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How to Develop a B2B Brand Strategy
When you think about B2B (business-to-business) brands, you probably have a certain image in your head — large ...
When you think about B2B (business-to-business) brands, you probably have a certain image in your head — large corporate brands with very little personality.
True, there are plenty that fit that stereotype. But that isn’t the best way to succeed in the B2B space. In fact, simply mimicking what others are doing in the same space isn’t the best way to approach brand strategy at all. The process for developing an effective B2B brand strategy will look different for every company. The right approach depends on your target audience, your industry, and the core identity of your company.
There are also more factors to consider with a B2B brand than there are with B2C (business-to-customer) brands. In addition to a longer sales cycle and unique requirements for brand messaging, there is also a different context. Not only are you serving other businesses (your customers) but you might also be serving the consumer (your customer’s customer) by proxy.
Whether you’re creating a new B2B brand from scratch or rebranding completely, there’s a lot to consider in the strategy phase. Let’s take a look at what makes B2B brands unique and how you can develop your own B2B brand strategy to suit your target audience.
B2B vs. B2C Brands
To better define what makes a B2B brand unique, it’s important to consider how they are different from B2C brands.
Most companies you may be familiar with are B2C brands, meaning they offer products or services to consumers directly. Just about any brand whose products you see on a grocery store shelf (Pepsi, Kellog, Dawn, Colgate, etc.) is a B2C brand. In some respect, Walmart and Amazon are examples of larger B2C brands, since they serve consumers directly.
In contrast, B2B brands rarely interact directly with the consumer. Instead, B2B brands serve other businesses who then serve consumers. Think of brands like IBM and Accenture, which provide complex computer technology solutions for large businesses. Salesforce and Slack are also great examples of B2B brands, because they provide software to other businesses. You may also think of FedEx and UPS as B2B brands, since they provide shipping services for businesses to ship their products to consumers. That said, shipping companies like this may also interact with the consumer directly in some cases (thus being classified as B2B2C).
While this distinction between serving businesses and consumers may seem simple, the difference in target audience has many implications for B2B brands. Here are some of the core differences:
For most B2C brands, a sale only takes as long as the checkout process (i.e. a customer chooses an item off the shelf and pays for it). Despite the abundance of information on the package, you probably don’t take too much time to consider whether you should purchase Tide or Gain laundry detergent. In fact, you may even choose a B2C brand simply because you’ve heard of it before or you grew up with that brand around your home.
With B2B brands, buyers tend to use a more logical approach, meaning it may take longer for a deal to close. A company comparing different software products for their team will often take time to consider the different features, pricing structures, implementation workload, etc.. They may also consider the potential long-term business relationship, as well. The product or service they choose may affect the way their business operates in some way. The stakes are higher than with a B2C brand, and there is more pressure on the buyer to make a wise purchasing decision.
The term “consumer” is often broad enough to include several demographics. With B2C brands, it doesn’t matter what industry a potential customer works in — everyone needs soap, toothpaste, and food. Because B2C brands are aimed at a more general audience than B2B brands, they naturally avoid industry-specific jargon that customers may not understand.
B2B brands often target businesspeople working in specific industries or niches. Not everyone works in distribution, product development, or sales, so brand messaging may use industry-specific jargon in order to resonate with those specific customers.
When’s the last time you talked to a sales rep for your favorite soft drink about what drink you should purchase next? As a consumer, the answer is probably never.
However, if you own a grocery store that sells soft drinks to consumers, you may talk with a dedicated sales rep from the soft drink company about pricing and quantity on a regular basis. That’s because B2B contracts tend to involve long-term business relationships and offer much more support from the seller.
For a B2C sale, the risk of making a poor choice is often lower. If you don’t like the product, you can usually return it or throw it away. B2B contracts are usually more expensive, and they rarely involve refunds. When a business makes a purchase from a B2B brand, it isn’t as simple as trial and error. The contract may have specific time commitments for the business relationship, and it isn’t always easy to select another option if things don’t work out.
This is one of the reasons why it’s important to think of your brand strategy in the long term — your customers are more like partners than consumers.
