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No more solutions, please

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Ten or 15 years ago, you could still make the case for starting your company's brand conversation with the word "solution." Back then, "solution" was a fresh way of saying you recognized the fluidity of customers' needs and were equipped to help.

By 2000, the term was quickly becoming devalued from overuse. Today, it's dead—void of any capacity to differentiate a company's brand.

The continued erosion of the U.S. manufacturing base is accelerating our transition to a "solutions economy." Solving problems is now as expected as quality, speed, innovation, "highly-engineered" or a host of other prerequisites for competing. Nonetheless, far too many business-to-business companies continue to stake their brands to entry-level attributes. And "solutions" remains at the top of the list.

Consider four companies in the same segment of the plastics industry. I won't name names, but two of the four have annual revenues of more than $2 billion.

All four peg themselves as solutions providers in the taglines that live under their logos—that priceless chunk of real estate that serves as a company's first and loudest announcement of who they are and why we should care.

Maybe it's inertia. Or perhaps it's the tendency of b-to-b organizations to dismiss any connection between brand-based communications and business performance. After all, if basing the brand on entry-level attributes like solutions or quality is such a heinous offense, why hasn't business performance suffered?

A more relevant question may be, "How much better could they be doing if they had a distinct brand and message?"

Today, most b-to-b purchasers start the sourcing process online. They use search to identify prospective suppliers, and then visit Web sites to compare the players. If four suppliers tell me I should think about them exactly the same way, they've just missed the opportunity to claim a preferred place in my mind.

Would a b-to-b giant such as UPS settle for a tagline like "package delivery" or even "global logistics source"? Not a chance. UPS has acted on a notion many b-to-b companies have yet to embrace: that a differentiated brand, consistently communicated, can positively impact business performance. Hence the power of "What can brown do for you?" in UPS' branding efforts.

The rest of us would be wise to follow suit. If referencing an entry-level attribute like "solutions" helps clarify what you do, reference it. But don't make it the core of your company's brand messaging. In today's hyper-competitive marketplace, you can't afford to forego any opportunity to differentiate your company from the rest.

Mike Stefaniak is VP-client services and partner at Scheibel Halaska, a b-to-b agency in Milwaukee. He also serves on the national board of directors for the Business Marketing Association. He can be reached at mstefaniak@insidesh.com.

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