Every month David Willan interviews leading experts from the world of marketing and B2B. This month David spoke with Stephen Cheliotis, Chairman of the Superbrands Expert Councils and Chief Executive of The Centre for Brand Analysis (TCBA).
Stephen offers some fascinating insights into the world of B2B brands.
He discusses what makes a strong B2B brand and identifies the benefits that strong B2B brands bring; he looks at how B2B brands may evolve in the future, chooses his own favourite B2B brands and gives his view on whether B2B brands can ever become cool brands.
Stephen, in your experience are brands becoming more important in B2B?
It’s pretty clear to me through my work on Business Superbrands that branding is becoming more important in many b2b categories. That said there is still a battle for marketeers working in business-to-business to convince some of their peers that it’s important, but I think for most there is a feeling that they’re starting to win that battle.
Sometimes this change is because markets are opening up to more competition – the legal sector is a classic example where new entrants with better brands might suddenly come in and scare the hell out of the incumbents. Other factors such as globalisation and increased competition make people think, ‘I’ve really got to have one of the best reputations to win.’
So in summary, I think we’re winning the battle, it’s not won, but we’re getting there.
What makes a strong B2B brand?
In Business Superbrands we look for three core factors, namely quality, reliability and distinction.
The sort of questions we ask are: do the products and services delivered by the brand represent good quality? Can you trust the brand to deliver against all of its promises against the various customer touchpoints? Thirdly, distinction, does a brand stand out from its peers? Does it have certain values, certain factors that allow it to stand above its competition?
Increasingly however, many of the rules of consumer branding are applying, so being truly differentiated, having very creative and innovative marketing based on great customer insight are all important. This also suggests to me that many of the intangibles around branding, such as the more emotive aspects of a brand, are becoming more and more important in B2B.
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What are the benefits of having a strong brand in B2B?
I think there’s a whole range of benefits that a strong brand provides the brand owner. Clearly having a good reputation, which is what we mean by having a good brand, is vital. It’s vital for not only helping to secure consumer trust, it’s also vital to other stakeholder groups too.
We know that the employees are key for most business-to-business brands. Now, the best graduates, the best employees will be attracted to companies with a well-known, high profile, well regarded brand. If you want the best talent to deliver your products and service, you’ve got to have a strong brand.
If you always want to be on the Pitch Roster or the equivalent in your category, then you have to be known and have a good reputation.
If you want to have good supplier terms, it’s important to have a well-regarded strong brand that people think, ‘that will be around. That’s a strong brand that will always be with us’.
Even investors who should, in theory, be very logical and very black and white in their views will be more confident investing in a company they’ve heard of, a company that they know has a strong reputation.
Is there anything that B2B brands can learn from B2C brands?
Yes, there are things B2B brands can learn from B2C, but there are things that a lot of B2C brands have started to learn from B2B. Actually, the same also applies in reverse with respect to factors such as customer insight, knowledge and customer relationships. I don’t think one is better than the other. I don’t think one always leads the other. I think what you do as a brand owner and a brand manager is you look at best practice across the board. That might be best practice with a particular tool, such as who has developed the best website. It could be Kellogg’s or might just as easily be Accenture. I don’t think you should always try to differentiate between the two. Work out what you’re trying to do, look at the market and ask four questions: ‘Who has done this the best?’ ‘What can we learn from them?’ ‘Who has done this the worst?’ ‘What are the lessons from them?’
How do you think that B2b brands will evolve in the future?
The first point is that the growing importance of branding in B2B will clearly continue. Markets will become more competitive, more dynamic and subject to considerable change.
Secondly, the advance of technology will continue and this will have important implications for how information is sent, received and communicated. I believe that some of the tools and techniques will inevitably change and that’s just the reality of technology changing and changing very quickly.
I think the other thing that we’ll see is cultural change. Behaviours change over time; what was acceptable in the 1980s is no longer appropriate today. To use an example from the world of marketing, in the old days long alcohol-fuelled lunches were the norm, but nowadays the emphasis is firmly on complete professionalism, delivery and measurable ROI. It is of course difficult to accurately predict what cultural changes will occur over twenty years and which of today’s behaviours may be seen as inappropriate or out-dated, thus the need for regular monitoring of the market.
Does small mean beautiful in B2B?