Context of the Sale
More is at stake in a B2B purchasing decision, and the relationship with customers in specific industries may last for many years. Aside from that, there are many people involved that may benefit from a B2B brand. The consumer or end user may not even be aware that your brand exists. However, they will likely know about your direct customers (other businesses), which means you’ll still want to consider the end user in your brand strategy. The experience you provide to your business customers filters down to them.
This is especially true where ethics are concerned. Think of how many coffee brands talk about where they source their beans as part of their brand messaging. The entity that sells beans to that coffee shop is effectively a B2B brand. Although consumers may not interact with that B2B brand directly, they still care about whether or not the company operates ethically (paying their workers a fair wage, using healthy farming techniques, etc.).
It’s the same with your B2B brand. While you may never interact with the end user directly, you want to make it clear that you care about the needs of your customer’s customers.
The B2B Brand Strategy Process
A brand strategy is what governs all of the branding decisions you make in terms of marketing, messaging, website design, logos, product packaging, user experience, etc.. For B2B brands, developing a strategy like this can be a messy process.
To find the right approach for you, you’ll need to drill down to the core of your brand identity and discover what makes it unique. This is a process that should involve everyone from the founders and executives to employees. You can start by looking at the history of the company and it's unique value proposition. From there, the goal is to develop a coherent branding system that consistently represents your brand presence in several different applications.
Here’s a brief look at how we approach this challenge:
Start with Your Brand Story
To start developing your B2B brand strategy, take a look at how your company started in the first place. Why does it exist? What was the mission or vision of the founder(s)? What purpose do you intend to serve? Thoughtful answers to these questions will reveal the unique value you present as a brand. Think of it like a story. Start at the beginning and chart your course to the current point.
This is especially important when developing a new brand. If you’re just starting out, you may be too busy working on running your business to think about your story or why you started it in the first place. Thinking intentionally about your business in this way will ensure your brand presents itself as authentic.
When we at Fusion Media tackle a B2B brand strategy, we like to start with what we call the Discovery phase. In this step, we immerse ourselves in your culture by talking to executives, employees, customers, and just about anyone else involved in your company’s process. In our experience, the marketing team typically has the truest perception of the brand. Founders and executives have a better grasp on how the company operates practically. While both of these are valuable, taking time to see how the rest of your team perceives the company can also provide a lot of important insight.
During the Discovery phase, we like to ask questions like:
- What does this brand mean to you personally?
- Who is your audience? What do they need?
- How would you compare your brand to other brands in its industry?
- How would you describe the personality of your brand?
- What specific section of the market does this brand serve?
- How would you describe your ideal customer?
The more established the company, the more likely employees are to align on certain perceptions. However, the Discovery phase often reveals a variety of different opinions about how the brand presents itself, what type of customers you market to, and how the world interacts with your brand. It’s important to explore those perceptions and differences to find where they resonate.
Set Goals for Your Branding Strategy
To achieve the primary goal of increasing revenue, you’ll want to think about your brand strategy goals in a more specific fashion. Set quantitative and qualitative goals in the early stages so you know what you’re aiming to achieve with the end product.
Here are some examples of goals you may set:
- Completing each stage by specific dates
- Generating new revenue
- Increasing website traffic
- Improve brand awareness/perception
- Capture a certain market
- Upgrade design across assets
It’s important to create a B2B brand strategy that supports different teams within your company, including your sales and marketing teams. It’s a good idea to meet with these teams to decide what goals they have for the brand and how you can enable their success. For example, by working with your marketing team to make your brand more visible and memorable, it is more likely to be recognized in a sales scenario. This allows your sales team to move forward into more effective conversations without doing as much work to introduce the brand on the front end.
If you are already managing multiple sub-brands or brand extensions (or you plan to in the future), create goals taking into account how your parent brand will relate to the sub-brands. Will you leverage the equity of the parent brand on all sub-brands or give each one its own unique brand identity? How will your B2B brand messaging speak to customers in various markets? This will also determine a lot about how your brand relates to consumers (or end users).
Understand Your Target Audience
Your brand is always in communication with your audience. It never exists in a vacuum. Audience perception (beliefs, political ideologies, visual preferences, cultural norms, etc.) determines how you can best communicate trust, competence, and value with your branding.
