The Future of Branding and Blurring of Divisions Between B2B and B2C

By Alan Brew

The differences and commonalities between B2B & B2C branding are endlessly debated. Opinions vary and views are constantly evolving. In this episode of Expert Opinion, Bob Kersten, managing director  of BrandingBusiness San Francisco, discusses the key distinctions between the two with Alan Brew. Bob joins BrandingBusiness with a unique perspective shaped by years of experience in both B2B branding as well as B2C branding.

In this episode, Bob shares with Alan how he believes the industry is changing based on client experiences that have stuck with him over the years.



Episode Transcript

Alan: Hello, this is Alan Brew, a partner at BrandingBusiness, and our guest today is Bob Kersten. Bob is in fact, my colleague at BrandingBusiness. He joined us recently as managing director, San Francisco, and he’s going to share with us today some extremely interesting insights based upon his experience in the branding and design industry. Bob, welcome to the program.

Bob: Thanks Alan. Good, great to be here.

Alan: So, Bob, you bring to BrandingBusiness a very wide experience in the branding and design industry. You’ve worked at firms such as Landor, Enterprise IG, Addison, and Profit. They are the big players. But you join BrandingBusiness from a smaller company, which specializes more at the consumer end of the branding spectrum, whereas we at BrandingBusiness specialize in business to business. There’s a big question. And a question that we get asked a lot with our clients is, “What are the differences between the two, business to business and business to consumer? Are they the same? Are they different? What are the similarities?”

Bob: Right. Well, as you know, at a macro level, regardless of industry, there are commonalities such as branding, helping to drive differentiation, relevance with key audiences, accommodating and leveraging industry trends. Right. And, and building that clear, crisp, built big idea. But yeah, that being said, there are some significant differences in the B2B space. Things like B2B, having more audiences to consider beyond customers, things like shareholders, regulators, communities, just to name a few. Not to mention there being multiple customers, if you will, in the B2B space, those buying decisions are made by groups of people and the sales cycle is often long and multi-dimensional. You’ve got procurement, engineering, the director level to the C-suite involved in these B2B decisions. And then you layer into that those buying decisions, that those brand decisions factor in a fair amount of functionality and performance and in a B2B space it can’t be all branding identity led or persona or emotionally led.

Of course, it has a role, but there are performance and functionality factors that play a role. So that doesn’t mean that we can’t create big emotive, visionary, powerful brands in B2B. We do, we just have to accommodate a number of tangible components as well. And I think I’ll end with, there’s the complexity of the offering on the B2B side of things. You know, we often are having to brand a professional service or medical equipment or enterprise cyber security, and that can be a bit more involved, of course, than if you’re trying to brand laundry detergent or cookies, for example.

Alan: Thank you, Bob. Excellent point. Very often some of our clients are in what we call the business to professional end user space. So it’s not B2B or B2C it’s B2P, professional end user. And that’s generally in the service area (financial services, healthcare) where there’s some informed end user and individual that has a need to know something, but it’s not B2B, certainly. Given that, do you see the gap between the two disciplines closing or will they still stay the same at the polls and focus more on the service end of the spectrum when we get to those industries such as healthcare and professional services, where there are people involved that directly connect with the brand itself?

Bob: Yeah. Now that’s a great question. And I think something that we’ve all been in this space been accommodating for some time now that the best B2B brands in the world have been successfully carrying over consumer branding philosophies into the B2B world. They’ve introduced storytelling more effectively, they’ve introduced more compelling and emotional and more human messaging and messaging and expressions, and they’ve moved towards selling the benefit of what they provide, not just the functions. And they’ve come to recognize that there’s a person at the end of that B2B, right? It really is B2P if you will. And that buyers and influencers and society want to know where you stand on big issues. They want to know who you are and what you believe in and what makes you different. So I do think that matters.

And I think to your point, it doesn’t often end at the B, it’s B to B to C, right? So more and more of our clients, our customers, they need to be able to demonstrate to their end customers that they understand the kind of ultimate end use or how that service or product plays out with an end user, for example. So I think you’re right. I think that the gap will continue to close there. There’ll always be some differences of course, but I think the gap is definitely closing.

Alan: That’s a really interesting point, Bob, this merging or converging, if you like, from B to B to C that you cannot discount or divide the gap between the business audience and the consumer audience, because they’re interested too, in what an organization does, its values, what it stands for, its purpose, as we’re all talking about now, and its diversity policies. They want to know exactly what the organization stands for. So this gap is certainly blurring. But looking back over your career, Bob, what would you say then about branding and its evolution? Where is it going?

