Introduction

Many B2B marketers feel that the brand has a relatively small role to play in the B2B space.  This article sets out to challenge that view and explain why B2B branding is every bit as important as its B2C counterpart.

In doing so, it;

  • Defines the overall purpose of a brand
  • Assesses the relative importance of mental availability in both B2C and B2B environments
  • Explores the growing importance of brand purpose to B2B brands
  • Identifies how, where, and why the B2B brand comes in to its own 
  • Reveals why B2B branding has never been more important 

It’s a 5-minute, must-read article for any B2B marketer or director who still thinks branding is mainly relevant for B2C organisations.

Quick definition of a brand

At its most basic level, the role of the brand is the same for both B2C and B2B organisations.  It enables both to articulate, in a concise and compelling manner, what they are offering (the proposition) and where their offers sit relative to the competition (the positioning).  

B2C and B2B brands also act as templates for shaping the organisation’s personality and its customer experience philosophy.

Once the constituent parts of the B2C or B2B brand have been defined, it can be brought to life via the organisation’s products and services, its marketing communications, and through the way it looks, acts and behaves at the different touch points along the customer journey.

This basic brand role allows both B2C and B2B brands to build awareness, clarity and (potentially) differentiation with regard to what they provide.  

The vital importance of creating mental availability in B2C

In addition to the above, the other basic role of the B2C brand and its advertising is to create mental availability.

In his book Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman explains that because our rational, System 2decision-making capacity is actually very limited, most of our less important, day-to-day decisions are made subconsciously and without deliberation, using System 1 thinking. System 1 thinking is automatic, and tends to be driven by intuition and emotion, rather than reason.

In his book How Brands Grow, Byron Sharp adds to our understanding of the B2C brand’s role, by stating that in order to stand a chance of being selected at the moment of purchase, the brand must also achieve a good level of mental awareness, meaning that it is able to come to mind readily when the consumer is in a buying situation.  

In combination, these two schools of thought highlight one of the most critical functions of the B2C brand and its advertising; to successfully ‘lodge’ that brand in the consumer’s subconscious and create a degree of mental availability that will enable it to come to mind at the right moment.

Examples of B2C brands which have been very successful in delivering emotionally-resonant messages and straplines capable of creating a high degree of mental availability include Persil – Washes Whiter, Apple –Think differently, L’Oréal – Because you’re Worth it, Subway – Eat Fresh and Red Bull gives you Wings.

The growing importance of B2B branding Brand Speak Market Research

The reduced importance of mental availability in B2B branding

In the case of B2B brand purchasing, however, things are very different.  

Whereas the System 1 brain may defer to its System 2 counterpart for the majority of its B2C decision-making, it will generally assume responsibility for making B2B purchase decisions itself.   

This is because;

  • B2B purchase decisions usually need be made within the context of a budget and a procurement process.  This makes a rational and exhaustive examination of the pros and cons of each supplier’s offer essential  
  • A ‘bad’ buying decision on the part of the B2B buyer is likely to viewed poorly by colleagues and superiors, thereby increasing the pressure on the buyer to arrive at the right decision still further
  • The buyer will often start with a pre-approved supplier list, meaning the mental availability of each brand on the list is of much less relevance

The role that defines the importance of B2B branding

Instead, the real role of the B2B brand is to showcase the organisation’s credentials during the due diligence process and then ensure that they are upheld during the during the subsequent relationship.  

It’s a role that is growing in significance, as the ‘traditional’ B2B buyer / supplier relationship, built around a few arm’s length, set-piece meetings and a number of ‘courtesy’ phone calls each year, is becoming an anachronism.  

Instead, the need for greater cost-control and continuity of supply has partly been responsible for businesses treating suppliers increasingly like partners, who are rewarded with longer-term contracts, underpinned by minimum service level agreements.  

Nowhere has this trend been more apparent than in the service sector, where B2B relationships tend to be particularly complex.

