Brand building is as important at the bottom of the B2B funnel as the top

B2B brands don’t just need the salience to make it onto buyers’ shortlists, but must also win their confidence during the purchase process.

Marketing funnel
Source: Shutterstock

According to Harvard Business Review, 90% of B2B buyers go with a vendor from their day-one shortlist. It’s compelling evidence for B2B marketers to focus on salience: building positive memory structures with the right category entry points so they are front of mind when that shortlist is drawn up. 

But what happens next? What is marketing’s responsibility ‘beyond the shortlist’? 

Is the decision already made, as this stat might imply? Can the whole sales and marketing process really be put down to 90% brand, 10% perspiration?  

Do we leave it to sales? “Listen,” we say, “we’ve done all we can here folks. You have the marginal advantage from being the most well-known brand, customers are more inclined to trust you. Frankly, it’s yours to lose.” 

Not for me. I have seen many examples of performance at these latter stages of the buyer journey being affected by marketing. It takes time; despite many claims to the contrary there are no effective short-cuts here. But with the right collaboration across sales and marketing, I’ve seen outcomes like halving time in pipeline, doubling win rates and significantly increasing deal size. 

The converse is that you can be number one on the day-one shortlist and still fuck it up. Any marketer who has spent time in the field will know this all too well. 

The bottom of the funnel is like the top but zoomed in

We tend to characterise marketing work at the bottom of the funnel as fundamentally different from brand building. Brand is long-term, broad-reach and emotional, and we say in contrast that ‘demand’ is the opposite: short-term, targeted and rational. 

When it comes to the complex B2B sale, this last part is wrong. The people involved in the latter stages of a B2B purchase are the same irrational bunch, prone to using heuristics, making instinctive calls driven by emotion and post-rationalising them. They are no more ‘homo economicus’ than they were before the buying process kicked off in earnest.  

But the context has changed, and that influences how we go about our marketing.  

The risk factor 

It’s a well-established trope now, largely thanks to Ogilvy’s Rory Sutherland, that business decision makers are driven by minimising the risk to their jobs, not maximising the benefits to the business. They know the perceived outcome of anything they sponsor will have a huge impact on their career prospects and a bad one is genuinely frightening. So they ‘satisfice’ and look for the low-risk option. 

This kind of ‘loss aversion on steroids’ explains the importance of the day-one shortlist. If you’re a known brand with a decent reputation, it’s a lower-risk decision.  

But the complex B2B buying process rolls on for several months and involves a lot of people (averages I’ve seen vary from six to 17). If we accept that decisions are made to minimise political risk, it’s clear that the risk profile can change significantly in that period. 

Can we really ‘create’ demand – and does it matter?

To give a simple example, if the preferred brand in a major enterprise deal turns up to an in-person meeting and is confusing in its presentation, the level of risk shoots up. Uncertainty is introduced. The preference built through salience is undermined because the most recent, most salient experience with that brand had ‘buyer beware’ written all over it. 

In smaller deals, the political element may be less significant compared to the buyer’s mental and physical capacity. The lesser-known brand that is easy to understand and easy to buy wins over the initially preferred brand, now seen as overly complex. 

The same rules apply at a lower elevation

I’ve spent a of time working on one-to-one account-based marketing programmes in partnership with sales. Whenever I ask them about what they value in the work, they talk about things like ‘optics’ and creating an environment in which it is easier for them to build strong relationships with the customer. 

They know from experience that decisions are made not on features and specs or even pricing, but on the instinctive preferences of the buyers. Shortcuts are used to simplify the decision and to make it possible for a group of people to cohere around a favoured partner. The medium through which this process happens is typically anecdotes. 

At my previous agency, we coined the phrase ‘swagger stories’: anecdotes, often about previous success, that would travel around a group and minimise the perceived risk. In other words, at this stage of the buying process, just like in brand building, you benefit from telling stories that are memorable and can be easily retold. 

Your methods are similar to those used for brand building, then, building positive memory structures across the largest possible reach, over a sustained period. The difference is you now have a much smaller target market and different media: sales people, subject matter experts, pitches, demos, coffee chats. You are operating at a different elevation. 

Joining a story halfway through

The characters in the story of any buying process are part of a narrative that has been rolling on for years and will continue to roll on well after the process is complete. You are joining a story halfway through; there is value in understanding the storylines and using them to your advantage. 

It’s why April Dunford, in her excellent book Sales Pitch!, explains that one way marketers typically duff up a sales pitch (my language, but I suspect April would approve) is when they focus on telling the story and don’t leave space for the seller to do discovery – ie, to ask lots of questions.

B2B marketers need to reclaim the breadth of the role, or risk sliding back to irrelevance

If you want to build salience at this ‘lower elevation’, you need to pick up on the language the prospect uses and the agenda behind internal initiatives. You can frame your story accordingly and it sticks. You are attaching to existing memory structures and using them to your advantage.  

This is also the reason why ‘warm data’ – accounts that have been consistently communicated with over a long period – converts at much higher rates than ‘cold data’. If you want to understand intent, there is no substitute for the detective work involved in combining quantitative data like contract end dates with the qualitative insight that comes from speaking to people IRL, as the acronym goes. 

A brand is a promise fulfilled 

Roger Martin defines a brand as a promise to the customer that is repeatedly delivered on. It is a continual feedback loop. If we buy this, then the art of brand building in B2B goes way beyond the shortlist. The buyer experience has to reinforce and deliver on the promise. 

The results I mentioned above come from applying the same principles to build and reinforce preference that are used higher up the funnel. There is merit in seeing the complex B2B sale as a continuous process of building and reinforcing preference at different elevations.  

If nothing else, the model we have of two different things – brand then demand – does a disservice to the work at the bottom of the funnel; it means we look down on the hard work marketers are doing over those last few miles. But there is creativity and positioning and emotion and all the wonderful things we love about good marketing here too. You just have to look more closely.