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Establishing Differentiation in B2B Through Brand Experience

By Ray Baird
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Founding Partner Ray Baird speaks with Andrea Fabbri, BrandingBusiness’ newly hired Director of Strategy for New York.  Andrea shares insights into the challenges facing both clients and agencies today engaged in rebranding efforts.  The two discuss the importance of differentiation, establishing a clear vision, and why the brand experience plays a major role in business success.

Topics include:

  • Greatest challenges for B2B brands (1:41)
  • Benefits of creating brand experience (5:07)
  • Importance of a brand experience (7:06)
  • Customer journey analysis (9:08)
  • Challenges facing clients and agencies (17:20)
Episode Transcript

Welcome to Expert Opinion, the BrandingBusiness forum where leaders share their views, insights, and experiences from the world of B2B branding. Now, here’s your host.

Ray Baird: Welcome to Branding Business, Expert Opinion. I’m Ray Baird and today is a really interesting topic. We’re going to be talking about establishing differentiation in B2B through brand experience. I’m pleased to have Andrea Fabbri with us as our guest host. He’s a brand strategist and one with global expertise in traditional and digital.

What’s so interesting about Andrea, not only that he works with Branding Business now and heads up our New York office is, he was a client at one time. Has real great experience on both sides of the desk here and he’s built a lot of different brands in energy and software and financial, check the box there, and a bunch of brands that everybody knows here, Google and Cisco and Lunera Lighting and Xcel energy. Andrea, welcome to BrandingBusiness.

Andrea Fabbri: Thank you, Ray.

Ray Baird: The first question to kick this thing off is, the big changing world in B2B brands. Let’s start by setting the table here and talk about what are the greatest challenges that B2B brands are facing today?

Andrea Fabbri: Thanks, Ray. It’s always an interesting realization when we meet with clients and realizing that obviously different industries bring a different set of challenges. But from a micro-level perspective, in my opinion, there are two big challenges that B2B brands and B2B businesses face today. The first one is really around differentiation and that’s interesting and it’s something that we always observe whenever we do especially a competitive analysis.

Most of the brands in the B2B category are built around what I call the business value and it all makes sense except that, that typically leads to what I call the birth of a fantasy syndrome. You will find a lot of brands that in a specific industry are positioned very similarly, or the differences are so minute that it’s almost impossible to tell the difference. That difference expands across the whole gamut of what makes a brand, from visual aspects, to messaging, to tools, and so forth.

It’s a problem because today there are a lot of viable alternatives. It’s difficult for prospects and customers to differentiate one company from the other. For example, with the insurance business. I can count probably at least 20 brands that I’ve observed lately that have built their brand on three dimensions: integrity, service, and personalized attention. They are all inevitably focused on that.

It’s a problem also because it’s connected to other problems they have, and that is around brand experience as you initially introduced at the beginning. Brand experience is forced by the incredible amount of changes that have happened in the last five, six years, driven by technology platforms, by social, by demographics, and so forth. It’s 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, thank you so much, have in a way enabled a plethora of incredible devices that have generated now an incredible amount of expectations from customer service, immediate delivery of utility. Even if you are in a B2B, people still expect the consumer type of the experience and they demand it, especially B2B things where contracts are not just thousands of dollars, but they are multi-million dollars if not billion-dollar contracts. These are the two big challenges that I see that B2B brands face today.

Ray Baird:  Yeah. Let me throw you the softball to the question and what B2B brands really need to know and to think about. What should they be exploring? You talk about the commodity in terms of differentiation. For them to break out of that, what should they be thinking about and what are some of the benefits that they should expect by going through that process and developing a differentiated brand?

Andrea Fabbri:  Great. We agree with the challenges. How do we go about them? What brand experience enables B2B brands to do is capture differentiation because it really moves the brands from promises into engaging realities. So far, brand positioning strategies have always been put in place to augment the business value. But the business value was the big driver of messaging and branding.

What brand experience enables us to do is it enables us to take the business value, create a better understanding of how to translate that business value into very engaging and emotional experiences that really matter in a B2B environment, and translate those through an integration of a variety of channels depending on the business of course and depending on the industry. It can be mobile, it can be digital, can be physical.

All integrated through a purposeful design integration and combination of all of these channels and all the touch points. In fact, I would argue that an experience has to transform a touch point into a decision point enough, so that every single time there is an interaction with a brand, an effect, and has an impact on the decision of a prospect to buy and for a customer to continue to buy. Obviously, there is a process and if you want, I can go through, but the process is fairly simple and it’s fairly sequential, obviously the execution piece.

