When we think of strong brands, the companies that come to mind are often consumer brands – like Apple, Coca-Cola, Google and Disney. Branding hasn't been a topic that mattered to Business-to-Business (B2B) companies for long. A decade and more ago, B2B companies cared about product development, sales and customer service. If they did those things well, they'd succeed. Branding wasn’t something that mattered.
But times have changed.
Now, B2B buyers are more likely to form an opinion about a potential supplier based on how that company looks online, rather than based on any direct interaction with the supplier’s people and products. So B2B companies have to build brands in order to attract and secure new customers.
The challenge for B2B companies when it comes to branding is that, while they may have an appreciation that branding matters, it’s hard to calculate the value of branding and know what level of investment makes sense. Consumer companies have a strong argument to make large investments in their brands because they serve millions of consumers and the value of brand recall and brand recognition are self-evident. Conversely, B2B companies typically serve niche markets with fewer potential customers, so large investments to create brand recognition and recall across a large population isn’t wise.
But there’s no debate that branding is growing in importance for B2B companies. So in this post we’re going to cover the basics of B2B branding, specifically:
- Why branding matters now for B2B companies
- What B2B branding is NOT
- The 3 critical elements of B2B brands
- How to build a B2B brand
Why branding matters now for B2B companies
There are 4 areas that branding makes an impact for B2B companies:
Without a well-defined brand, it’s hard for a team to deliver the same message and portray a consistent and reliable corporate image. Many B2B companies have scattered communications both internally and externally. Those scattered communications leave employees and agents uncertain about what the company stands for. And when the internal team isn’t sure, that leads to confusion in the market about what the company does and what it’s good at.
If there is no brand strategy or an ambiguous one, it’s difficult to execute effective marketing campaigns. Since a lot of money gets spent on lead generation campaigns for B2B companies, that money is wasted when the brand foundation isn’t solid.
Familiarity breeds confidence
People trust what is recognizable to them. In competitive markets, B2B companies need to stand out against competitors who may have lower prices or other product / service advantages. By creating some clout and recognition through branding, B2B companies can gain a level of trust before they start engaging with prospects. This can differentiate them powerfully from competitors who bring less trustworthiness to the table. In addition, B2B companies need to foster and promote their brand promise at every point of contact with their current clients to reinforce the value they are receiving.
Relationships matter a lot in B2B. Even in our increasingly digitized world, there’s no replacement for the trust that happens between an individual who’s buying and an individual who’s selling. But the old mechanisms for building personal relationships are changing – if not breaking down. Today, buyers are far more likely to use non-personal tools to evaluate potential suppliers. That means online. And they won’t connect with suppliers who don’t ‘look’ right to them through their websites, social media presence and 3rd party reviews. That means that no matter how fantastic the people within a particular B2B company, if their branding doesn’t position them effectively, they won’t have a chance to build a relationship with a prospect.
Brand equity helps propel growth. As a B2B company grows and looks to expand geographically, having a solid brand yields instant authority and can make the entry into a new market faster and ultimately more successful. Without a brand, the company is just another competitor without much reason for potential buyers to consider.
What B2B branding is NOT
There are many misconceptions about branding for B2B companies. Here are 3 considerations to help you avoid confusion:
A logo is not your brand
A smart and powerful logo is a great start to developing your brand, but it is by no means the end of your brand development. A brand is built on visual cues but there also needs to be a message that communicates your brand promise. Your brand promise is what your company is going to provide (benefits) and explains how you are able to do it (features) and this message is delivered through words, actions, images and people.
The marketing department isn’t the sole owner of the company’s brand
Marketing alone will not take care of building your brand. A consistent message delivered through all areas of a company is the foundation for a brand identity. You can have savvy advertisements, pristine marketing collateral and a call centre communicating the words you want your customers to hear, but if your delivery isn’t matching up to the promise you’re making, you won’t garner the brand reputation you seek. A consistent message married with consistent experience is the only way to develop the brand you want.
It doesn’t have to be expensive to build a B2B brand
Brand development does not need to be a multi-million dollar affair in the B2B world. It can be fairly inexpensive, especially for those who have a good handle on the trigger points of their audience and what their company is capable of offering. To figure out what your brand needs to convey, examine what your company delivers and what unique characteristics will make your audience take notice. If you invest intelligently to build a brand foundation, you’ll save loads of money over the long-term, by having more of a level to propel your lead generation activities.
The 3 critical elements of B2B brands
Ready to work on your brand? Here are the key elements you'll want to start with.
Just as you never have a second chance to make a first impression, you can’t change your name once you’ve launched, so make sure it’s right. If you go with something too generic, it won’t be remembered.