Saying that B2B brands have less room to be edgy or unique isn’t necessarily true. It all depends on the context of your target audience. If you serve businesses that are known for doing wild stunts on social media (like Red Bull), you will probably want to exude some of that energy with your B2B brand strategy. However, if you mostly work with conservative bankers or lawyers, you might want to dial back the edge factor to match their professional or respectable aesthetic.
To understand your audience, it’s a good idea to create customer personas. These are detailed profiles of your ideal customers. While these profiles are fictional, they should be based on patterns directly observed from real customers, including demographic and psychographic information.
One persona might be for a mid-career marketing executive from New York (demographic information). You’ll want to expand on that persona to describe that they are politically moderate, value family, and have goals to own a beach house in the Hamptons (psychographic information). The worldview, values, and goals of your customers all matter when you are developing a strategy for speaking to their needs.
It’s also important to put these personas in context by considering your customer’s end user. Take note of how their brand resonates with their customers, and tailor your brand messaging to fit with that.
Differentiate Your Brand (Naturally)
In any branding discussion, it’s essential to talk about market position. How your brand differentiates from your competition defines your path to success and how you adapt to future changes in the market. But it helps to focus on authenticity from the beginning instead of asking, “How can we be different?”
Not every customer is going to be a perfect fit for your brand, especially in a B2B space. Your brand may not speak to every potential customer in the market. Instead, focus on finding more of the right customers — the people that benefit most from your company.
If you find that your customers expect something from your brand that you simply don’t deliver or that conflicts with your brand values, don’t try to meet all those expectations. These probably aren’t your ideal customers.
Knowing who your brand is (and isn't) is vital to building a lasting B2B brand. The experience you provide customers includes more than just your visual elements or your products or services. It’s also about the way your team interacts with customers. If you try to fit into every box, your brand may lose its distinct flavor. You may alienate your target audience by trying to be too universal. This isn’t a good outcome when you’re serving businesses of a specific niche.
For instance, if you’re a web design firm that provides clean, premium websites with a luxurious aesthetic, but a customer wants you to provide cheap web copy that reads like broetry or clickbait, that’s clearly outside your wheelhouse. This project probably won’t be the best fit for what you offer, and it certainly won’t make a great case study for your brand. Stick to your unique strengths, and you’ll attract the customers that want what you can offer.
Being different in a B2B space is both challenging and rewarding. To do it right, focus on being authentic and truly delivering on your unique value proposition. If you surprise customers with your competence and consistency as a company, they will appreciate what makes your brand different or edgy in your space.
Develop Your Creative Identity
Once you have a better understanding of your brand and set goals for your brand strategy, the next stage is to develop a clear creative identity. Your logo, brand colors, typography, layouts, messaging, and related elements all serve to communicate your brand’s identity.
There’s a common misconception in the B2B space that business customers don’t care about branding or design — that you should only try to deliver your products and services in a straightforward manner. That’s simply not true. As a B2B brand, other businesses are your consumers. They care about who you are and who they are doing business with, perhaps even more so than the average B2C customer.
Besides that, bad design is bad design, no matter what kind of value you offer. Design is about more than just making something look nice. It signals trustworthiness, competence, ethics, and what kind of experience you promise to deliver to your customers. It encompasses UX (both internal and external), product packaging, web content, and more.
To develop your brand’s creative identity, consider what colors, layouts, images, or other visual ideas best communicate your brand’s personality. You’ll want to develop a brand voice, i.e. a tone of writing or speaking that best resonates with your company and your target audience.
Market research is your best asset here. Look at what other brands in the same space are doing to accomplish similar goals with their branding. Use A/B testing and focus groups to develop a set of brand guidelines that you can apply across your entire business.
How to Execute a B2B Brand Strategy
Once you have a solid B2B brand strategy laid out, you’ll want to think ahead to launching it and how the strategy will be applied in different scenarios. This will help you see if your strategy and guidelines really hold up. It can also help you avoid making some pretty expensive mistakes down the road.
Here are some things to keep in mind about brand strategy execution:
Your B2B brand strategy will filter down into several different applications, and it’s important for each of them to be consistent. Before you launch the new brand, you’ll want to consider how your brand guidelines will manifest for the rest of your organization.
