I wrote this chapter for a potential book on B2B marketing. Just before the deal was to be struck, my potential co-author and I decided it wasn’t the book either of us wanted to write. That said, if you are in need of a basic primer on B2B branding, the chapter below should be helpful. If it isn’t, be sure to let me know why!
Why brand matters
Without a clear brand, your business will be lost in the herd. It’s that simple. Ranchers in the old west used branding irons that burned what we would now call a logo into their cattle. Initially meant to identify lost or stolen livestock, these brands evolved into a powerful means of differentiation especially as some marks became associated with superior quality thus yielding higher returns in the marketplace. These days, branding done right goes well beyond a logo, impacting all aspects of your business. This chapter will help you build the foundation for your brand around a meaningful and differentiating brand promise that you can burn into the fabric of your organization and subsequent marketing activities.
Seeking your brand promise
The key word here is promise. A promise is a commitment that builds trust. A promise delivered over and over again is what creates brand value. Think about the businesses that you regularly do business with–what is their promise to you? Are they promising to deliver your packages on-time like FedEx or aiming higher like American Express that wants to help grow your business? A promise can be basic like a low price guarantee or profound like helping the environment. Regardless, a business without a clearly defined promise is a ship without a rudder.
Asking employees for input
Finding THE brand promise for your business is a journey and like most, begins at home, in this case with your employees. Talk to them, not just those involved in marketing, but to all of them, or at least as many as you can. Here’s a short list of questions to start the conversation:
- Why do you come to work everyday?
- What do you like most about working here?
- What do you tell your friends about the company?
- Would you recommend to your friends that they work here?
- If so, why? If not, why not?
- Do you recommend our company to your friends who might need our services?
- If so, why? If not, why not?
- If we could fix one thing about the company, what would it be?
The beauty of this research is that not only will it yield terrific insights but also it will instantly improve morale as employees recognize you value their opinions. If you have a small company, conducting these interviews in person is ideal as it will allow you to dig deeper during the conversation. If your company is too large or geographically dispersed to conduct the interviews in person, online video chat sessions can accomplish the same thing. If and only if morale is poor then you may want to conduct these interviews anonymously via an online survey using a service like SurveyMonkey.
Tip: Finding a brand promise can be a nuanced affair in which an off-handed remark can lead to a brilliant conclusion. This is why we recommend doing this research in a qualitative fashion (i.e. via interviews) instead of using quantitative techniques like questionnaires and surveys. This doesn’t mean that more scientific research can’t ultimately play a role. We just wouldn’t start there.
Talking to your customers
Now that you know what your employees think, it will be a good idea to have the same kinds of conversations with your customers. These conversations can be a bit tricky since your customers might not be totally truthful with you, perhaps not wanting to hurt your feelings. As such, it may be necessary to engage an independent third party to conduct the interviews.
Tip: You don’t necessarily have to engage an expensive research firm to do your customer interviews. Maybe you have an outside accountant who knows enough about your business to conduct the interviews. Or perhaps you have a trusted vendor who wouldn’t mind making these calls on your behalf. Once you have identified the interviewer, then you will need to cajole your clients to participate which you can position as an important means of improving your service to them.
Brand promise research among customers has other pitfalls. As Henry Ford so wisely said, “If I asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.” Crafting an interview that explores their current needs and wants is relatively easy. Figuring out from that a promise that features a car, not a faster horse is the challenging part.
Here are some questions that should yield the necessary baseline information:
- Why do you do business with our company?
- Have you ever recommended our company? If so, why? If not, why not?
- Would you want a beloved relative to work for our company? If so, why?
- What would you tell your peers about our company?
- If you use other companies like ours, what sets us apart if anything?
- If you were to leave your current company and go to work somewhere else, would you bring us with you? If so, why? If not, why not?
- If our company were an animal (or car), what would we be?
Remember: This is not quantitative research in which the majority opinion carries the most weight. What you are looking for are veins of truth you can mine for a rich promise like the passion a particular customer may have about your staff or a smile you saw on someone’s face when your product helps them solve a previously daunting challenge. Sticking with the mining metaphor, the goal here is to find a shimmering solitary multi-carrot diamond not mountains of monotonous coal.
Tossing out the obvious product benefits
Having now talked with both your employees and customers, its time to start drilling down into brand promises that stem from the basic truths about your business. Let’s say you’re an accounting firm with happy employees and satisfied customers. The most basic level of brand promise would be something like, “our dedicated employees promise to do your accounting accurately.” A good start but hardly groundbreaking, right? It is important to recognize the expected benefits of your product or service and then move on to higher ground that ultimately differentiate your brand.
Assessing the rational components of your brand promise
When seeking your brand promise take a look at all of the things that might make you stand out on a rational basis. Do you have an area of specialty? Are you the best in your city, county or state at something? Is your product superior to your competition in one or more ways? Typically these rational distinctions fall into two areas, superiority in performance and superiority in value. The trick here is to define performance and value in ways that work for your business. Going back to our accounting firm, perhaps they are based in Buffalo, New York and have a lower cost basis than New York City firms. Now their promise could evolve into “our highly trained employees promise to give you NYC quality accounting services at Buffalo prices.”
Seeking out the emotional high ground
Thus far, we’ve assumed that all business decisions are rational which couldn’t be further from the truth. Even though business professionals pride themselves in having disciplined vendor selection processes, more than 60% of these purchase decisions are based on irrational hunches. The most common of these is, “I just liked them better.” Trust plays a huge role in this process, which also helps explain why the lowest bidder in competitive reviews only wins a modest percentage of the time. Finding the emotional high ground requires going back to your employee and customer interviews and identifying the irrational components that distinguish your company. Turns out, our accounting firm had a habit of going one step beyond any client request engendering unsurpassed client loyalty yielding a new promise, “our relentlessly dedicated employees promise to treat your business like it is their business.”