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Predictions for B2B Branding in 2014

By Mark Morris

Mark Morris is a Founding Partner and Senior Strategist at The Brand Consultancy in Washington, D.C. His entrepreneurial career spans 38 years starting his first company in his dorm room in the mid 70s. In 1982 he formed the company that became The Brand Consultancy. Over his career, Mark has worked with and advised hundreds of major companies including Quicken Loans, SAIC, The NFL, HSBC, HMS Host, The History Channel, Choice Hotels, PNC Bank, Aramark, Transamerica and The Center for Creative Leadership.

Peeking at the best and the worst lists of the passing year and predictions for the upcoming year is a guilty pleasure for many during the New Year’s season. Not to be left out, here’s a take on the year to come in B2B branding.

At a time when change happens at an ever-accelerating pace, successful B2B branding in 2014 will see a return to some of the industry’s basic tenets and lasting truths.

Winning hearts will be as important as winning minds
In a bid to win the hearts of small business owners, Dell recently released a nostalgic TV commercial that shows a compilation of location shots where companies such as TripAdvisor, Skype, UnderArmour were brought to life by scrappy entrepreneurs. Of course, Dell includes a shot of its own humble beginnings in Michael Dell’s University of Texas dorm room. The point? To tug at the emotional heartstrings of small business owners and get these customers to believe that Dell understands their B2B needs.

Dell is tapping into the reality that all purchase decisions have an emotional as well as a rational component. Too often B2B brands overemphasize the rational nature of the decisions their clients make. Sure, quality and price are critical in making business purchase decisions, but so are relationships, peace of mind and the confidence clients have in the people with whom they choose to work.

Indeed, a recent survey of 3,000 purchasers of 36 B2B brands and B2C companies by Google and the CEB Marketing Leadership Council makes this point. On average, B2B customers are significantly more emotionally connected to their vendors and service providers than consumers. While B2C brands had a connection with 10 to 40 percent of consumers, most of the B2B brands surveyed were in excess of 50 percent. This isn’t surprising given that B2B clients are often making large-scale, mission-critical decisions for their organizations verses B2C purchase decisions, like which type of toothpaste to buy.

Content remains king, but will be ruled by brand promise
Ask General Electric (GE) how big an impact content marketing has been in the company’s comeback and the answer may be surprising. The company gets 30 percent better returns for every dollar spent in content marketing, according to Chief Marketing Officer Beth Comstock. While employing new content channels such as Vine, the six-second video platform, GE makes sure every content initiative — from reports to Tweets — ties back to the company’s brand: who they are and what they stand for.

Like GE, the real winners will be those companies that understand how to use content strategy as the “connective tissue” of their brand. While many companies build internal brand newsrooms, others outsource content to outside experts. One, Story Worldwide, entered the content provider fray early and has managed to position itself as a leader in the “post advertising age”. Its contrarian pitch is effective and its approach to content refreshing, simple and focused. A few basic guidelines direct Story Worldwide’s strategy:

  • Less can be more. While frequency can be important for B2C brands, for most B2B brands (fewer) and highly targeted, higher quality and more meaningful customer conversations will drive better results.
  • Respond to real customer needs and interests. The companies that engage customers with compelling research to bring back insights that create clear content direction will win. Creating a well-defined process with a high degree of rigor will create a valuable strategic asset.
  • Build from the inside out. Connecting internal audiences to the true voice of the customer will inspire employees. Informed brand enthusiasts will be created on both sides of the equation. Start by asking, “What’s your story?”

Story Worldwide is not the only organization that will be looking for novel ways to move clients. Content houses will proliferate and content developers will face greater scrutiny and challenges for relevance. Just as advertising agencies got brand religion in the 90s now digital/social firms, agencies and creative shops are rapidly recasting themselves in whole or in part as content developers. For many B2B companies, content will remain king and how they connect their content with their core brand promise will remain key.

Business strategy and brand strategy will wed
Often brand is thought of as a tool for sales and marketing folks. Too often branding initiatives are treated as a “check-the-box” exercise to support marketing and advertising efforts.

But it never has been and should never be that simple. For many B2B organizations integrating brand strategy with business strategy is what drives them forward with maximum advantage. In 2014 this underlying truth will become a key driver of business development for B2B companies. Marrying brand and business strategy is hard work but it is what “connects the dots” and allows business leaders to achieve their strategic and financial goals — customer acquisition and retention, product and service innovation, increased market share.

John Ryan, a former Navy Admiral and CEO of The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) gets this. He says that brand strategy enables business strategy and a process for informed strategic decision-making. CCL’s brand strategy initiative, which helps his organization maintain a formal and rigorous feedback loop with customers, has enabled that organization to become a global leader in leadership development.

This is just the beginning: It’s early in a year that looks like it’s going to be a good one for B2B marketers.