As a long-time B2B marketer, the term “branding” was, for years, simply not in my lexicon. Sure—branding had been part of my standard marketing education at business school along with concepts like E. Jerome McCarthy’s Four Ps of Marketing and Michael Porter’s Five Forces. However, as a B2B marketer focusing on early-stage and growth-stage businesses, there was never much need to invest much time or energy in branding.
Even at larger B2B companies, brand budgets are typically dwarfed by demand generation budgets, so branding never gets much mindshare or attention. Have a nice logo, show up at popular industry events and make sure you’ve got collateral to dish out. That’s it…branding for B2B in a nutshell.
A friend of mine once said that as recently as 4 or 5 years ago, B2B CMOs who wanted to invest in their corporate brand would get laughed out of the board room and probably fired. Termination may be extreme, but it’s not far from the truth. The “softer” art of brand marketing wasn’t anywhere near as important as customer validation, product-market fit, online conversion and of course, leads.
The Consumerization of B2B Marketing
Today, however, it’s a different story. You might say that B2B marketing is experiencing its own form of consumerization.
The modern CMO thinks about the brand. More than that—so does the modern CEO. A brand is not just about what makes for nice colors anymore. A company’s brand defines how a customer perceives it. It dictates the personality and the tone and voice. It guides the interaction with customers along their buyer’s journey.
Brand plays an important role in overall marketing functions. We are now entering an age where marketing executives are understanding that role and the metrics that should be applied to monitor and improve brand position.
This idea—that B2B marketing was looking a lot more like B2C marketing—is why my company was acquired by GYK Antler in late 2014. My firm was a B2B marketing consultancy that focused on customer and advocate marketing. We noticed that if you are trying to get individual customers to participate in your marketing activities, you needed to appeal to them on an emotional and a personal level. We started building consumer-like marketing tactics into our B2B plans, a practice we expanded upon after the acquisition.
By now we’ve got a pretty good idea of what’s going on.
There Are Really Two Funnels
We all know that the B2B buying process has changed significantly over the last 5-10 years. The importance of inbound marketing, content marketing, and even social media has not only shifted B2B marketing practices—it’s shifted marketing organizational structure itself.
Companies typically define a marketing funnel and then align their programs and activities with the stages of that funnel. It starts with Awareness and general education, followed by Consideration, leading ultimately to Purchase and Loyalty activities.
There was always something that bothered me about the simplicity of this funnel when applied to B2B and after studying the marketing processes across a number of my clients I decided it was this simple fact: There is often a purchase before the real purchase.
Specifically, you educate an individual and you get them to convert into a single-license, or a trial, or a POC—some kind of meaningful, revenue-generating event. But your job isn’t done there. Because at that point you need to work with that individual to drive awareness among others in the organization and go through the whole process again.
The first funnel applies to your champion—let’s call that the Champion Funnel. The second funnel applies to the organization as a whole—we’ll call that the Organizational Funnel. You need to create an advocate before that advocate will sponsor you before the rest of the team, and it’s only then that the real sale and the real dollars come in.
The First Funnel Is B2C, The Second Is Traditional B2B
The real insight here is that the way you market to your champion is different from the way you market to the organization. That’s because your champion is vouching for you when they recommend you to the broader committee. Getting someone to believe that your solution is the best one out there is a different challenge than getting an organization to make a purchase.
And here’s the point: your Champion Funnel will look like consumer marketing, while your Organizational Funnel will look a lot more like traditional B2B marketing.
Think about it from the champion’s perspective. There is a challenge at work. Someone in the organization (who will become the champion) is responsible for finding a set of solutions—a short list. They only want to recommend winners, but there is so much information out there it can be difficult to separate the real options from those that are simply well-marketed.
So the champion does a few things:
- They speak to peers
- They look for recommendations
- They visit online forums and ask questions
- They find people on LinkedIn or other communities with similar problems and ask how they solved them
- They do online research to get a feel for features, customer support and popularity
- They download and experiment
Ultimately that champion is going to make a list of recommendations to the broader team, highlighting the solutions they are the most excited about. That can be a very powerful motivator going into the Organizational Funnel. A champion may recommend a couple industry-leading solutions, but they will also recommend the solution that makes them feel good. They respond to trust. To emotion.
Sounds a lot like branding, right?
And get this—branding will play an important role in the communication of that short list to the broader team. Participants will compare brands with other brands they experience. People don’t take their consumer hats off just because they are at work. Those first impressions leave indelible marks.
Champions Respond To Your Brand—So Invest In It
We’ve seen this dynamic prove itself out over and over again, as we use B2C marketing tactics to position clients’ products to champions and ultimately drive demand.
It can start as simply as with your mission statement. That statement used to be fluffy and soon-forgotten corporate babble, but now it actually matters. Your mission statement can align your vision with your customers’ vision and build an emotional connection that carries you through the Champion Funnel into the Organizational Funnel.
At that point, you’ve got the leg up. Don’t underestimate how powerful the fact that someone wants you can be in a competitive bake-off. That’s what a strong brand has the power to do.
Make Your B2B Brand Matter
Having a strong brand and guidelines that everyone believes in will ensure that what your champions like about your solution holds up with their teams go deeper. Champions will be more confident about solutions that make them look smart, capable, thorough and visionary. A well-positioned brand will turn your champion into a true advocate who’ll go the extra mile toward making you successful.
Branding is no longer a forbidden term among B2B marketing executives. It’s a lever to influence conversions, metrics and demand generation. It can be that missing ingredient that converts leads into opportunities, filling your funnel with high-quality, motivated buyers. The more you understand your buyer and their buying cycle and the more you build a brand that speaks to your champions, the more successful you will be.
Brian Gladstein, EVP Tech Marketing at @GYKAntler.
Follow Brian on Twitter (@briangladstein)