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B2B Brands: What You Do Is Not Who You Are

How to Humanize Your Brand and Differentiate It from Your Competitors

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Take out a piece of paper and write down what you think makes your company different from your competitors. Now, Google your competitors and see if you can tell the difference between what you wrote and how they describe themselves. If it sounds the same, keep reading.

Let's say you're the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, looking for some advice. Two top-tier global consulting firms are recommended, and based on their website descriptions of "Who They Are," which one would you choose?

Firm 1: We are the trusted advisers to the world's leading businesses, governments and institutions.

Firm 2: We help the world's leading businesses, governments and organizations solve their toughest challenges.

Can't decide? That's the challenge I'm talking about. Although one firm uses "advisers," they are both describing what the firms do -- not who they are -- and as you can see, they sound the same. If some of the smartest guys in the business are getting it wrong, and they're the "advisers to the world's leading businesses," you shouldn't feel bad.

Why is it so hard? There are two key reasons. First, being in B2B, we are conditioned to think that what we do is who we are. It's the Achilles heel of effective marketing communications -- the bad habit of over-communicating and focusing on what you sell (what you do) vs. who you are (what makes you different).

Making things worse is that when B2B marketers talk about the value of what their company does, they use terms associated with business value -- the functional benefit or business outcome of the product or service being sold (e.g. increase revenue, reduce cost, retain customers, etc.). It's non-differentiating because competitors use the same language, and that's the second major challenge to overcome.

It's time for companies to speak more about the DNA of the organization. Research from the Corporate Executive Board shows that buyers figure out what companies do relatively quickly. It takes them much longer to figure out why they should buy from one company or another.

And surprisingly, when they do make the decision, it often has little to do with the "business value" of the product or service itself, and more to do with the emotional connection they feel with it.

So, how do you "humanize" your company? Here are some tips to get you started:

Ask customers. This sounds obvious, but it rarely happens. Ask customers why they do business with your organization and other companies. You might be surprised by what you'll learn; it may have nothing to do with your products or services. Use this information to communicate back to customers "who you are" in a language and context that is meaningful to them.

Survey employees. This may help uncover why different groups within the organization can't get on the same page when it comes to defining the company. Employees have a tendency to define the company and what it does, based on their own experience with the products they know and the customers they serve. As a result, they have a myopic view of the organization. By surveying employees, you will find multiple views on your value and the type of company you are.

Decide what kind of company you are. Pick up a copy of The Discipline of Market Leaders. In it, Michael Treacy and Fred Wiersema define three value proposition types based on business models: operational excellence, product leadership and customer intimacy. Use this framework as a starting point to define your organization and its language. It will also help get everyone on the same page.

Create a persona. Once you have a consensus on the type of organization you are and your value to customers, it's time to figure how to differentiate your company from your competitors. In this step, use brand archetypes to help define your company persona. Here's a free list of 40 archetypes. Create a working session and have the group discuss how the company views the world, how it reacts to bad or good news, and how it communicates. Keep the conversation away from what the company makes or does and on the organization itself.

Buyers have changed. They want to know who you are, because they already know what you do. And they're looking for a little of themselves in your brand. Relate to them on a human level. Tell them who you are in a way that connects with them. If you do, it will differentiate you, because -- like people -- no two organizations are exactly alike.

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