Why b-to-b is the place to be in the downturn

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The current economic crisis is challenging most of our preconceptions about the value and relevance of consumer brands. When times get tough, it's as if consumer brands disappear, replaced by price (and perhaps simple availability) as the primary mover of purchaser preference.

Sound familiar? It should, as it's the market reality with which b-to-b marketers have always contended.

For b-to-b marketers specifically, this assault on brands may herald a renaissance not just in your own industries but as the source of insight and creativity for your newly dumbfounded colleagues on the b-to-c side.

Consumer brands were always supposed to be different animals than the products and services sold to businesses. Intangibles mattered, sometimes more than the functional attributes, as the marketers of Coke and Pepsi annually spend many millions of dollars to prove. Ideas and emotions could be attached to things, which made people pay more for them; stuff had psychological value independent of what stuff actually did.

That gap—between fiction and reality—was where consumer marketers focused much of their branding. Only it's not so much of a gap anymore.

Consumer brands have been challenged these past few years by, among other things, Internet search and homegrown media creation, which elevate every truth or fiction to the same level of importance as an official brand communication. Reality has ever-more ways to encroach on the happy fantasy of the gap and reveal why identical products really <i>are</i> identical or, conversely, how a hidden factoid about a flaw in a supply chain shouldn't be so hidden.

Now, with consumers feeling economically pinched, the gap is proving to be ... a gap.

Strong brands suffer just like weak ones, whether measured by top-line sales or stock valuation. Branding doesn't make bank borrowing easier, supply contracts more inviolate or employees less likely to worry about their job security. The vast sums of money invested in brand equity turn out to have been spent on transitory feel-good images and aspirations.

This is where b-to-b marketers come in.

You've been doing for years what really drives customer preference.

But instead of calling it “branding,” it got labeled “sales support,” “customer service,” “supply chain compliance,” “distribution” or something else. Any activity has had to deliver relevance to motivating sales, even if it was separated by a few steps from an actual customer purchase. And ultimately, it always came down to price.

But it's exactly these activities—and the measurable behaviors that they prompt—on which all businesses depend, whether b-to-b or b-to-c. And as consumer marketers see their branding budgets obliterated over the coming months, necessity will make them look anew to these activities.

B-to-c marketers are going to start thinking and acting like b-to-b folks. You are better positioned, better prepared and better armed to weather the downturn than your b-to-c brethren.

Jonathan Salem Baskin is author of “Branding Only Works on Cattle: The New Way to Get Known (And Drive Your Competitors Crazy)” (Business Plus, September 2008). He can be reached at [email protected].

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