Branding is still alien to many B2B firms

The real challenge for B2B marketers is not brand management, it is change management, and convincing a CEO and senior management who do not have the background of its value.

My favourite ever B2B ad is an ad for… B2B advertising! The ad for McGraw Hill was featured in my undergraduate textbook Principles of Marketing by Philip Kotler in the one chapter that featured B2B marketing.

The reason I love the ad is that it summarises the challenges of B2B marketing in eight lines. Those eight lines are still true today: in the B2B world, you need to convince management that having a brand is important.

Kotler has another book – B2B Brand Management – that drives home the point that in B2B branding is not seen as relevant. As Kotler puts it, “managers are convinced that it is a phenomenon confined only to consumer products because they believe they are in a commodity or speciality market”, and “the rational world of B2B means that choices are made in an objective decision-making process that only accounts for the hard facts such as features and functionality”.

We all know that some of the world’s strongest brands are B2B: Microsoft, IBM, Intel, FedEx, Airbus. But this has not sunk in as much you would think. As Kotler points out, aircraft maker Boeing created its first ever formal brand strategy as recently as the year 2000 and had its first formal product brand name when it named the Boeing 787 as the ‘Dreamliner’ in 2005.

Why is brand building a challenge in B2B marketing?

In my experience, the topic of brand building is challenging for B2B marketers for three reasons:

  1. The pressure to deliver short-term sales: marketing’s primary role in B2B is to drive growth, and this takes the form of driving quality leads.
  2. The internal belief of management and, in particular, the sales team, that the typical B2B customer know a great deal about their products, and those of competitors.
  3. Marketing comes in different flavours: corporate marketing promotes the company brand. Lead generation or inbound marketing run campaigns. Field marketing promotes ‘in-market’. Marketing communications own the communications and the channel and maybe PR.

I know Les Binet and Peter Field’s research shows that long-term B2B brand building is just as important as a product’s features and price, and that “brand advertising really does work in B2B to drive buyer choices and revenues”. But just try to convince a sales team with no idea of branding that we should reallocate resources away from driving sales.

Why B2B brands need to invest in brand marketing

The importance and power of the sales team in B2B cannot be overestimated. The sales force is the main driver in B2B revenues in most companies and their worldview of meeting specifications, complying with tender regulations and showing how lowest total cost-of-ownership predominates. This is very true when selling complex customised equipment or propositions with year- or multi-year long sales cycles.

The real challenge for B2B marketers is not brand management, it is change management.

If I was not aware of before, it was definitely brought home during a recent 2020 marketing plan presentation I gave with our sales and product team. I gave it the full Byron Sharp: our acquisition strategy must target a wide audience to generate long-term support, we should grab attention and focus on brand salience, and create distinctive brand assets, as well as being memorable and consistent.

What was the result? Blank faces and the lowest feedback score of any presentation I have made!

I am not so naïve that I expected an immediate volte-face on the basis of one presentation. But this was hardly the first time they had seen me speak on the topic – I’ve been talking about how B2B tech brands such as Salesforce, Amazon Web Services and Adobe have been using B2C marketing techniques for a few years.

The great balancing act: The long and short of B2B marketing

As David van Schaick, CMO of B2B agency The Marketing Practice, told Marketing Week last year, part of the problem is “the burden of proof”. It takes long-term investments to deliver long-term marketing goals, but it’s hard to make an 18-month-plus business case while hitting lead generation targets.

Plus, there are so many moving parts in a B2B sale that you can blow a huge hole through any claims by marketing of attribution to an individual sale.

Focus on change management, not on brand management

The real challenge for B2B marketers is not brand management, it is change management. And change management often has to start with convincing a CEO and senior management who do not have the background to understand brands, or marketing in general.

Having worked in B2C for most of my career with some of the UK’s best known brands, I have to say the job is easier when management are convinced of the value of marketing and the importance of branding. You can argue over strategies and tactics when the person you are talking to speaks the language of marketing. That comes to a grinding halt in the realm of B2B.

There is a lot of anecdotal evidence that B2B marketers are surrounded entirely by people who are too rational. The language of emotion is not a language they understand. I have seen too many B2B marketing directors lose their jobs to dispute the anecdotal evidence.

I’ve talked to a number of marketing colleagues who have made a successful jump from B2C to B2B – who have worked on some of the world’s biggest brands. They all say the same thing: the key to effectiveness in B2B marketing is to understand change management.

Why one CMO swapped consumer marketing for B2B

The starting point for B2B marketers is to understand the major change-management models. There are two main ones:  John Kotter’s Eight-Step Change model and Kurt Lewin’s Freeze-Unfreeze Change Management Model.

Lewin’s model describes three stages of change management. The first step is to “unfreeze” a current process and take a look at how things are done; then deploy the changes and guide the team as they move to a new model; and finally “refreeze” the new status quo.

Kotter’s model focuses on the people behind change. It suggests creating a sense of urgency, forming a strategic vision, getting everyone on board, removing barriers and reducing friction, as well as generating short-term wins and maintaining momentum.

Where to start with change management

I prefer Kotter’s model as it is easy for everyone to understand. The steps are clear and it is easier to communicate the sense of urgency to senior management. I back this up all the time with lots of examples that non-marketers can see, understand and apply. The aforementioned Salesforce, AWS and Adobe are fine examples.

Does that mean it is easy to achieve? No. Is this the perfect recipe for success? No. Is this for the faint-hearted? No.

However, the alternative of making changes ourselves and then crossing our fingers is guaranteed not to work. Remember, it took a few years for the ramifications of what Sharp was saying for marketing to change. It is no different for B2B marketers.