B2B branding: where is the love?

Exclusive research shown to Marketing Week shows that B2B brands fare better with customers through emotive rather than rational marketing messages.

You might assume that in the world of business-to-business marketing, emotion has little part to play. 

The business-to-business (B2B) brand’s job is to prise open the fingers of the hands holding the purse-strings on behalf of an entire company, often with a board, shareholders and hordes of accountants to answer to. The hopes, dreams and personal beliefs of any one individual surely holds no sway.

Or so you thought. In fact, exclusive research shown to Marketing Week finds that B2B brands fare better with customers when they use emotive rather than rational marketing messages.

The study, conducted by CEB (formerly Corporate Executive Board) in partnership with Google, suggests that although B2B buying is often treated as an activity influenced solely by logical factors such as cost-benefit analyses, risk assessments and feasibility studies, in reality the process is determined by the same complex mix of gut instinct, emotion, reason and post-rationalisation that drives all human decisions.

The rational approach usually sees B2B brands market themselves according to values that appeal to the business brain, for example the ability of the product or service to achieve objectives or improve performance. As Karl Schmidt, senior director at CEB, says: “The classic example of business value is return on investment for the organisation, while personal value can take a range of forms.”

But CEB’s findings, made up of results from a survey of 3,000 B2B buyers across 36 brands and interviews with 50 B2B marketing organisations, show that customers favour brands that demonstrate personal value through emotional appeals.

These include promises of increased confidence, self-image improvements, and professional benefits available to the buyer in choosing the brand.

B2B customers are more than twice as likely to consider a brand that shows personal value over business value, because buyers perceive little difference in the business value that the different suppliers can offer. Only 14 per cent of buyers perceive enough differentiation in this area to be willing to pay extra for it.

Business card printer Vistaprint has taken this lesson to heart. It is running TV adverts that show its value to businesses in a personal way through customer testimonials. 

“I think a lot of B2B branding is a little too rational,” says Frank Gramage, senior brand communications manager at Vistaprint, “especially when you look at the great opportunity to become more relevant and really understand what customers want to gain.”

Although Vistaprint is using testimonial-style ads that focus on existing customers’ experiences, Gramage says generally it is not easy to engage the customer in brand building.

“The biggest challenge is making customers part of the story, getting them to engage and help you activate and build your brand.”

CEB says that many of its members in the B2B sector showed initial scepticism and resistance to marketing themselves as emotional brands in terms of commercial relationships. However, CEB looked at the emotional factors involved in B2B buying and the report shows that trust and risk are key in that relationship with suppliers.

The study shows that B2B purchases entail personal risk, not just corporate. Buyers fear losing time and effort if a purchase decision goes wrong, losing credibility if they make a recommendation for an unsuccessful purchase, and losing their job if they are responsible for a failure.

Schmidt says: “The one fundamental difference that we experience in a B2B purchase compared to B2C [business-to-consumer], is the role others you work with play in your decision-making process.” 

For example, if a consumer buys a tablet, that purchase is an individual decision with no effect on others. “Our survey results indicate that our customers feel a tremendous amount of risk in making those similar types of purchases in their professional world,” Schmidt adds.

Targeting customers

As with B2C brands, marketing for B2B products and services should be targeted, so companies need to understand customers’ personal and professional requirements.

Xabier Ormazabal, head of UK marketing at Salesforce.com, says: “The complexity of each buyer is different. It’s about connecting to key buyer personas and communicating effectively the added value and what you are selling to the stakeholders who you’re trying to influence.”

Salesforce’s strapline, ‘Welcome to the internet of customers’, tries to portray how different buyers interact with Salesforce in different ways

Ormazabal gives the example of small business owners, where there is a concentration of responsibility because one person often does several roles – these businesses tend not to have separate heads of IT, sales, marketing or support, for example. Therefore, the marketing message needs to be geared towards a business owner.

