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Brand and Comms thinking in the B2B World

by Iain Stanfield , 17.05.2012

There are often debates on the importance and role of brands in the B2B world. Is brand perception driven totally by satisfaction with the customer experience? Clearly more rational aspects such as product performance, experience and value are critical components, but in today’s procurement-led selection of suppliers and partners, is there a place for the softer, more emotional dimensions of a brand – and what implication does this have for the assessment of brand performance in the B2B arena?

At a strategic level, brands are brands, irrespective of the sector in which they operate, although with a seemingly more rational set of decision-making criteria, brands in the B2B world would appear to be built around rational benefits, value and service. Interestingly though, one regularly-quoted brand saying from the 1970’s playing strongly in the emotional space is from the B2B arena:

‘No-one ever got fired for choosing IBM’

The adage was clearly designed to deliver trust in the IBM brand and was used as a way to both create and overcome what marketers referred to as FUD – Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt. By understanding that there was concern that a purchasing decision was a reflection of the capabilities of the employee or employees making that decision, IBM brand awareness (my senior managers have heard of them) and brand image (reliable, dependable, trustworthy) played a huge role in removing that fear. However, this highlights the need to look at the ways that brands differ between the business and consumer worlds.

Decision-making process:

The IBM example shows that in order to assess the role brands play in a B2B context, it is important to appreciate how purchasing decisions are made in the business world. They are usually complex, with both decision makers (sometimes both technical and financial) and influencers (usually end users) forming the ‘Decision Making Unit’ (DMU). The implications of this clearly play a key role in brand development and performance assessment. Understanding the situation of the members of the DMU and the emotions present within this group are important in getting the brand favourably considered, whatever the ‘official’ assessment criteria may be.

Touchpoints:

In addition to the initial decision-making process, another compelling aspect of the brand relationship is the amount of direct contact between the brand and the customer. The array and guise of the various touchpoints are often complex. The brand is generally represented by an account manager with customer service, delivery, repairs and even billing all impacting brand perceptions – no amount of advertising can make up for an inattentive account team or unhelpful delivery driver. Beyond the interaction itself, the frequency of this interaction is also crucial in shaping the brand image. Therefore, any brand performance assessment must also ensure that all of these ‘touchpoints’ are captured.

Touchpoints such as:

  1. Account managers
  2. Customer service teams
  3. Automated services (both telephone and internet)
  4. Delivery personnel
  5. Service engineers
  6. Third-party agents and representatives

… all need to be considered.

Trade bodies, trade publications, trade shows, DM, sales calls, corporate hospitality etc are also key touchpoints that need to be included in brand assessments at both rational and emotional levels.

Experience:

Whilst this is increasing in consumer brand relationships, customer experience has always been integral to B2B brand relationships. Any brand management model needs to include experience measures such as performance (satisfaction), advocacy (recommendation), attachment/ loyalty (likelihood to switch) and value as part of the model. In particular, B2B brand studies need to be modelled on the relevant touchpoints, with dimensions such as acquisition and retention being central to the analysis. This analysis must essentially consider:

- Customers (loyalty model) - looking at those at risk and understanding how to build loyalty

- Prospects (acquisition model) - identifying those who have most potential and how they can be attracted

By evaluating these groups using the performance/ advocacy/ attachment/ value criteria, the experience is built into the brand evaluation. Ensuring that the assessment includes both rational AND emotional dimensions, the holistic relationship can be understood and the relevant brand levers can be identified.

Rational vs Emotional influences:

Many B2B companies claim that the purchase decision is purely rational and based on a performance vs price calculation, with ongoing brand performance based on satisfaction and/or recommendation. Whilst this is simply not true (the relationship between the account manager and the customer is between humans and so can never be ‘emotion-free’!), the decision making process and the on-going monitoring of performance (SLAs etc) often have more rational aspects at play. Therefore, the balance of rational to emotional factors needs to match the way the brand relationship works.

In Summary:

Brands do have a role to play in the B2B world and emotional aspects clearly have an important role in brand performance. However, the scope and role of emotions is different to that of brands in the consumer world and so brand assessment needs to take these differences into account. The brand is delivered through both marketing communications but is reinforced (or otherwise!) through ALL interactions between brand and customer – these include the account team, customer service team, logistics, as well as the product or service itself. Only by taking all these into account can brand performance be truly understood.