Bob: I think it’s interesting in that as appreciation and understanding of the power of brand grows, it’s forced us in this space. And I think anyone who does what we do would agree that we’re constantly having to evolve and grow and learn and shift because the market shifts and so I think a really smart colleague or former coworker of mine broke it down this way, kind of saying, historically there was kind of a lower case B branding that referred more to a kind of marketing, cosmetic, promotional side of branding. And then alternatively, there’s the upper case B Branding, which refers to the more strategic, the more holistic work that we do using brand as a platform for growth. Using brand to connect directly to the business strategy, to create momentum for companies, right? It’s a platform for action. So evolution of the realization that brand can do much more for organizations and that really kind of anything an organization does, it can be considered a brand experience has led to kind of an opening of the aperture of all of the things that we do.

Alan: Yeah. It’s certainly what we’re seeing. A lot of our clients these days are obviously in omnichannel businesses, where they work online and offline and that they have to consider all platforms, all communications, to be successful in their branding activities. It’s not just one audience or another audience it’s completely holistic, as you say. Which raises a lot of questions about our business and how we evolve to serve the needs of our clients. So relating to the last question, Bob, do you see the concept of branding and its related activities converging into one big concept, one big approach for clients, or will it re-fragment into specialist disciplines?

Bob: I tell you, I think, Alan, you and I were just talking about this the other day. And I feel like there’s a constant topic of discussion and I feel like the pendulum swings back and forth over the years, it feels like it’s cyclical, right? There’s been a lot of consolidation and acquisition and mergers within the category. The last couple of years, these big publicly traded conglomerates are blending agencies. You see large global digital agencies taking over the traditional advertising shops, advertising shops, taking over comms agencies, or merging them together. And so these moves are often born out of the need to drive operational expenses down. They’re able to kind of save on headcount, admin, real estate, office space, things like that. And whether or not that plays out as a good thing for clients more often than not, it’s not. That being said, you could argue that there are some organizations that are making it work.

But I think by and large what we’re seeing, and when I talk to colleagues and former colleagues, there’s a whole lot of small specialists, mid-size independent agencies that are having their day and they’re doing fabulous work. And they’re able to really hone in on their specialism and partner with other specialists to deliver best in breed, best in class for clients. So, I don’t know, I imagine one’s perspective depends on where they sit, but I do feel like the pendulum has swung back in favor of specialist, focused agencies that are able to do what they do best. But again, I think time will tell, I know it sounds like I’m hedging, but I think we’ll see if the cycle kind of carries on and maybe we’re talking about something different five years from now.

Alan: It’s certainly what I’m seeing, Bob, once upon a time there were sharp divisions between advertising, public relations, design, branding. But now they seem to converge into this thing called branding and everybody’s in that business. You and I worked for the big holding companies and they profess the one stop shop as the solution to everything. So one net to choke, if you’ll pardon that crude expression. Is that era over the one stop up, is it, are we now moving into these best of breed, sharply focused industries? And I suppose a follow-up question to that are clients recognizing that that’s what they need? That’s what they really want to bring in to help them, these best of breed experienced smaller focused organizations that can bring in partners depending on what the client need is.

Bob: You bring up a great point. And that is, of course, the clients themselves. And I feel like what we’re seeing are increasingly really, really talented and smart and capable practitioners. They’re not just marketing operators, they’re actual marketers. And so those they’re able to identify best in breed practitioners, whether it’s advertising or media buying or digital, or what we do in brand strategy and identity and creative. And they’re able to really select the right fit for what they need in those disciplines and manage those things as opposed to going out and trying to find a kind of one big group that proclaims to do everything. So I feel like this the trend will continue where we have very sophisticated clients who understand and are able to vet what exactly they need. This trend may continue where the specialists will continue to get traction.

Alan: I do agree. I think it’s becoming more and more apparent to clients that the best way to get what they need, in terms of a set of capabilities, is to look at organizations like BrandingBusiness, in fact, that have related relationships with old specialist organizations that they can bring into the project or the relationship when they need to. And the day of the so called one stop shop may be over.

Bob: You know, I think that agencies have gotten better at working together. As we’ve had to learn what others do and how we fit together and how we can really provide value in and build off what the other one provides. I think that has probably helped agencies like BrandingBusiness, who are specialists to continue to win more. We’ve gotten smarter and more capable as it relates to, to collaborating and partnering with other agencies.