Salesforce.com, which provides businesses with customer relationship management platforms, ensures messages go to the right people. However, the branding plays into the overall emotive theme by linking to its diverse relationships with all the individuals. The brand’s strapline ‘Welcome to the internet of customers’ tries to portray how different buyers interact with Salesforce in different ways.

The company describes the ‘internet of customers’ as a place where buyers can connect more effectively with their own customers, partners and employees – it is a whole ecosystem with Salesforce’s brand and products at its heart.

There is also an argument, backed by CEB’s research, for marketing messages that encourage both rational and emotive responses from buyers, each at key times in the purchase journey. 

Just as consumers research products and services before making a purchase, the same can be said for B2B customers.

“A B2B brand needs to establish a relationship with a potential buyer in the early stages, when there isn’t necessarily intent – just awareness and consideration,” says Joshua Graff, director of EMEA marketing solutions at LinkedIn.

“When you are establishing a relationship with that individual, you have to be helpful, you can’t sell them a product or service that they do not need. Deliver them content that is going to be an addition to their professional experience.”

One example involves LinkedIn’s partnership with management consultancy and provider of IT services Capgemini. The latter wanted to reach a specific target audience but recognised that it was not necessarily possible to engage by talking about its products and services.

It created Content Loop, a website where users can log in with LinkedIn credentials. Based on the user’s profile data, the site presents articles from publications around the world, as well as content created by Capgemini.

We see a need for the rational but also the emotional… we have to inspire people to transform their businesses

The website appeals to rational business needs, by providing customers with useful content rather than pushing brand messages, and also personally relevant professional advice intended to trigger the emotional responses uncovered in CEB’s research – confidence and peer approval.

However, these tactics also have to link to the brand, which is why mixing rational and emotional can work.

“One key thing that is important to us is that, while we are a B2B company, we want to be aspirational,” says Salesforce’s Ormazabal.

“You see companies that are too traditional and basic in the way they communicate their value proposition. In some ways you have to make a statement that cuts through the noise, is clear and aligned to a bigger theme.

“We see a need for the rational and emotional. You are communicating key core values about what you do and you can cut through the noise in that way, but it has to inspire people to transform or do something different in the way they run their business,” he explains.

It seems B2B brands have recognised the need to move away from their traditional marketing approach. Clearly, customers must be aware of the business value of the brand, but an emotional connection with the buyer is also required.

Three focus points for B2B marketers

  1. A B2B brand first needs to understand the personal and professional needs of its users and buyers, and the diversity of its market.
  2. Once B2B brands have that understanding, they must ensure the offer is differentiated from those of competitors.
  3. The third element is communication and how businesses get their target customers to embrace the personal value that is on offer.

Case Study: Cisco

Cisco uses social media ‘listening’ in order to identify customers’ interests, and learn the kind of language that will serve as the foundation for personally appealing messages.

The IT provider has been selling increasingly to new types of stakeholders, for example chief marketing officers rather than chief information officers, who were Cisco’s traditional buyers. As a result, Cisco’s own marketers needed to learn to speak in unfamiliar customer languages.

Once the company identifies specific stakeholders’ roles and interests from analysing unprompted online conversations, Cisco’s marketers build these into experimental messages, which included phrases such as, ‘connectivity isn’t as high as you think’ and ‘99 per cent of the world is still not connected to the internet’.

These messages are tested for resonance in various social media channels, for example Twitter and blogs.

Phrases and messages that are adopted by audiences are then incorporated into more formal campaigns that communicate personal value to customers in the terms they would naturally use.

After tracking the dissemination of one tested message, Cisco found that 58 per cent of customers’ natural mentions about Cisco revolved around that message, which highlights how a supplier can influence the conversation in their space and create connection with a community.

Source: CEB


Too many communications fail to cut through the noise

David Coveney

One thing that I am keen for my team to do is benefit from external stimuli – in terms of learning how other brands do it. Recently, we invited a ‘guru’ to talk to us about the art of creativity, and a dozen of the smarter people in my business gathered to see what we were missing.