Business-to-Business (B2B) firms cater to other businesses' needs and sell their products to different firms and not to consumers directly. Though debates revolve around the necessity of B2B branding as they do not directly cater to end consumers, it is no secret that, in today’s world, every story about a brand reaches its end consumer and engrave a lasting impact. From opting for smartphones integrated with Snapdragon processors to purchasing Dolby Digital-powered devices, branding significantly impacts consumers’ choices.
Tata Steel, Asia's first integrated private sector steel company, is a quintessential B2B manufacturer supplying its products to a wide array of market segments—automotive, construction, industrial, agriculture, etc. Even ranked among the top-ten steel companies worldwide, Tata Steel believes in branding and positioning as a strategic marketing tool for B2B, creating better awareness among customers, enabling effective communication, and increasing product sales.
Boeing is also a classic example of a B2B firm recognising the power of brand positioning. The company onboarded consulting firm Vivaldi to develop its branding and positioning strategy to improve company sales, government relations, employee satisfaction, and partner negotiations.
Branding is about building a story around the brand, where it stands, what it represents, and what it offers. Strategic branding can help foster an emotional bond between a brand and its buyer, thereby making it irreplaceable. As digitalisation is proliferating, the reach and possibility of communication have become enormous. It is its brand and not a product that makes a B2B firm different from others. Branding enables B2B firms to communicate with customers and differentiate their products and services based on customer needs, helping them make informed choices in an otherwise complex and competitive marketplace. The 2018 Interbrand 100 Best Global Brands ranking lists B2B-focussed firms like Microsoft, Intel, and IBM as valuable brands with goodwill as their asset. The report says Microsoft's brand value was $92.7 billion in 2018, while Intel’s brand name was valued at $43.2 billion and IBM at $42.9 billion. Good branding entails not only long-term customers but also ensures well financial pay-off, shortens the transaction cycle, builds trust among all stakeholders, and allows a firm to charge premium prices.
Unlike Business-to-Consumer (B2C), B2B firms involve a longer purchase period, more stakeholders and processes, and heavy transactions, making B2B branding more important but complex. We discuss a few of the challenges and possible solutions for B2B branding.
Pain points of B2B branding and ways to resolve
1. Customers—the kernel of B2B branding: Well-informed and engaged buyers are game-changers for any business. Reportedly, B2B brands with strong buyer engagement record higher revenues than their competitors. However, buyer behavior is changing; they prefer researching online with the least human interaction. The digital expansion has given buyers access to both the brand story and third-party reviews and analyst reports. Knowing customers’ needs and their decision-making perspectives to persistently engage them with minimum human intervention is all the more critical for B2B brands.
Machine learning and A.I.-driven tools, like chatbots, can provide customised support to a brand’s smart buyers. Creating well-crafted and tailored content and delivering them through other websites and platforms to target the right audience boosts lead generation. Twitter and Instagram can be used as brand-awareness platforms to deliver regular messages using automation tools. Brands can encourage reactions to their content, begin conversations, and engage with potential buyers on one-on-one interaction, thereby improving the conversion rate. Personalized welcome and gratitude messages and emails can be magical when building brand awareness among customers.
LinkedIn’s snowballing impact is undeniable for B2B marketers to build and scale up their brand awareness. As the most widely used professional social media channel, LinkedIn serves as a powerful lead generation tool for B2B brands as the platform houses high-ranking company leaders, decision-makers, and influencers. Besides networking with big players, these brands can build relevant connections with potential customers through tailored content generation and promote their products and services to a larger audience at a single point in time. Recent research says B2B brands can also fuel customer acquisition by strategically leveraging digital communication channels—Firm-initiated (Paid/Owned Media and Inbound Marketing) and Market-initiated (Earned Social Media and Organic Search)—for lead generation.
2. Complex decision-making and long transaction cycles: Quite in contrast to B2C, B2B brands get stuck in long marketing and sales cycles that can vary anywhere between a few weeks to even years, primarily because of the nature of their products. While B2C products involve more intuitive and impulsive buying, B2B products are bought with a clear purpose. B2B products focus on specifications, are tailor-made, and require in-office training or demos and life-long support services. Building a strong relationship with the potential customer firm involves long-drawn-out negotiations right from the research to the final purchase. B2B involves multiple brand representatives, decision-makers, several proposals, complex contracts, difficult budgets, and lengthy legal processes before completing any sales transaction.
Customers need to feel emotionally connected with a brand to trust its services. B2B customers are likely to buy more and pay a premium price if emotionally connected. Compelling messages tailored to each customer is the key. Telling stories about products and services customised specifically to address their buyers’ pain points can build the required trust and ease the transaction process. With growing digital influence, a strong online presence buoyed up with SEO-optimised content can improve the brand’s search engine rankings and thus increase its visibility. Valuable information offered through online and offline media, like articles, banners, ads, vlogs, e-books, LinkedIn, social media posts, etc., can effectively convey a brand’s exclusivity to different decision-makers. This can cut down the lengthy marketing and sales processes, even before the actual human interaction.
3. Information asymmetry: B2B sales involve a significant amount of human interaction at different levels between customers and brand representatives. However, consistent brand perception might become challenging for B2B firms. Their interactions take longer and involve multiple marketing and sales representatives and buyer-side decision-makers such as CEO, CIO, CFO, COO. Each interaction is different from the other, thus, diluting brand consistency and compromising its reliability. Messages conveyed through each individual, advertisement, or marketing platform read out different stories.
Visuals, logos, taglines are vital for developing a cohesive brand story. Comprehensive training to clearly understand the story builds a consistent brand perception among the representatives, which is then conveyed to the buyers in the way they desire. However, sales are no longer entirely dependent on brand representatives. B2B customers prefer researching online before interacting with the seller for their purchases. Therefore, providing coherent brand information across all online platforms is a must. Regular blogging, video, and social media posts can help build a B2B seller-buyer community, encourage conversations and consistency in information, and establish brand trustworthiness and reliability. A well-designed website with brand information and call-to-action can serve as the first relation-building platform.
Building brand awareness is like making a strong brand promise to potential buyers to serve them as promised. Clear, cohesive, yet customised branding builds long-term relationships and is critical for all B2B brands.
Views are personal. Roy is a Research Associate-Content Development at the Indian School of Business; Punia is a Research Associate at the Indian School of Business; Arunachalam is an Assistant Professor in Marketing, and Academic Director at ISB’s Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.