Ray Baird:  Yeah. A couple of things I hear is one, B2B brands really need to have a point of view. Is their brand truly differentiating in the marketplace? The second part is, if not, then they need to engage in a research and approach that’s going to get them to a compelling truth that has taken them out of the commodity. The second part I hear is from a brand experience standpoint, a lot of B2B brands don’t look at it as the total kind of experience.

Just thinking of that as part of the ongoing kind of strategy and monitoring certainly has benefits. I always like to, as we’re doing these shows, is to talk about examples. I think people can really learn a lot from examples on both sides of the table. Maybe share a couple of examples of the brand experience and differentiation that helps our listeners.

Andrea Fabbri:  I think interestingly enough, I started realizing the importance of the brand experience in the B2B space back 15 years ago when I was working at Intelsat and we transformed literally from an international organization into a dynamic brand going through mergers and acquisitions. But the biggest shift was driven by one radical change that had to occur. Transform customer organization from a customer support organization to a sales hunting organization. That was an incredible change.

For years, the company had been an international organization supporting member countries, R&D labs through a variety of signatories. Now, the company suddenly, because it was private, had to sell because it was privately owned, so because of market conditions and all those shifts happening in the telecommunications space, had to sell to business owners, to CFOs. Not to people, therefore, with an education in rocket science, but rather with an education in this.

It was very obvious that branding would be just a beautiful collection of statements without the brand positioning becoming operational. I realized that for that to happen, we had to transform. We had to embed that positioning into the sales cycle, so that salespeople would be empowered in the marketing cycle, so that marketing and sales would be integrated holistically to create a new customer experience, a brand experience, that would deliver that positioning, so that it would transform a product into reality.

What I did at Intelsat was a very simple process and ended up providing incredible results. The first step, of course, we had already a brand strategy and we were very confident about the validity of the brand strategy. The first step, we did a customer journey analysis and the customer journey analysis looks at both how a customer proceeds from the awareness stage of the sales cycle through the sale.

We noted that fundamentally in three areas, what were the messages the customers were receiving, what kind of actions were being asked to do, what kind of tools did they have in their hands to be provided the incredible level of service that was from the core components of the brand? Last, but not least, how do we want them to feel throughout the interaction?

We analyzed that and concurrently as we were doing that, obviously we were looking at the drivers of that journey and the drivers are always internal. We were looking at how the sales cycle is structured to support that customer across the various stages in the sales cycle. We were looking at processes. We were looking at tools. We were looking at materials. We were looking at systems.

At the end of that process, we scored effectiveness of all the different elements that contributed to that customer experience and developed a scorecard that enabled us to prioritize the investments first. Based on that, also to redesign the new customer experience. That customer experience wasn’t just including new collateral.

It included new tools and included new interfaces. It included new systems, new processes. All of that to deliver the end position and obviously increasing or maintaining, which was the key business goal, the customer satisfaction, which had been very high up to that point.

That was one of the biggest fears of the executives. Making sure that we are meeting the conditions of becoming a private company. Two examples of the kinds of tools and initiative that we took as a result of that are, the first one, it was very obvious that the world was going digital and so we invested into an incredible reengineering of the digital platform to enhance self-service and also therefore eliminate all of the mundane tasks that otherwise sales people would have to do.

Which freed them up to be more effective sales people and to really focus on the key aspects of a sale and sales function, which is really relationships. That investment started from the website and went from a website and was producing a few leads a month, to one that was producing 30 leads a day. We embedded that website with a variety of calls-to-action.

We were able to explain to people without too much of a background in telecommunications and live satellites were important and how could they be used in the system. That went on into developing a customer extranet that would enable people to group automatically specific services through an online portal that was connected directly into Oracle at that time for accounting purposes. There would be an immediate revenue, not only booking, but also generation.

This is again to show you how looking at that sales cycle, we were able to capture all these opportunities for new value creation just by looking at how they were on the website. Another interesting thing was something a lot more simple. I actually hereby say that I think I was responsible with a few people at Intelsat for the creation of the first app. The salespeople were very much accustomed to using one and only one tool primarily, especially at the beginning of the sales cycle.

That is a booklet called Coverage Maps, which shows how satellites cover certain areas and the kind of connectivity that is possible and the kind of services that are possible. Now, depending on where you are in the world, you will get different types of service, different type of power, which actually ends up actually affecting the investment necessary to book satellite capacity or to buy it.

This booklet was very complicated. Very big and clunky and difficult to bring and didn’t really speak about innovation, which was another attribute that we wanted to communicate. Back then, the company had moved also people from simple cell phones to, you might recall Ray, the Palm, the Treo. The first, maybe smartphone. We can say that maybe. What I did 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 did that and I created a little flash app that sales people could use at the beginning of the presentation that had basically the corporate messaging, everything layered appropriately, tied to very complicated technical information, so that I would be able to give different devices to facilitate tremendously the effectiveness of the sales people right when they were meeting with the prospect that had very little understanding of satellite technology.

