of sales. And the title – VP of sales and marketing – well, that was something of a misnomer. The position was primarily focused on driving the sales team, with marketing functions a distant second, an afterthought.
But the winds of change were blowing all around this business. So strong in fact that the VP was motivated to bring in outside branding experts to gain some perspective on the situation. What was happening? Recently, the company had begun to show signs of plateauing. Increasingly, they finished second in competitive situations. They started to hear brand-based “buzz” emanating from competitors. They frequently found themselves trying to defend their sense of “reality” against the “perceptions” – whether true or untrue – that were being formulated about the competitors above, below and directly beside them.
So, there sat the CEO, proper and polite in demeanor, but uncomfortable nonetheless. The office environment was utilitarian; the conference room was plain and sparse. Their success was closely tied to spending on must haves and little else.
As we began to discuss the concept of brand, the CEO was initially skeptical. He viewed branding as the exclusive domain of consumer products. It was for beer, cars, potato chips and electronics. It wasn’t for B2B companies, and especially not his.
He went on to explain that their sales were long-term consultative endeavors, based on great relationships, not great branding. Their business grew from targeted direct selling efforts, not emotional imagery and messaging. While he didn’t come out and say it, I knew exactly what he was thinking: “Branding just won’t work in my business. Hiring another sales person makes more sense.”
Fortunately, he was open to new ideas, and willing to listen. We made our case, and won the business. While his company wasn’t selling beer, cars, potato chips or electronics, the results of branding his B2B industrial company were similar:
- A more powerful funnel of prospective customer awareness, acquisition and retention
- A maximum return on the sales and marketing spend
Establishing a clear brand strategy also helped to:
- Motivate employees, stakeholders, suppliers and referral sources
- Attract top talent, investors, and of course, great customers
With his company’s brand distinctly defined and established, it was much better prepared to overcome common business hazards, like these:
Vulnerability to Sales Superstars
A sales superstar is worth their weight in gold. They build relationships, understand customer pains and needs, and assist prospects in arriving at solutions. However, you want your customers to build their relationship with your brand, and not just with your salesperson. If your sales star is lured over to a competitor, you do not want your customers to follow. Building a strong brand will help you ensure that your customer builds loyalty for your brand, and not exclusively with your sales star.
Losing Out to the Larger and Perceived Industry Leader
Businesses are risk averse; they want to avoid mistakes at all costs. Innovation and cost-savings are always desired, but not if perceived as a gamble. Many times, a buyer will choose the more established, and often larger competitor only because it’s a safe play, one that can be justified to management if things go wrong. A strong brand will position you as the best solution to the needs of a particular buyer group, minimizing the perceived importance of corporate size.
Complicated Buying Process
The complexity of some B2B sales often makes the idea of formulating a concise brand promise and position appear impossible. But with a systematic approach, key messaging and customer segments can be united with a common and unique promise, position and personality. For customers and prospects, branding helps to simplify their process of understanding why yours is the best solution for their needs. This will only help them move more quickly into the decision-making process with you as the potential front-runner.
Every company, either B2B or B2C, has a true and authentic brand. Making the most of it depends on who is defining and driving it. By taking a systematic and strategic approach, you can take control of your brand, better align it with customer needs, and in the process, elevate your business to the next level of growth.