In some cases it certainly can.
For a long time we’ve seen very strong, powerful, incumbent players that have established market leading positions – look at the dominance of major brands in IT or energy, for example. They’ve been very difficult to budge, but this is starting to change.
In most markets, not only is competition increasing, but actually the playing field is being levelled in that the small guys are increasingly competing effectively against the big guys. Just look at sectors such as research, marketing consultancy, law or accountancy – now that smaller players can reach out to people more cheaply and more effectively the barriers to compete with the bug guns is reduced. These small players are becoming increasingly successful in showcasing themselves and demonstrating how they’re different. I imagine that this applies to a company such as Circle where you’ve developed an impressive and loyal client base by always focussing on very high quality deliverables to clients.
Are there any B2B brands that you personally admire?
I’ve got a couple that spring to mind.
The first is Rolls Royce who actually took the number one spot in Business Superbrands. It’s very well deserved.
Globally, they are a British engineering firm that can compete with the very best and they leader in many of their markets, which seems an increasingly rare thing for a British manufacturer. I like that, and I like the heritage, I like the story behind the brand. I like the fact that, unlike most great British engineering firms which have died a death or sold out to someone else, they still lead their category. Yes, they’ve got a great history and story, but they’re also still pioneers and always innovating.
Another favourite of mine is Intel, because it’s a great example of a business to business brand that said: ‘Actually, this branding malarkey is relevant to us.’
It’s an ingredient brand. They turned themselves from being potentially a commoditised ingredient brand that the computer companies could take or leave, or even worse could play off against their rivals, to one that was certainly influencing and possibly even dictating to their customers. They have such a strong brand message: ‘Insist on Intel because your end customers will only buy computers with Intel Inside.’ They really turned the tables in terms of who held the power within their supply chain.
Intel is a great example of why brands are relevant and what brands can deliver if you invest in them, nurture them, grow them, build them.
One of the categories that Superbrands covers is ‘cool brands’. Could a B2B brand ever be a cool brand?
It’s difficult, but not impossible. You can certainly be cooler than your competitors principally by injecting personality into your brand, even if you are in a sector that may not be that exciting.
I’ll give you a consumer analogy, for example something like insurance price comparison.
Firstly the insurance market itself is traditionally viewed as being a bit dull. Now take a functional sub-product like websites comparing insurance products. It should be dull as hell, but Compare the Market decided to do things very differently, creating a campaign that instead of being very dry and dull, was highly engaging and wacky using the now infamous meerkats. Everyone in that market had to respond to the raised bar. So we’ve got the big moustached operatic singer for Go Compare, you’ve got the funny cartoons for Confused.com, etc.
So you have a category that should be dull, should be boring, should be lifeless. But it’s not – principally as a result of one brand pushing forward and doing something creative and innovative, leading the rest of the field to follow suit. It’s created a market that is much more interesting. Who would ever have imagined that insurance comparison could be cool? Don’t get me wrong, some of those campaigns may be annoying to many people but those brands are definitely cooler than they use to be.
And of course the same thing could equally apply in B2B where you can create brand personalities in sectors that are even more boring than insurance.
So brand personality can make a big difference in B2B.
Absolutely. It matters a lot, maybe even more in B2B than B2C. One criticism of B2B is that just because the product may be boring it seems to suggest that suppliers should be boring too. It’s nonsense. B2B suppliers can inject personality into their brand, they can show a slightly different tone of voice, and through their marketing approach does something that makes people sit up and be surprised. So much communications material in B2B is quite bland. But if a brand approached you and did something that made you smile and laugh, wouldn’t you appreciate it even more? Equally, wouldn’t you stand out more? What would you prefer – professionally produced but extremely detailed prospectus type documents from 10 different construction companies or a very different one that attracted your attention, was easy to read and told you all you needed to know in a simple and concise way?
As I mentioned earlier, many B2B markets are becoming increasingly commodity in nature. Of course companies have got to compete on factors such as quality, price and delivery but injecting personality into a brand is one obvious but often neglected way of achieving competitive differentiation.
Going back to your earlier question, are B2B brands ‘cool’? Probably not, but they can definitely stand out through personality and appeal to buyers’ emotions.
Read more about our approach to business-to-business (B2B) branding research.