Alan: Yeah. I do agree. I think the argument is broken. I think everybody now can see the veil has dropped. It’s a very transparent world. You have to be who you are and what you are. And I think especially within the world of Zoom and technology, bringing people into a situation. Remember the days, Bob, when we try to look like the big players? Show the dots on the map and professed to be everything to everybody. I think that those days are thankfully gone. And we are very comfortable now being who we are and do what we do in a very, very focused way and bring resources into a situation as they’re needed. And thank goodness for that.

Bob: Yeah, great point.

Alan: Bob, I’m looking at the time. I don’t want to take you too much of your time, but I do want to ask you two remaining questions. The first one relates to the breadth of your experience. What has been the most satisfying client experience for you? What client has given you the most joy and the most fulfillment in terms of what you’ve been able to do for them?

Bob: And you had warned me that you were going to ask me this, and it’s a tough question. I’ll say this, it’s hard to narrow it down to one, but I think those clients where you’re really able to partner with them and really are in a position to affect change. And I think a couple of them stand out. One is having been a part of a wonderful team that served Barclays out of the UK, the British bank, that did a lot of work on the institutional side, whether it was naming, brand strategy, merger and acquisition related, product development, sponsorship. Even when Barclays bought the naming rights to Barclays Center, getting to be involved in that brand development and its launch, that included at the time Mayor Bloomberg, Jay-Z, Frank Urie, it was a wonderful experience.

So that was an incredible experience and then there was a couple of other programs, one was a spinoff. It was a payment technology brand that spun off from the parent. It was called Vantiv, they’re part of FIS now. But again, great leadership, great client, who really wanted a partner and gave us a seat at the table to really help define the mission, vision, purpose, values of the brand and drive that in terms of its launch. And then also did some work with a gaming technology brand called IGT a few years back, again, fantastic leadership, a really talented marketing leader and team and CEO, where we got to really kind of define the future of gaming and partner with them to kind of look at the trends that were happening and the shifts that were happening with consumers and technology and what gaming meant. And those were, again, a really wonderful experience where we were just fortunate enough to be working with very talented clients and alongside really, really smart people.

Alan: Excellent, Bob, thank you. It’s always a pleasure to hear of instances where the work brings fulfillment to a strategist as well as just an output. And those were very pleasing instances that you referenced. Final question, Bob, and you joined this industry from the oil and gas industry, or certainly an energy company called Clark Oil based in Chicago, where you began your career, I think, out of college. That industry is undergoing a significant change in terms of its rebranding, its repositioning against climate change, sustainability. One instance comes to mind, TOTAL in Paris, the global company in the oil and gas industry, rebranding as TotalEnergies, as it moves towards sustainable business practices. What’s your view of that? Is it going to continue? Is that just TOTAL doing that? Or, or what, Bob.

Bob: That’s a really big question. I’ll do my best to keep this succinct. I was fortunate enough to work with Devon Energy out of Oklahoma City on a large rebranding, some years ago, as well as with Tesoro. And I’ve also worked with some other organizations in oil and gas. It’s a fascinating space. It’s a fascinating category. I think BP and its missteps with Deepwater Horizon, I think it was really a signal to the oil and gas industry that you’ve got to back up your words, right? If you’re going to promote being more beyond petroleum, if you’re going to talk about sustainability and in the environment, you’ve really got to walk the walk. And so, and given the push to electric to EVs and the push to, in society overall, really kind of focus on climate change and focus on the environment, it’s a difficult position that the energy companies are in.

So, I think in this day and age of transparency, it’s really important to be forthright and realistic about kind of how far you’re going to reach as an oil and gas company to promote what you’re doing. And to be honest about what you’re really able to do and gets back to what we talked about earlier around when it comes to branding, you got to think about, it’s not just a cosmetic promotional message you’re putting out there. You know, you’ve got to be able to live, whatever promise you’re going to put out there. And if you’re going to truly talk about going beyond petroleum, whether you’re TOTAL or whether you’re Chevron or whoever you are, you’ve got to be able to back it up and demonstrate that if you are moving into solar, if you’re moving to electric, if you’re moving into nuclear, whether you, whatever it might be, wind farms, you’ve definitely got to go walk the walk and show the evidence and show the proof that’s in fact what you’re doing and where the business is headed.

Alan: Great insights, Bob, that’s the topic that’s probably worthy of more conversation at a future time. I think we’ll end it there. This has been another edition of Expert Opinion with BrandingBusiness. Thank you, Bob, for joining us today and wishing our listeners a very happy and successful 2022.

Bob: Absolutely. Thanks, Alan.