Just these two, and there are many more, just these two are very simple examples that resulted from that integrated analysis, the customer journey, and the sales cycle, internal supporting activity and the amount of gaps and opportunities we were able to identify and the efficiencies and the results we were able to maneuver. The results are the following. Customer satisfaction increased at the end of the year, 45%, and we were able to generate just from the website, reengineering the website, after the first year and a half, about $30 million worth in business, new business from a developing market.

These are two very simple examples of these two activities overall generated, among many others, that this gives you a sense I think of the importance of this. Last thing, what it did, the experience, the new experience made the customers realize that the progress we were making through messaging and support were being not only maintained, but delivered.

Exceedingly so. Almost subliminally, we thought we would be concerned a little bit about messaging, but we were concerned more about what we’re doing to deliver the message. That created the results that we were hoping for after a year and a half. But that also required some investment. I have to admit, some courage from the sales team.

Ray Baird:  Well, it always does take courage for change. I think what’s fascinating about that story is relates earlier to one of your … There’s a lot that B2B companies can learn from what the customer and the consumer marketplace has done. But what’s interesting is that they are two different worlds, but the business and the strategic practices that consumer groups use, like customer journey that’s been around for a long time, the digital brand and overall kind of experiences, more of a consumer thing. Having B2B companies find amazing results by just putting those practices into place.

I’d like to switch gears a little bit. You have a very unique experience. Not too many people that I know make a successful transition from being on the corporate, on the client’s side to the agency side, to the brand side. For our listeners out there that are on either side, what are today, some of the different challenges and some of the perspectives from both sides of the table that should be taken into consideration moving forward and building a premier B2B brand?

Andrea Fabbri:  It’s a great question. Well, it was definitely very, I have to admit, very interesting for me to be on the agency side having spent almost 12 years in the corporate side, even though I was running practically wherever I was, a media agency with the corporation. I think I would say a few things. The first thing that needs to be taken into consideration is that an agency needs to be a little bit like a corporate therapist. Let me explain.

Typically, an agency gets brought in because there is a challenge, big, small, large, but there is a challenge. Typically, that challenge requires some level of innovation and change. Nobody wants to change. I mean, that’s just human nature. It’s fully documented by tons of psychological studies. First things first, no matter how good the strategy, the real value is understanding how to lead a group of executives and then a culture of a 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’re about to have for customers. Hence my second point, I’m a big fan of big vision delivering a pragmatic, achievable roadmap that delivers that from the vision professionally through an iterative process that allows to bring people and resources and initiatives along. Try to do too much, people get disgruntled, they need help. There is anarchy.

We can see it. You and I see it many times in organizations that are going through change. If it’s not managed well, we start noticing a lot of chaos, which is fine. That’s typical, but it can also be mitigated. First one is, making sure that there is an understanding on how we need to go through change, two, make it practical, but also make it inspiring.

To me, there has to be that approach. A new vision, inspiring, and a driving force through that into people’s reality, but also make it pragmatic, so that people can grasp it and can also make it relevant to their own world, to their own activities, so that it means something to them. That it’s not just a few words, beautiful words or beautiful statements and intention on a piece of paper.

I’d say those are the three key ingredients for success. Notwithstanding, obviously, a good solid research methodology that leads you to devise insights and then hopefully a good amount of innovation and creativity on the agency side. That new creative driving force that you’ve been hired to bring and to develop. I would say those three I consistently noticed how a good agency delivering that, a corporate client receives three things really. Receives a company that is invested. It’s not just trusted, is invested. Using an expression of, skin in the game.

They trust you more because you’re taking this balanced approach. They understand that your heart is in the right place. You have an obligation, but also understand the things need to occur fully and with a pace. I always say this in meetings. I’m from Rome in Italy. Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Brands need time. These are some of the ingredients, if you will, that I think are important for agencies that evolve into important values from the corporate side. Obviously, at the end it’s about results. You can do all these things well, but if things don’t pan out the way originally planned, that is a different story. Hopefully, they do if you’ve done a good job.

Ray Baird:  Right. Well, I think those are really good points and advice. I really liked the idea about inspiring any brand initiative and overall experience starts with visioning and inspiration from within. Really great advice. I appreciate establishing differentiation, B2B through brand experience, and your experience. If our listeners have any other questions or want to get ahold of you in terms of any advice, how can they do that?

Andrea Fabbri:  They can reach me on my email, AFabbri@brandingbusiness.com.

Ray Baird:  Well, wonderful. Andrea, thanks for being a guest on BrandingBusiness, the Expert Opinion and to all of our listeners, best of luck in branding your business.