“Brands” in the most frequently understood sense of the term (especially among laypeople) refer to well-known, everyday consumer products (often including the companies that make them). From surveys like, “What brand of toothpaste do you use? What brand of car do you drive? (Or maybe: What brand of cigarettes do you smoke when no one is looking?), a brand, and the value of one, would appear to largely sit in the B2C, business-to-consumer space.
So why would branding be relevant to a business-to-business product or service?
To be sure, a belief in the power of branding is often weakest in those organizations that seem to lack a direct connection to the end consumer of the product or service (though they often, in fact, do). The farther upstream a company is, often the less likely that company will perceive a need for a strong brand. This may be because, particularly earlier in the value chain, the product is in a commodity category, competing with other vendors on price or fulfillment, not differentiation or benefits. It may also be because the actual product differentiation, while present, may be technically highly complex or inscrutable to an end customer. Lastly, the organization itself may be largely engineering and sales driven, without a structure internally to create a brand.
Then why should B2B companies care about branding? Here are three big reasons why:
1. Brands make businesses stand out. In fact, the role of a brand is most powerful when it can eliminate a commodity perception. At a supermarket we have dozens of supposedly different, yet in reality fundamentally almost identical, products to choose from: brand perception and brand preference help us make our final choice, from soft drinks to soft soaps. Even (and especially) for B2B companies, branding has a big role in raising the intangible, ‘perception’ value of the product.
2. Everyone is a consumer. People use their same judging and perception abilities in choosing a product or service for their company as they do for themselves. Reliability, trust, attractiveness, and other ‘soft’ considerations can matter as much as ‘hard’ aspects of performance and features, whether or not we’d admit it to the sales rep. In short, the basic means by which we understand the value of a product is the same, even when it comes to a complex IT or software purchase for a business.
3. Perception matters, especially in B2B. And exactly because the scale and complexity of a B2B purchase can be dramatically much larger than a consumer one, and fraught with more stakeholders and risk, the trust in a company and its products that successful branding can reinforce, can in turn be vital to the sale and ongoing customer relationship.
In short, telling a clear story about how customers can benefit from a product or service, and reinforcing that story with consistent messaging and identity, matters in the success of any transaction. For B2B companies, building a successful brand may seem more daunting due to the distance from the ‘end consumer’, but it’s increasingly an essential component of business strategy.
Sean Ketchem, PhD, is a branding and content strategy consultant based in San Francisco. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.