Make it ownable. Make it yours.
If you have to develop a name, that’s okay. As long as it doesn’t give off any negative connotations or mean something odd in a different language, you’ll be golden.
Your logo is going to stay in customers' minds long after the pitch, so it needs to be memorable, distinctive, and representative of your image.
Have a look around your industry to see if there are any benchmarks or established rules that you should consider. For instance, if you are in a professional service industry, a slick or flashy name may come across as 'too fast' and will impede you from winning business rather than help you.
Tagline or slogan
Some companies choose not to have a tagline, but in B2B it can be a powerful descriptor that helps you get your message out.
The tagline or slogan will compel a prospect to consider your offering.
Taglines can be designed in a variety of ways. They can be developed to describe what you do, differentiate your company, make a connection with your prospect, or provide a call to action.
Taglines that are too vague make your company look vague. Take a stance and make a statement!
There are many other things that can be considered brand elements, but these are the most important ones to get you started. Things like reputation and brand story evolve over time, and their genesis will be a direct result of your efforts in all other aspects of branding and workmanship.
The most important tip - regardless of the brand element - is to make certain you are using your branding in a consistent way. Brand inconsistency does not lead to anything but a poor company image.
How to build a B2B brand
Now you're ready to build your company’s brand. It can feel like a daunting task, but here are a few steps to guide you:
Start by auditing what you currently have. Brand elements encompass the logo, company colours, imagery and messaging. Look at the consistency (or lack thereof) in how your company is conveyed across all of its materials – website, sell sheets, social media platforms, business cards, email signatures, signage, trade show booths, email templates, case studies – and anything else that goes to customers and employees.
Most companies have a hodge-podge of materials. Step one is to create consistency across all of these communication tools. Because if a company doesn’t have consistency at this point, it only gets worse with time and breadth. If you don’t get this right, it wastes money down the road.
Some companies have to make decisions about what brand they are going to move into the future with. In some cases, a company has a strongly defined brand and will undertake the task of standardizing materials by using that brand. In other cases, the company first has to make decisions about their brand.
Developing a B2B brand strategy
Brand is an emotional or subjective connection with a company and its products or services. Because of that, it can be difficult to get a group of people to agree on some design elements of a brand, like the logo. Many of the elements of a brand are subjective – someone may like blue while another on the team strongly dislikes blue.
Don’t let this slow you down (or worse, stop you). There is no valid business reason to move one way or another when it comes to building your brand’s design. Those subjective elements of the brand will come together over time in a way that builds the entire brand. Branding is not a once-and-done exercise.
What’s important in building a brand is that you have the strategy right. To do this, start by defining your company’s brand personality. At Mezzanine, we use an exercise to determine 3-5 adjectives that describe the company. Think of some common consumer brands and how you would describe them. For example, Disney would be described as familial, magical and fun. All elements of the Disney experience support those attributes.
When it comes to defining your B2B company, if your team agrees on the traits that represent the company, then you’ve done a good job of defining and operating true to the company’s personality.
It’s usually best to have 2 or 3 main colours that represent your brand (ie, in your logo, collateral and digital presence) and then up to 5 more that work well with the main colours. Have a compliment of bright and neutral colours to be used to highlight or tone down the visual representation of a company.
Make sure to have a web font that is universally acceptable or your website won’t render properly for some users.
Next it’s time to build a logo. You’ll provide the brand elements you’ve just created (existing brand, brand strategy and personality, colour palette and fonts) to a designer or group of designers. Typically you’ll get up about half a dozen options to consider, and you’ll work from there to refine one or two of them to a final version.
A word of advice: trust the marketing consultant, designer and the personality you have created when it comes to the early stages of creation. Try not to be too directive. In our experience, most logos are selected by intuition and then perfected. Most of the time, the logo is different than the expectations set by the group at the beginning.
The final element of the brand is imagery. Will you use stock or original photography? Or animation? Or a combination? If you’re using stock photography, provide a sample of 9-12 stock images that match the brand personality, the company and/or industry and the customer personas.
This represents the core of your brand image. Now that you have all of the elements, what next? Use these elements to build the website, sell sheets, collateral, social media presence, and all your communications tools.
As a final reminder, branding isn't a once-and-done pursuit. Yes, you'll want to build your brand foundation as a single, focused project - to ensure that it gets done strategically and consistently. But after that, branding is an ongoing, every day activity that flows across your organization. That's how some B2B companies build excellent and valuable brands over time.
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- Manufacturers, How Do You Build a Global Brand?
- Use The Force: How To Balance Brand Awareness and Lead Generation In Your Marketing Plan.