Branding is critical for any company but it is something business-to-business (B2B) firms must embrace more effectively if they are to avoid falling into the commodity trap, according to two separate studies into B2B marketing seen exclusively by Marketing Week.
The studies, by digital agency Omobono and market research firm B2B International, show that while raising brand awareness and deepening customer relationships remain high on B2B companies’ agenda, other concerns, including strengthening thought leadership and building market share, are growing in importance.
It follows, therefore, that countering the competition is cited as one of the biggest challenges for 61 per cent of businesses in the UK, according to B2B International’s study into marketing trends. Yet it also finds that just 37 per cent of respondents carry out competitor analysis benchmarking.
Furthermore, while 57 per cent of B2B businesses admit they are struggling to build an effective communications strategy and a strong brand, only 45 per cent have processes in place to measure the strength of their brand.
“There is no doubt that B2B marketers recognise the importance of their brand and see dealing with competitor threats as a major issue but that’s not to say they are actually doing anything about it,” says Julia Cupman, director at B2B International.
The fact that UK businesses only rate the strength of their unique selling point (USP) at 6.5 out of 10 is also of concern, she says, as 8.0 or above should be the target. However, the UK performs better than the US (where businesses rate it at 5.8) and Germany (6.1).
One way in which B2B firms can elevate their brand is by deploying a more robust thought leadership strategy, according to a separate study conducted by Omobono, which focuses on digital marketing.
The priority for B2B marketers today has shifted from deepening customer relationships (61 per cent) to strengthening thought leadership (63 per cent), it finds, which has increased in importance by 13 percentage points over the past year.
“Customer relationships are still immensely important but they are not the only thing that matter,” says Francesca Brosan, chairman and founder of Omobono, who believes effective thought leadership can also improve customer relationships.
Small companies think big
Surprisingly, the research finds that smaller companies see thought leadership as more important than bigger firms but it is the small businesses that also put greater emphasis on raising brand awareness.
Brosan says: “If you are small, you need to grow and in order to grow people need to know who you are. However, it’s not enough just to be known now, you’ve got to be known for something, which is where thought leadership comes in.”
She adds: “Clever marketers will take the material they have and recycle it in different ways to create continued dialogue with new and existing customers.”
Social media is one of the most powerful weapons in a marketer’s arsenal when it comes to boosting brand awareness, particularly for consumer-focused brands but for the first time it has also come out as the most effective digital channel for B2B marketers, according to the Omobono research.
The vast majority (79 per cent) of respondents believe social media is the most effective of the four main digital marketing channels, followed by website development (74 per cent), email (67 per cent) and online video (62 per cent).
“In 2009, B2B firms were terrified of social media. They didn’t know how to use it, thought it wasn’t right for the industry and felt it was a consumer thing,” says Brosan.
“Not only has it been embraced by B2B marketers but they are now saying it is the most effective of these four dominant channels.”
Over the past four years spend on social media has increased by 50 per cent, according to the Omobono study, which finds that B2B marketers allocate 15 per cent of their digital budget to the channel.
Over a third (38 per cent) also single it out as their top choice for any additional budget going forward, followed by SEO (33 per cent), online video (28 per cent) and mobile apps and optimisation (21 per cent each).
It is a different story for respondents of the B2B International survey, however, because while LinkedIn is the third most useful source for B2B marketers to find out information, the more traditional communications channels such as exhibitions and trade magazines continue to be the preferred choice. Cupman suggests that this is indicative of the way buyers in the B2B market research products and services too.
B2B in the social media space
While 94 per cent of B2B marketers in the UK use LinkedIn, according to B2B International, just 58 per cent use Twitter and 35 per cent are active on Facebook.
“Some people are confused why more B2B marketers and buyers of B2B products and services aren’t using Facebook and Twitter but it is probably because they are aimed at mass markets so are perceived to not really be relevant in B2B,” she argues.
“This is mainly because businesses have a much smaller number of customers, which are more niche in most cases.”
However, IBM UK vice-president of marketing Alison Orsi believes social media plays the same role in B2B as it does B2C (see Marketers’ Response).
Andrew Ford, European vice-president of marketing and communications at franking machine and mail management business Pitney Bowes, agrees that LinkedIn is an effective channel for thought leadership and extending reach but also realises the value of Twitter and Facebook.
“We have Twitter handles across our different business units and do very sophisticated activity around engaging customers and actively looking for followers as well as responding to them,” he says. “For the small business community we also find that Facebook works well.”
It is clear that online and offline channels play different roles for different businesses at different stages of the purchase journey. B2B marketers therefore need to communicate across these channels seamlessly to provide buyers with the right information when they require it.
Alison Orsi, UK vice-president of marketing, IBM
I believe that social media plays the same role in B2B as it does in B2C because as business people we operate in the same way as consumers.
We recently sponsored a creative marketing competition for school children and every idea put forward included digital and social media in a B2B context. These teenagers are the professionals of tomorrow and it was clear that for them social is a key communication channel.
We continue to increase our investment in digital marketing, in everything from social listening to analytics and sentiment analysis. We continually look for new and innovative ways to enhance our customer journeys in our marketing, and digital now has a huge role to play.
Andrew Ford, VP of marketing and communications, Europe, Pitney Bowes
We still find some of the tried-and-tested channels like events, printed materials, direct mail and the trade press have a big part to play but we look to balance that with digital channels, which are increasingly the channel of choice, particularly when connecting first.
As we start to engage and interact with customers on a two-way basis, social media becomes a very important channel for engagement. Often the customers we engage with through social media will be opinion leaders in the market so fostering those relationships is key.
We also invest regularly in email and put rigor around it so contact is relevant for customers based on their profiling and the level of relationship they have with us.
The research conducted by B2B International was done via an online survey of 226 businesses in the UK and US, in addition to an online panel completed by 45 respondents in Germany.
Meanwhile, Omobono carried out online interviews with 115 B2B marketers, screened to ensure involvement in B2B digital activity. These respondents were based predominantly in the UK (86%) but many hold responsibilities across multiple regions.