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Branding for mutual value – brand building in the B2B marketplace

January 4, 2022
Timo Kruskopf

A legendary, iconic scene: a fine sunny day, a rough guy on a motorcycle making the dirt fly on a sandy road. A close-up shows a long beard, shades, a leather vest and a Harley-Davidson tattoo on one elbow. Can you picture it?

To me, the legendary part is the tattoo. What on earth made this man get a Harley tattoo?

A girlfriend tattoo I can understand. Or an anchor, a heart, a rose – even “Mom”. But a brand? What did Harley do to this man?

I’m a brand guy. But on the B2B side. I could never ever imagine someone tattooing ‘IBM’ or ‘3M’ or ‘Microsoft’ on their elbow. Bill Gates doesn’t have one. Or at least it’s not anywhere you can see it. Maybe the ex-wife will reveal it in her next bestseller.

Loyalty is the absence of something better

What does a B2B brand need to do to make you tattoo their logo on your body? I’ve been pondering this for some time now, without any grand ideas. If I had, I wouldn’t be writing here about it.

Building loyalty is the first thing that brand consultants talk about, along with a $200K “investment allocation”. The reality is that dogs are loyal, people aren’t. You take an immediate step down on the podium when something more alluring comes onto a buyer’s radar. Like one brand guru once said: “Loyalty is the absence of something better”. If your competitive edge is built on low price or a simple product feature, there’s no way to keep the pole position for long. A faster gun is already waiting down the street.

A “brand premium” is the second advantage that consultants talk about: good brands generate better margins. Absolutely true, in cosmetics and other luxury products. But selling helium or PVC pipes or other basic materials is a different ball game.

Relationships worth investing in

The only good-brand smell that business buyers recognise is generated by the dollars they keep in their own pockets. How do you differentiate if your product is as simple as a steel I-beam or the concrete bricks below it? (My apologies to all of the hard-working experts who push I-beams and concrete bricks, but they’re perfect for my story.)

What makes parties in a business engagement invest in the relationship? What makes value brands and other brands different?

Rational product benefits are pretty vague. Just around the corner is someone with a cheaper price or some other relevant argument. You’re somewhat better positioned if you’re able to protect your intellectual property. Although there are experts in the far east who are skilled at minimising that advantage, as well.

Return on Relationship: the magic wand

In scientific channels, they talk about Return on Relationship (RoR): a long-term net financial outcome for all parties that results from the establishment and mutual maintenance of a healthy business engagement. Calculating the value of such a relationship requires not only calculating the value of a customer as an asset on the part of the supplier but also on calculating the value of the supplier as an asset for the customer. It’s about the creation of joint productivity gains.

As an initial step in the direction of RoR, think of what you’re doing differently. You’re not selling a service or a product, but selling a solution. Your solution can either save customers operating costs or generate additional margin. The solution you sell must minimise pain, maximise gain, or both. Calculations must be simple and clear – based on realistic figures that customers can relate to. Making the solution stick also requires the right circumstances. Dynamic and uncertain environments, as well as rising demand, may increase firms’ willingness to engage in the collaborative efforts required for RoR to work.

An I-beam supplier that guarantees its best customers speedy delivery no matter what, especially in today’s marketplace, isn’t just selling steel – they’re selling a value-added solution: no supply-chain holdups. A concrete brick manufacturer that warrants breakage right through to the end customer is also selling a solution. With perks like these, relationships can last decades.

Reaching this level of business engagement can lead to a fruitful relationship, but it’s not yet going to get your customers to ink your logo onto their bodies.

X-factor adds force to personality

To reach legendary brand status, products need to have the “X” factor, writes Laurence Vincent in his book Legendary Brands. Yes, he writes exclusively about consumer brands, but might there be something that also applies to B2B?

The “X” factor speaks to demonstrating shared values and creating an emotional bond. That brings us very quickly to storytelling, especially for products with far less sex appeal than lipstick. We learned to be humans by listening to stories, maybe even before there were campfires. When it comes to stories, we let down our guards. Perhaps because stories can capture our imaginations. Or they’re less intrusive. Like with any traditional story, characters and heroes must interact with their surroundings in pursuit of a big idea or a challenge that drives the plot.

Start with the people

It is with people that a brand’s stories must begin. Meaningful stories with roots in the brand’s history give them the ring of authenticity. These are honest, sincere stories that people tell within the organization.

Employees must understand the company’s mission, vision, values and brand promise, says brand strategist Martin Roll. They need to know in detail who the target customers are, their needs, expectations, desires and, most importantly, how their own roles in the organisation contribute to delivering the differentiated customer experiences that are so sought after today.

Legendary brands need to create an emotional bond by representing values that are important to buyers. You need to reconsider your marketing plan from a storytelling angle. Think of the emotions you want to awaken in your customers, then execute. Do they want savings, safety, or to feel confidence or pride because they use your brand? Self-perception is the only lever that elicits strong emotions. Can you be the king- or queen-maker for your B2B client? Can you be the one to provide her or him with that chance of a lifetime?

Over 300 brand tattoos to start with

Jason George, a man from Mumbai, has had over 300 of his favourite brands tattooed all over his body in an attempt to create a world record. In a quick scan of portrait photos, I did not find any pure B2B logos among them. I think that’s because B2B brands are 60% about ‘doing’: making, acting, solving etc. The promise is the important part. Logos and imagery are just nice add-ons.

There are more important things in a B2B relationship than logos inked onto the skin. Being in the front row is one of them. Being reachable, expressing clearly-stated values, giving a bit more than expected. Upon those fundamentals, you can start to build your legendary brand.

Keep in mind that no companies buy anything – people do. I haven’t yet seen any deal signed by a company. There’s always somebody’s name on the contract.

Timo's signature

 

Timo Kruskopf
“Companies don’t buy anything. People do. Always. Your only challenge as a marketer and salesperson is to know why and when someone wants to buy and on what grounds s/he makes her/his choice. Even a nuclear power plant supplier is selected, or unselected, on an emotional basis. So why not smaller purchases. In the end, the winner is the one you trust and believe the most – you make the deal that feels like the best deal.” Timo develops solutions that enable companies to acquire and retain more customers. Rest of the time he likes to spend on the golf course or dive into the scientific literature.

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