B2B brands shouldn’t fear rejection, but being unknown

Marketers can’t control brand rejection but they can elevate awareness, so B2B brands should take charge of the levers they can pull to make their brand stand out.

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Humans are hardwired to fear rejection.

To understand why, transport yourself to prehistoric times.

Imagine you are a caveman living in the year 10,000 BC and you commit a social faux pas against the caveman next door. Word gets out, and suddenly no one in the tribe wants to share their roasted sabretooth tiger with you. Without the support of the group, you can no longer feed yourself, and before you know it, you are starved out of the gene pool.

Modern Homo sapiens inherited this ancient fear of rejection, which is why we’re still alive.

Modern B2B companies struggle with something similar – fear of ‘brand rejection’.

Marketers fear we might say the wrong thing to the wrong person at the wrong time and catastrophically harm the business. We often see this in advertising. Brands will pause media campaigns during turbulent times or dull down creative, trying to ensure we don’t insult any potential buyers and find ourselves starved out of a customer base.

But is the fear of brand rejection warranted?

Spoiler alert: not really.

Just like fear of rejection prevents too many people from reaching their full potential, fear of brand rejection prevents too many B2B businesses from reaching their full potential.

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Have no fear, rejection is rare

Many B2B marketers worry about brand rejection. We track negative sentiment. We go dark during dark times. Sometimes we even run campaigns to address specific criticisms and try to win over our ‘detractors’ or win back our ‘churners’.

Almost all these decisions come from the gut.

We’d all be better off if these decisions came from the data instead.

And for the data, we turn to Jenni Romaniuk of the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute, the patron saint of marketing rationalism, who recently published a paper with The B2B Institute entitled – wait for it…’Brand Rejection in B2B’.

The B2B Brand Rejection paper quantifies the answer to a simple question: how serious is brand rejection in B2B? Please allow us to summarise the findings.

Finding 1: Only 9% of potential buyers would reject a brand

You can measure rejection by analysing the percentage of buyers in a survey who say they would ‘refuse to buy the brand’. In B2C, surveys across 535 brands in 24 categories revealed only 9% of buyers actively reject any given brand, on average.

In B2B, Romaniuk examined two categories – business banking and business insurance – and found 11% and 7% of potential buyers, respectively, would reject a brand.

Put another way, 91% of potential customers do not actively reject any B2B brands.

Finding 2: Rates of brand rejection are similar across brands

Both bigger brands and smaller brands have similar rates of rejection, which suggests that brand rejection is less company-specific and more category-specific. What it also suggests is that rejection is not a particularly important factor in brand growth. If it was, we’d see much higher correlations between brand rejection and brand penetration in table 2 below.

Source: ‘Brand Rejection in B2B’, The B2B Institute and Ehrenberg-Bass Institute

Finding 3: Lack of brand awareness is the biggest barrier to growth

So if rejection doesn’t hinder B2B growth, then what does?

Well, if you look at the data in table 5, you’ll notice that unawareness varies significantly by brand. Big brands like Barclays have low unawareness (16%), whereas small brands like Standard Chartered have high unawareness (62%). That’s not a coincidence.

Source: ‘Brand Rejection in B2B’, The B2B Institute and Ehrenberg-Bass Institute

The problem isn’t that buyers hate you – the problem is that buyers don’t even know you exist. And buyers simply cannot purchase something they don’t know exists. That’s why increasing awareness is the chief problem that all B2B marketers must address. Unawareness is the biggest barrier to growth, even for the largest brands. As you can see in the ‘ratio’ column, even big brands have almost two times as many “unaware buyers” as they do “brand rejecters.”

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Finding 4: Most buyers reject brands for reasons outside marketing’s control

Meanwhile, the top four reasons buyers list for rejecting brands have basically nothing to with marketing. Buyers reject brands for:

  1. Corporate malfeasance
  2. High prices
  3. Past experience
  4. Service issues

Product and sales are usually responsible for customer experience and service issues, and finance is usually responsible for pricing.

Focus on what marketers can control – creative and media

As we say here in the United States, haters gonna hate.

Marketers can’t control brand rejection.

Awareness, on the other hand, is something that marketers can control. You can’t increase awareness without some form of marketing. It’s our raison d’etre. As the saying goes, everybody hates marketing until they need to sell their house or find their cat.

Now don’t get us wrong, we’re not saying B2B marketers should actively seek out scandals. Deliberately pissing off customers is not a winning strategy. But trying to please everybody is not a winning strategy either, and the urge to avoid any controversy comes at a cost. It limits our creative and media effectiveness, which are two building blocks of famous brands.

So let us close by making the case for courage, the antidote to fear.

Recommendation 1: For creative effectiveness, don’t blend in, stand out

When it comes to creative, remember that the goal is to stand out, not to blend in. This is extremely difficult, but it’s even more difficult if you’re afraid to take creative risks. B2B creative often relies on safe, familiar tropes, like ‘woman sitting at a laptop’ or ‘two people in suits shaking hands’. But playing it safe is downright dangerous.

The real scandal isn’t that buyers hate your ads, the real scandal is that 71% of B2B ads are so boring and generic that nobody even pays attention to the ads. If you don’t generate attention, you can’t generate sales.

Recommendation 2: For media effectiveness, being bright is being right

When it comes to media, many B2B marketers choose to go dark during dark times (and we are almost always in dark times, these days). We fear that we might appear ‘tone deaf’ by advertising our products and services during crises. But that’s not a data-driven fear.

During the depths of the Covid pandemic, the B2B Institute partnered with System1 to measure changes in attitudes towards advertising before and after February 2020. What we found is that creative scores didn’t change at all – both good and bad ads scored the same before and after Covid. There is no evidence that buyers penalise companies for marketing during dark times, but there is plenty of evidence that going dark will decrease sales.

So, please, don’t fear rejection.

Fear something much worse: unawareness.