Because of the extended, ‘always-on’ nature of these more sophisticated B2B relationships, the culture, personality and values of the supplier become as important as its product or service offer.  This, in turn, means the brand – and the way the organisation brings it to life in its relationships with clients – becomes critical.

The real challenge for the B2B organisation is to understand which elements of its brand clients value most and just how they should be brought to life in the way that brand speaks and acts. 

Identifying those elements correctly on behalf of the brand is a job for a competent and commercially aware, B2B market research agency. 

One further role for B2B branding 

A brand facet that is going to become increasingly important to B2B brands is that of brand purpose.  

Definition of brand purpose

A brand’s purpose can be defined as its raison d’être, its reason for being, over and above ‘making a profit’ or ‘driving shareholder value’.  

As human beings become increasingly aware of the social and environmental implications of brand consumption, we are gradually taking steps to clean up our act.  Moreover, we are increasingly expecting the brands that serve us to demonstrate similar levels of accountability.  

B2C brand purpose

B2C brands, in particular, have started to replace self-serving vision and mission statements with more tangible brand purpose strategies.

Unilever is an example of an organisation that has been doing this in a meaningful way for many years.  The company launched its Sustainable Living Plan (USLP) in 2010, when it set out to prove that sustainability and successful business performance could coexist.  

Since that time the business has been working hard to reduce its environmental footprint and increase its positive social impact across the globe – to great effect.

Patagonia is another example of a brand that is really living its brand purpose, which is to; 

To build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.

The company actively delivers on this brand purpose statement in numerous ways, including; 

  • Switching to 100% organically grown and ethically sourced cotton
  • Undertaking environmental educational events
  • Supporting of grassroots environmental efforts
  • Reducing corporate waste and pollution

A final B2C example is the Dove brand; 

Discovering the value of ‘real’ beauty and improving self-esteem worldwide

Dove is another brand that is talking the talk.  It uses its advertising to challenge stereo-typical views of beauty in a way that is confrontational, and by doing so it forces consumers to challenge their own pre-conceptions. 

The growing importance of B2B branding Brand Speak Market Research

The brand has also created numerous campaigns designed to help women boost their self-esteem.

In addition, Dove has partnered with Getty Images to build a photo library of over 11,000 images of individuals who identify as female or non-binary.  The initiative is known as Project #ShowUs and the images are available to media companies and advertisers to use in their campaigns.  So far, over 3,000 of the images have been licenced.  

To-date, brand purpose has generally provided yet another reason for consumers to identify with the B2C brands they buy.  In the future, as the world’s social and environmental problems continue to grow, a meaningful brand purpose is increasingly likely to become pre-requisite for purchase.   

Brand purpose – the next B2B brand battleground

Right now, good examples of B2B brand purpose statements are actually hard to find, largely because B2B brand responsibility isn’t a buy / don’t buy issue in B2B to the same extent as it is in B2C……. yet.

However, just as it has become a significant component of B2B branding, we fully expect it to do the same in the B2B space.

The challenge for B2B brands will be to find the right brand purpose to align with – one that makes sense within the context of its business activities and is also of real importance to its customers.  

Brand purpose is likely to be the next B2B brand battleground and it’s coming sooner rather than later.

Conclusion

The fundamental roles of B2C and B2B brands are very different and, as a result, applying B2C brand thinking to B2B branding will not work.  

Changes in the way B2B business is conducted mean that the significance of the B2B brand will continue to grow.

Brandspeak

If you need help developing your B2B brand please contact us on 02038580052 or at enquiries@brandspeak.co.uk 

Jeremy Braune

View posts by Jeremy Braune
Jeremy specialises in delivering market research and consultancy programmes that enable organisations to maximise the impact of their brands, products and services, communications and customer experience delivery. His company, Brandspeak, has offices in London and Bristol and since 2004 it has been helping companies all over the UK and globally. Jeremy has also been a guest lecturer and speaker on London Business School's acclaimed MBA course, on the subject of Brands and Branding.

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