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How to Deliver Experience, Differentiate B2B Brands

Ray Baird

Business value — the intrinsic utility a B2B product or service brings to customers in terms of boosting their competitiveness — has long been a big driver of messaging and branding. But, as BrandingBusiness Director of Strategy Andrea Fabbri explains, this emphasis often results in a lack of differentiation among B2B brands within specific industries. In today’s environment, turning business value into business success requires an emotionally evocative and engaging brand experience that translates, in an integrated way, across a variety of channels and touch points.

An accomplished brand strategist who has worked on both the client and agency sides of the table, Fabbri spoke with BrandingBusiness Founding Partner Ray Baird about the challenges facing both clients and agencies engaged in rebranding efforts, the relationship between differentiation and brand experience, and what B2B brands can learn from strategies and practices used by B2C brands.

Baird: Let's start by talking about the greatest challenges B2B brands are facing today.

Fabbri: It is always interesting when we meet with clients and realize that, obviously, different industries bring different sets of challenges. From a macro-level perspective, in my opinion, there are two big challenges. The first is really around differentiation. Most of the brands in the B2B category are built around what I call “business value.” That makes sense, except that it typically leads to what I call the “birds-of-a-feather syndrome.” You will find a lot of brands in a specific industry are positioned very similarly. Or the differences are so minute, it is almost impossible to tell a difference.

That difference expands across the whole gamut of what makes a brand, from visual aspects to messaging, tools and so forth. It is a problem because today there are a lot viable alternatives. So it is difficult for prospective customers to differentiate one company from the other.

For example, the insurance business. I can count probably 20 brands that have built their brand on three dimensions: integrity, service and personalized attention.

It [differentiation] is connected to another problem, and that is around brand experience. Brand experience is forced by the incredible amount of changes that have happened in the last five or six years — driven by technology, but also by social, demographics and support. And it is only going to get worse as the Internet of Things starts to become not just a dream, but a reality in pretty short order.

That has changed completely how customers experience a brand. On top of that, you have additional pressures that companies like Apple have, in a way, enabled. A plethora of incredible devices have generated an incredible amount of expectations, from customized service to immediate delivery of utility.

Even if you are in a B2B company, people still expect the consumer-type of experience. They demand it, especially in a B2B setting, where contracts are not just 100 dollars but multi-million, if not billion-dollar contracts.

Baird: You talk about the commodity in terms of differentiation. For [B2B brands] to break out of that, what should they be thinking about, and what are some of the benefits they should expect by going through that process and developing a different-shaded brand?

Fabbri: Brand experience enables B2B brands to capture differentiation, because it really moves brands from promises into engaging realities. Business value was the big driver of messaging and branding. Brand experience enables us to create a better understanding of how to translate that business value into engaging and emotional experiences that really matter in a B2B environment, through an integration of a variety of channels and touch points.

In fact, I would argue that an experience has to transform a touch point into a decision point so that every single time you have an interaction with a brand, it will affect and have an impact on the decision of a prospect to buy and for a customer to continue to buy.

Baird: Share a couple of examples of the brand experience and differentiation.

Fabbri: I started realizing the importance of the brand experience in a B2B space 15 years ago, when I was working at [satellite services provider] Intelsat. We transformed from an international organization into a dynamic brand, going through mergers and acquisitions. The biggest shift was driven by one radical change: Transform from a customer-support organization to a sales-hunting organization.

For years, the company had been supporting member countries, R&D labs, through a variety of signatories. Now the company, suddenly, because it was private and because of global shifts in telecommunications, had to sell to business owners and to CFOs. Not to people with an education in rocket science but, rather, an education in business.

So it was very obvious that branding would just be a beautiful collection of statements without the brand positioning becoming operational. We had to embed that positioning into the sales cycle, so that salespeople would be empowered, and the marketing cycle, so that marketing itself would be integrated holistically to create a new customer experience, a brand experience, that would deliver that positioning — transform a promise into reality.

The first step: We did a customer journey analysis. A customer journey analysis looks at how a customer proceeds from the awareness stage of the sales cycle through to loyalty. What messages were the customers receiving? What kind of actions they were being asked to do? What tools did they have in their hands to be provided the incredible level of service that would be core components of the brand? Last but not least, how do we want them to feel throughout the interaction?

Concurrently, we were looking at drivers of that journey. And the drivers are always internal. So we were looking at how the sales cycle is structured to support that customer across the various stages of the cycle. We scored the effectiveness of all the different elements that contributed to the customer experience, and developed a scorecard that enabled us to prioritize investments and redesign the customer experience — including new collateral, tools, interfaces, systems, processes — to deliver the end positioning.

We invested in re-engineering digital platforms to enhance self-service and eliminate mundane tasks that, otherwise, salespeople would have to do. Which freed them up to be more effective and focus on the key aspect of the sales function, which is really relationship.

We went from a website that was producing a few leads a month to one that was producing 30 leads a day. We embedded that website with a variety of call-to-actions explaining why satellite is very important and how could it be used. That went on into developing a customer extranet that enabled people to book, automatically, specific services.

The sales people were very much accustomed to using a booklet called “Coverage Maps,” which shows how satellites cover a certain area and the kind of connectivity and services that are possible. This booklet was very complicated, clunky and didn’t really speak about innovation, which was one of the other attributes we wanted to communicate.

Back then, the company had moved lots of people from simple cell phones to the Palm Treo. Working with the technology department itself, I moved all that information into that phone, so that sales people could connect that phone with the laptop and have that information handy.

I created a little Flash app that salespeople could use in the beginning of the presentation that had, basically, the corporate messaging and everything layered perfectly, tied to very complicated technical information. I was able, through these different devices, to facilitate, tremendously, the effectiveness of the salespeople right when they were meeting with the prospect that had very little understanding of satellite technology.

These two very simple examples resulted from that integrated analysis of customer journeys, the sales cycle, internal supporting activity. Customer satisfaction increased 45%. We were able to generate, just from reengineering the website, after the first year and a half, about $30 million in new business from the developing market.

The experience made customers realize that the promises we were making, through messaging and support, were being solidly maintained and delivered. We stopped being concerned, a little bit, about messaging, and focused more on what we were doing to deliver [with the brand promise]. That created the result we were hoping for, after a year and a half.

Baird: What is fascinating about that story… There is a lot that B2B companies can learn from what the consumer marketplace has done… strategic practices like customer journey… That has been around for a long time.

I would like to switch gears a little bit. You have very unique experience. Not too many people I know make a successful transition from being on the corporate, on the client side to the agency side and to the brand side.

Fabbri: It is definitely very interesting for me to be on the agency side, having spent almost 12 years on the corporate side, even though I was running, practically, wherever I was, a mini-agency within the corporation.

An agency needs to be a little like a corporate therapist. Typically, an agency gets brought in because there is a challenge that requires some level of innovation and change. No matter how good the strategy, the real value is in understanding how to lead a group of executives, and then the culture of the company, through that change. I, personally, found the customer experience to be a great vehicle for that. Because people suddenly understand what it means, the new positioning. They get a tangible manifestation of that new reality that you are about to promise for customers.

Hence, my second point. I am a big fan of big vision. Deliver a pragmatic, achievable roadmap that delivers on the vision progressively, through a process to bring people and resources and initiatives along. Try to do too much, people get disgruntled, they rebel, there’s anarchy.

So, make it practical, but also make it inspiring so that people can make it relative to their own world, to their own activities, so it means something to them. I would say those are key ingredients for success, notwithstanding, obviously, a good, solid research methodology that leads you to the right insight.

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