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Perspectives on Branding and Identity from Franke+Fiorella
Issue No.48

Building Business-to-Business Brands: It’s Still People-to-People

Many marketing and branding books are filled with examples and case studies about consumer brands, but leave us wanting more information on business-to-business brand building. So it’s our intent in this newsletter to offer some perspective on building business- to-business brands.

At our firm, we work with both consumer and business-to-business companies to build their brands. While many companies understand the value of building their brand, we still encounter situations, primarily in the business to-business sector, where people say, “Well, we’re B2B so the packaging doesn’t matter.” Or, “This is business-to-business so our management isn’t willing to invest in brand-building efforts.”

It’s important to point out that many of the world’s most powerful brands are business-to-business brands—Caterpillar, Cargill, BASF, IBM, Herman Miller and Intel, to name just a few. And they do invest in brand-building efforts, company-wide on an ongoing basis. While some of these brands cross over into consumer markets, like IBM and Herman Miller, many only sell to other businesses, where sales cycles are long and one sale may be worth hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars.

It’s important to recognize that many of the same principles that apply to consumer brand-building also apply to business-to-business. While there are differences, both are attempting to create emotional connections and loyal relationships with their audiences. For example:

1. Logo and visual identity need to express the brand promise. While B2B purchases are not generally impulse purchases, as they can be in the consumer marketplace, how a brand is portrayed through its communications greatly influences the B2B purchaser’s perception of the brand. If a brand puts a stake in the ground around innovation, then it needs to look innovative . . . consistently. If its position is the low-cost leader, then the brand needs to look economical.

2. Delivering a consistent brand experience is critical. B2B branding relies heavily on storytelling — with many people telling the same story, the same way, over time. Business-to-business brands are built over extended periods of time and personal interactions are one of the cornerstones of this process. The relationship that is being built isn’t necessarily between two companies; it’s frequently built between people. In the end it often comes down to chemistry: Do I like you? Are our values the same? Can I trust you? 

In this case “you” means both the organization and its product or service and the person they’re interacting with. Therefore, internal brand alignment within the organization becomes critical in B2B brand-building efforts whereas in consumer brand-building the focus must be on the relationship created between the end user, channel partner and the product or service that’s being delivered.

3. Packaging plays a key role in defining the brand experience. While the package may not need to promote the product at the point-of-sale, as it does in the consumer marketplace, the B2B package reinforces the decision to purchase. Does this look like the high-end product I ordered and am expecting? Can I find it easily in the workroom? Does it look different enough from the other products in the line? A colleague recently told us, “The launch of our product suffered when it was originally introduced because the packaging was rushed without any strategic thought behind it. It doesn’t position us as a leader, and we created a lot of confusion in the marketplace.”

Similar to consumer packaging, B2B packaging must clearly identify the type of product inside, making differentiation between products critical. But frequently, B2B packaging is produced in multiple languages, on the same package, often in four or more languages. This makes it challenging to design compelling packaging with clear product differentiation. And in B2B markets, unclear product differentiation can be costly for the user. An example of this is one of our clients who asked us to redesign the packaging for their line of cleaning products. Clear differentiation between products was critical so the right products were used on the right surfaces. Unclear packaging could have created liability issues.

4. Promotional tactics and messages are targeted. But because business-to-business brand-building typically reaches much narrower market segments than consumer brands, the tactics are different. Communications need to convey relevant facts in addition to both the business benefits and the emotional benefits for the user.

In the business-to-business world, a brand’s success depends on the appropriate messages being delivered consistently to the right audience, through multiple touchpoints over extended periods of time. And it’s critical to create emotional connections, helping to build favorability and trust. Because in the end, even though it’s called “business-to-business,” it’s still people-to-people.

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