Products and Signage
The most obvious application is how your logo, colors, and layout design will appear on products and signage (billboards, buses, magazine ads, etc.). The same principles apply to your website and paid ads you choose to show online.
For the most part, your brand design should be versatile enough to appear almost anywhere. If it doesn’t, you may create rules or guidelines for application in certain contexts to make sure it is used properly. For example, you don’t want your company name to be featured in white letters on a white building unless there’s a contrasting background in place behind the logo.
Do you regularly host parties or team events? What kinds of performance incentives do you offer? What is your employee code of conduct like? Thinking through these ideas can help you determine how your branding manifests internally.
Your branding efforts should be intimately connected with your internal team. How you treat and interact with your employees (and how they interact with each other) should filter down from your brand values. That means designing a company culture that encourages team members to live out those values.
Good internal branding makes it easier to attract and retain top talent in your industry — they know what you stand for and what to expect from their employee experience. It also influences how team members interact with your customers.
The experience your team provides for customers is an essential factor in brand application. B2B brands are usually involved in high-touch sales, which means you’ll be building long-term relationships with direct customers over time. Consider what your brand means in terms of how you treat others in the industry, how you conduct yourselves, and what you bring to the table in meetings and sales calls.
Strive for Evergreen Branding…
The goal with any new branding strategy is to create a brand that stands the test of time. Getting it right the first time can be difficult. But by remaining authentic to your brand identity and your target audience, you can achieve long-lasting value.
In order to stick around, your brand (both the design and your products/services) needs to speak to something more foundational. It needs to serve a real human need. If your brand is latching on to a passing trend or a wave in the market, it’s going to crash sooner rather than later.
…But Plan For Changes
For your B2B brand to reach evergreen status, it also depends on how it responds to change. Some of the most successful B2B brands remain strong over decades because of their willingness to adapt.
More than that, you might want to change your brand identity as your company comes into its own. As you grow, you may expand your product or service offerings, shift your position in the market, or be caught in a cultural shift. You may find you want to do a brand refresh or a complete rebrand. When you design your brand strategy, take these possibilities into account. While there’s only so much you can predict about the future of the market, preparing to change 5 or 10 years beforehand will make the shift much easier when the time comes.
Consider the example of Drift, a B2B sales technology company focused on chatbots. Drift’s B2B strategy as a startup was intense and personality-driven, with CEO David Cancel and then-CMO Dave Gerhardt building a cult following with their podcast, Seeking Wisdom, and loudly proclaiming the death of forms. However, as they moved upmarket into enterprise sales, Drift aptly recognized the need to match the changing culture, resulting in a tamer brand message.
As a startup, having a bold brand identity can get more eyes on your brand simply because it’s loud and attracts attention. But the more established you become and the more variety there is within your potential customer base, the less room there is to be edgy or polarizing. If you have plans to change or update your brand as you expand into new markets, it’s important to define that trajectory within your brand strategy.
What’s the right way to develop a B2B brand strategy? The real answer is: It depends.
Brands are made up of real people serving real people — and real people are as diverse as they come. How well your B2B brand serves your company depends on how well you can speak to your specific target audience.
That being said, who you are is just as important. To develop a powerful and effective brand that holds up from every angle, it needs to be authentic to the core of your identity as a company.
Because of this, developing your B2B brand strategy can be a very exciting exercise. It means drilling down to the finer details of what makes your brand unique and why you operate the way you do in the first place.
It can also be a hard exercise. The larger your company and the more established your brand, the more difficult it’s going to be to develop a consistent strategy. The vast number of opinions about “who we are” can be messy. Setting a definitive company identity can bring up a lot of emotions. Trying to take your new B2B brand strategy to market with all those different voices can feel like dragging a ton of bricks behind you.
That’s where we come in. At Fusion, we take the time to dive into what makes your brand unique and valuable to your customers. We immerse ourselves in your company culture and operations, pulling insight from executives, employees, and customers alike to find connections and create a cohesive brand story. We specialize in making creative sessions profitable by doing the right market research, so we can help your brand bring out something truly valuable in the end.
If you want help thinking through your B2B brand strategy or designing other key assets for your company, get in touch with us. Let’s discover the heart of your brand together.