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’ve also moved past 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.