One of the final questions we ask new clients (who sometimes also have new businesses) during a storyboarding meeting is what brands inspire them. After clarifying that these can be within their industry, tangential to their industry, or completely unrelated to their industry, we reliably receive a common shortlist of companies. Apple, Google, YETI, Patagonia, and Cadillac are among the heavy hitters.
With B2C clients, we usually just dig in a little further and try to find more unique-to-them inspiration, typically with great results. However, when it comes to B2B clients, we oftentimes hit a brick wall. They end up just listing off their competitors again, but with the caveat that they aren’t actually inspired by them and truly just want to beat them.
So, why does this disconnect exist? Why do B2B brands find it so difficult to identify inspiration beyond B2C companies with consumer products? Because of a lack of education regarding how robust B2B branding can be and an epidemic of poor brand execution by B2B companies who have decided to undervalue their own brand.
To combat this widespread problem, we’ve broken down B2B brand building into three easy, alliterative steps that aren’t specific to any industry, vertical, or deliverable. But, before we get into that, we have to do a bit of myth-busting.
MYTH: “We love Apple but what they do doesn’t apply to us. We’re B2B. We don’t have products, we aren’t in stores, and we don’t buy ad space.”
FACT: B2B brands oftentimes have more client touchpoints than B2C brands and have the benefit of knowing their target audiences better.
Don’t worry, we’ll elaborate. B2B companies fail at brand building because they don’t think it’s worth caring about or investing in. This is because of the above myth. Because they don’t advertise in the Super Bowl, don’t sell billions of cups of coffee, or don’t have products with a YouTube-worthy unboxing experience, B2B brands simply decide that caring about brand consistency isn’t a worthwhile investment.
To avoid mincing words, this is measurably stupid. Companies like Apple, Starbucks, Nike, and more invest so stinking much in their brand and have a near-fascist approach to consistency because it’s all they have. They have one moment on a store shelf, one commercial, and one coffee sleeve to create an itch to buy in their consumers. More than that, their consumer could be anyone.
On the other hand, B2B companies have dozens of touchpoints because their sales conversations are much more detailed, the purchase size is infinitely larger, and because there are usually multiple stakeholders on their client’s side. For those reasons, though, B2B companies know exactly who their targets are and (should) know exactly how to talk to them. Where Nike might say their audience is any aspiring athlete, a B2B cloud security firm would say their target is middle-management who answer to the Chief Technology Officer at 500+ employee firms in industries with critical security standards.
So, if your company has dozens of touchpoints, from business cards to detailed collateral to video content pieces to post-sale customer delight, and you have a laser-focused understanding of who your targets are and what they want to hear, why wouldn’t you place an even higher degree of importance on brand. You have so many opportunities to do so and such a clear need for consistency.
Okay, myth busted. Let’s get into our 3 C’s.
We start here because this is where even small B2B firms begin to fail. Consistency in branding has two meanings. First, it means having literal design and messaging consistency across every conceivable touchpoint, both internally and externally. Second, it means maintaining a consistent focus on brand continuity. So many companies are amazing at brand consistency immediately after a leadership retreat or after a rebrand but fall off after a few months or even weeks. All that many brands are left with are uniform email signatures and a branded hashtag the marketing department uses on the company’s lifeless Facebook page.
Brand consistency has to start with clear and robust brand standards. Having three variations on your logo lockup is not brand standards. Brand standards give you meaningful jumping-off points that allow you to appropriately take the brand wherever it needs to go, hopefully eliminating as much guesswork as possible. Your brand standards should empower you to be consistent and tastefully use the brand across assets like your website, conference booths, free branded swag, blog posts, advertising, company merchandise, collateral, and even the language your team uses when conversing with each other and with clients. It’s all branding.
If you don’t have brand standards, you have no roadmap. Without a roadmap, you can’t reach your destination. To forgo brand consistency is to leave leads unclosed and conversations uninitiated.
The problem of brand control reaches its apex at larger B2B organizations, especially those where the sales team tramples the marketing team at every turn. For brand consistency to exist, there has to be control. There have to be internal gatekeepers to the brand in charge of how the brand is utilized in every capacity. Brand standards, like laws, are just words unless they’re enforced and respected.
Every single thing a company says, does, and puts out into the marketplace is branding because it helps shape the company’s perception in the eyes of potential customers. That means if there isn’t a champion of the brand internally, there is no way to control how your brand perception is shaped.
So, what does this mean in practice? It means that sales professionals shouldn’t have free reign to create their own collateral or develop their own pitch decks. It means that slide presentations aren’t allowed to be edited by every single person who uses them. It means that brand assets are stored in a central repository, not locally on every employee’s personal machine. It means that you trust your outside agency to create every asset you need, big or small. And lastly, it means that the brand buck stops with the marketing department leader or other company creative lead. The CEO doesn’t get to dictate uninformed changes, the HR director doesn’t onboard employees with no creative oversight, and once again, the sales team doesn’t get to create assets.
Okay, rant over. Now, brand consistency and brand control are great, and even if you have both of those in place, it actually takes one more C to really make a difference in the marketplace and become a B2B brand that people talk about.
This may be our favorite C. If you know anything about Evangalist, you know that we enjoy being courageous and making some statements that aren’t for everybody. We encourage B2B brands to do the exact same thing.
So, don’t play it safe with your brand! You know at this point that branding includes everything you say and do, internally and externally. Knowing that, you have to be bold and say something that turns heads (tastefully and within brand standards, of course).
There is something we see specifically from B2B companies that breaks our hearts. They’re set up to disrupt their industry, just like they’ve always wanted, and they decided that they’re afraid. Afraid of being labeled self-serious or too try-hard. Afraid of the established players in the industry turning their noses up at their more creative young competitor. To use our favorite example, resigning to play it safe is precisely how industry disruption and bold statements turn into a branded hashtag and nothing more.
We’re not saying that to build a brand in the B2B world you have to provocative for its own sake. It’s actually the opposite. You have to say something bold to someone specific. A lack of courage looks like trying to say something inoffensive to the entire world. But the golden rule of messaging is that if you’re trying to talk to everyone, you’re actually talking to no one.
Being targeting, being true to the brand, and being bold will result in turning off a certain group of people. But it also means attracting your true audience more effectively than ever before and engaging them across all possible touchpoints in a cohesive, consistent manner, thus driving them at ever-increasing speeds toward a closed sale.