New research reveals that the brand messages of business-to-business (B2B) suppliers are often ineffective as they do not address the needs of customers. B2B brands use Web-based video, online communities, and search to reach customers. But their core messages often skirt the characteristics valued most by customers.
A recent McKinsey B2B report looked at 13 topic areas and themes used by DAX 30 and Fortune 500 companies to market their brands. The themes ranged from practical issues like low prices to elevated ideas like corporate social responsibility. The researchers then selected 90 top global B2B firms and reviewed how closely their marketing messages were connected to the 13 topic areas used in the broader sample. To get the customers’ point of view, the survey queried more than 700 executives to evaluate how each theme influenced their evaluation of the brand attributes of their B2B suppliers.
The McKinsey B2B report reveals that key themes such as global reach, sustainability, and social responsibility used by many B2B suppliers in brand imaging had little impact on customers’ opinion of brand strength. And, two important themes that influenced customer estimation of brand strength – specialist market knowledge and supply chain management – were among the least used by B2B companies. Customers also regarded open and honest dialogue as most important, but this theme was not emphasized by the all the B2B suppliers. Another finding is that leading B2B suppliers showed a herd mentality by using similar brand themes and messages.
Based on the findings of the survey, we provide three effective strategies that B2B companies can use to differentiate their brand messaging from the competition:
Avoid the trap of similar messages to look unique. Customers won’t be impressed if your messages are the same as those of your rivals. In contrast, IBM’s Smarter Planet ads tell a distinctive story that reveals the company’s robust strengths in today’s digital economy. This distinguishing messaging guides both external communications as well as internal product development.
Despite the digital era, sales reps who personally interact with customers exert a huge influence on B2B customers. Thus, salespeople are best placed to provide valuable feedback on how customers view your product. Do they think your product is distinctive and worth paying more?
Frontend salespeople can reveal if there is a disconnect between your messaging and the perception of customers. Top companies extensively use market research and frontline feedback to recognize customer perceptions and needs. For instance, a company named Hilti which makes professional construction tools, makes its salespeople double up as researchers and distributors at customer construction venues.
This aspect is important as advertising and communication channels are proliferating rapidly today. This calls for discipline in ensuring consistent communication of values and messages across multiple channels, including traditional ones. For example, after Deutsche Post acquired DHL, the rebranding effort involved repainting the tens and thousands of trucks as well as more than a hundred planes used by the courier company. The employees of the firm were trained to become brand ambassadors, and the company framed a set of rules for all materials and campaigns to ensure uniform corporate identity.
However, companies should avoid the pitfall of inertia while ensuring consistency. American Express keeps in touch with market shifts by using its Open Forum virtual platform to advise enterprise customers, and help them communicate with each other and the company. Amex advises its customers about the latest trends in the market, and uses their feedback to learn how it can differentiate its own products and services. Thus, it is imperative to get constant feedback from customers, and use the information to ensure there is no gap between your company’s brand messaging and customer needs.
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