Having worked with many b-to-b brands over the years -- from medical device providers to investment banks -- I've heard the following types of questions at the beginning of an assignment: "We know brand matters for the likes of Coca-Cola and Heinz, but why should brand matter to us?" or "All of our buyers follow rigorous procurement processes, so what is a brand going to do for us?" The answer: Brand should matter to b-to-b organizations. Aligning a b-to-b organization around one story and expressing it in a consistent manner throughout every touch point is key to generating more business.
Blurring the line between b-to-c and b-to-b
A newer question has come up of late: "Should b-to-b brands pay attention to consumers?" A few b-to-b marketers, such as Cisco and Intel, have made great efforts in reaching out to consumers, but what is the value of doing this? According to our new B2BNow study, having strong consumer relevance gives b-to-b brands a 10% increased chance of being in a business decision-maker's consideration set. Also, pure b-to-b brands that business decision-makers feel most connected to see a 12% increase in consideration compared with brands decision-makers are not connected to.
So if there is value for b-to-b focused brands in connecting with consumers, how do they go about doing this? Here are a few lessons from some leading b-to-b brands in the study (and some of the brands that didn't do so well).
What should b-to-b brands do?
1. Brands should not only align around a core purpose, but also demonstrate their impact in a manner that a consumer (meaning anyone) finds tangible.
IBM, a top scorer in the study, is a great example of this with its "Smarter Planet" campaign that launched in 2008 right after the financial crisis. IBM's campaign wasn't focused on IBM's b-to-b products, rather it was an invitation for other companies to join in the conversation about how to adapt in the new economy and make the world work better. IBM's "Smarter Planet" continues to be about what's happening in the world and how companies can collaborate.
Cisco is another b-to-b brand with a core purpose that matters to consumers. Its campaign, originally called "The Human Network" and now "Tomorrow Starts Here," isn't about being a manufacturer of computer networking equipment, but about illustrating the "Internet of Things" concept to everyday people.
2. Bring consumers into the business process, most notably R&D and innovation.
Ultimately, b-to-b companies are still creating things for people; bringing them into the process achieves a result with greater impact. 3M offers a great example of this with its 3M Innovation Centers, where consumers are invited to co-create and help the company come up with transformative and useful applications for its innovations.
3. Get consumers (who work at the companies b-to-b marketers are selling to) to help you generate business demand.
Apple is a leader in this, driving sales of iPhones and iPads for business purposes through consumer channels. Intel is another, creating equity with consumers to leverage in business with the hardware manufacturers.
4. Use design and brand thinking to clarify your portfolio.
Too many b-to-b brands think it's fine to have incredibly hard-to-navigate portfolios of often redundant products or solutions with multiple brands, kept alive for no other reason than that they were acquired and never migrated. FedEx serves as a great inspiration for portfolio simplification, from a consistent, powerful master brand strategy to judicious use of color, demonstrating its efficient migration of acquired brands, such as Kinko's to FedExOffice.
B-to-b marketers should not see consumer relevance as yet another "to-do" with dubious value. Taking a more consumer-friendly approach to everything from portfolio architecture to communications and design pays off with more business from your core audience. Today, it's a missed opportunity for b-to-b brands to not engage more simply with all audiences. Your 7-year-old should be able to understand what your company does, no matter how complex the underlying products or solutions are to create or provide.