Recently I wrote a blog post, “Why Branding Doesn’t Work on B2B Customers,” that ended up generating a lot of spirited debate across several venues, but especially in one particular LinkedIn group (B2B Technology and Marketing Community).
First, the discussion helped crystallize the difference between the meaning of “brand” and “branding,” at least in my mind:
- Brand (a noun), as one comment articulated, is "the sum total of a prospect's impressions and experiences with a company.”
- Branding (a verb), is the act of attempting to create or define the perspective that a target audience (customer or prospect) has of the company or of its products.
My belief is that B2B branding -- whether in the form of positioning, messaging, colors, slogan, logo, advertising, brand strategy, or any other form of promotion -- will only be effective in the long run if it supports a company’s true value proposition. It’s not hard to find examples of B2B companies with successful brands supported by strong branding campaigns (the example of “nobody has ever been fired for buying from IBM” was referenced multiple times), but in the end these companies already had a truly strong value proposition. In other words, it wasn’t the branding that created the success. The success stemmed first from the value the company delivered to customers in the market and then was accelerated by the branding.
I would add that even if you have a very strong value proposition, any attempt to promote it with a “branding campaign” is actually cost prohibitive for all but the largest or best-funded companies. That is not to say that consistent branding can’t help support and grow your brand awareness, but successful brand campaigns are expensive.
Several folks also mentioned that people (not companies) buy, and that people make decisions based on emotion. I agree in theory, especially when it comes to smaller purchases and potentially even within smaller companies. But companies have worked hard to prevent large decisions being made by individuals, based on emotion, and without business justification. Why else would CFOs be so heavily involved with significant buying decisions? (Have you ever tried to sell to a CFO using emotion? That isn't how they make buying decisions. You’d probably have better odds trying to bribe a CFO then sell to them based upon emotion, but I wouldn't recommend that either!)
Many B2B companies have a strong product and/or service without a clear brand strategy and without any advertising -- yet the company is still successful. The converse is not true though. There are few, if any, examples of successful companies that have poor products and lack a strong value proposition. In that case, a strong brand strategy and lots of promotion won’t save them. (In fact, aggressive branding and promotion will do little more than accelerate the demise of the company.)
Therefore in B2B, it is much more important to have a strong set of offerings that fulfill a specific set of needs in the market and thus create value for a segment of customers than it is to have a strong branding and/or promotion strategy.
However, provided the company has a strong value proposition, I do agree that a good brand strategy and effective promotion can help to accelerate and amplify success. But a brand strategy is not sufficient, nor is it necessary, to be successful in a B2B space.
What’s your take on value versus branding? Share your thoughts in the comments section.