The fundamental principles for branding in B2C (business to consumer) and B2B (business to business) marketing are the same. In both approaches, brand simplifies a buying decision because it differentiates, communicates core values, and relieves risk perceptions.
Nuances, however, exist between the two and the role of branding in a B2B organization often gets confused.
Marketers must be aware of the differences between the B2C and B2B settings so they can adapt their strategies accordingly.
B2B marketers must consider the following factors:
The B2B target audiences are governments, institutions, and corporations, not individuals or households. As a result, buying decisions tend to be made by various stakeholders and take much longer.
In B2B settings, the product or service offering is likely to be more technical or industrial and is generally highly customized. As a result, the buying process tends to be risky and complex.
Buying organizations buy goods and services because they are seeking solutions to their or their clients’ problems. The goods and services that are marketed need to facilitate production or produce other goods and services. Therefore, buying decisions tend to be based on objective factors related to performance and business needs.
Personal relationships play a critical role. This allows marketers to collaborate on customized solutions over time.
Personal selling tends to play a much bigger role in B2B settings compared to B2C settings. Typically, the sales force initiates and establishes relationships with clients, then works to close them on a sale over time. The sales journey requires establishing trust by delivering the right messages and materials in the right way at the right time to multiple prospective influencers.
Branding can simplify this process. Sure, B2B salespeople communicate the benefits of the products and services, but a strong brand and integrated marketing communications campaign gives them “air cover” – marketing efforts can create awareness, encourage prospects to interact (e.g., via website, customer representative) with the marketing organization, and generally lead to a more effective and efficient customer journey.
Even if B2B marketing is a more sales-oriented process, marketing communications can reinforce company reputations and reduce some of the risks associated with a purchase.
Sophisticated B2B marketers are beginning to utilize brand strategy to help them compete in a dynamic market in a number of ways including the following:
B2B marketers often focus their efforts on the functionality and utility of their product or service. But, buying organizations, ultimately are comprised of humans who want to be entertained and engaged. A brand that tells an emotional, meaningful, and compelling story is more likely to connect with a buyer. Indeed, this might be the competitive difference. In this highly successful 1997 campaign from BASF, the B2B chemical company tells a story about how it makes the products people buy better in a manner more consistent with B2C ads.
B2C marketers are well-known for their emotional and creative campaigns, but B2B marketers have been slow to follow their lead. This is changing, however. SAP, CDW and Workday are just a few of the companies taking advantage of more B2C-oriented approaches. B2B marketers are starting to execute more creative and fun mediums, like SAP's segment on Jimmy Kimmel Live, to build their brands and engage with customers.
Of course, B2B marketers have to be strategic in their use of creativity. Novelty and relevance are the key components of creativity. Research suggests that the trick for B2B marketers is finding the right balance between the two. Communicating a brand’s relevance is necessary, but too much can be boring and lacks differentiation. Too much novelty, on the other hand, becomes meaningless. That said, the right balance could result in a creative execution that “breaks through the clutter,” stirs emotions, and ultimately leads to an increase in performance including brand recall, engagement, and purchase intent.
Brand reputation is short for trust. When a client makes a B2B buy, it’s making a risky, multi-year commitment with the product or service’s corporate brand.
Too often, B2B buyers approach purchases with “bounded rationality,” believing they can examine every technical spec and make strictly rational decisions. But they can’t. Again, they’re humans. They need to make shortcuts and therefore are subject to brand cues. A brand’s reputation might be just enough to sway them. "Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM.” That timeless quote from IBM’s heyday exemplifies the idea of bounded rationality, the risks of the B2B context, and the benefits of a strong brand.
B2B marketing is still a sales-oriented process. Personal relationships from salespeople and activities like tradeshows can help build relationships.
Brands, however, can provide B2B organizations a meaningful boost by standing for more than just the product or service. Because buyers are human and rationality is bounded, people don’t leave their emotional selves behind when they go to work every day. A strong brand might be the difference when it comes to closing the sale.