Helping B2B understand why it should invest in brand

I think that outside the realm of B2B marketing, clients generally have a poor understanding of brand and why they should invest in it. I also think that’s because we (agencies) do a bad job of explaining why.

I was invited to speak about brand at a client’s global leadership meeting recently. It was a diverse group of people from all over the world, who oversee the various regions and different constituent parts of their very successful global business. It wasn’t an abstracted discussion about brand on its own. It was related to their own business, and we were offering thoughts on their own brand. A bit of an audit, with some very topline thoughts thrown in for possible changes or improvements.

However, in standing up and talking to the group, and based on the conversation we had afterwards, it brought home to me just how poorly ‘brand’ is understood in a B2B context. And as I travelled back home, I was reflecting on who’s fault that is.

You see to us it’s very simple and crystal clear. A brand is an asset. It’s way much more than a logo and colours. And like any other asset – whether it be a factory full of machines; a team of people or a fleet of vehicles – if you invest in and look after that asset, then it will perform, grow, last longer and ultimately deliver the business owner a return on that investment over a period. (Providing the investment is linked to commercial goals).

So, I think that we maybe we take that clarity for granted when talking to a group of very successful and clever businesspeople. They’re not very clear on what a brand is and what role it plays (or should play) in their business, and it’s wrong to make these assumptions.

This became evident to me that day because the conversation about brand became more general and educational in nature, rather than being specific and strategic in relation to their business. Instead of seeing brand as a holistic entity as outlined above, it’s perceived as a narrow series of elements that aren’t necessarily joined together and pulling in the same direction.

Here are some examples (I’m listing these not in a sneering ‘aren’t they stupid sense’, but to show how poor a job we’ve done in educating business in the value and power of brand):

There’s no link made between vision, mission, values and brand. By that I mean that they understand it’s important to have these things in place; but they don’t understand how they should be set up as a catalyst for the brand.

There’s a simplistic tendency to talk about tangible design aspects as ‘the brand’. The most referenced areas are the logo itself and the brand’s colour. It makes sense as these two elements are the stereotypes of how brands are understood in the mainstream. However, when you start to talk about tone of voice and brand language; you can see this isn’t as well understood or appreciated. This can be dangerous as it trivialises the definition of brand the role it can play.

One of the most common issues is the lack of appreciation of how closely the website is tied to the concept of brand. Websites are often well into the development stage before brand is even considered – if at all. They’re seen in silos, often dealt with by different teams which creates a ton of friction when the two worlds inevitably collide. This perhaps says more about the suppliers hired to do the work but it's also a very clear example of the gulf of knowledge around how the brand should drive many aspects of digital manifestation of the brand.

Products and services can be seen as individual brands without an appreciation of what that means for the mother brand. And the decisions around this naming or sub-brand creation can be made by people in teams that have no consideration for the end user. There’s often a powerful inside out bias that drives decision making for products and naming. As long as the logic makes sense to the internal team, the customer’s going to understand, aren’t they? Well, generally no, they’re not. There’s always a case to be made for simplification.

Audiences are generally very poorly understood. In addition to the inside out bias, there’s a lack of appreciation and a tendency to over complicate how businesses communicate to audiences. Sometimes they make the same mistake as we do (and as I’m writing about right now) and assume too much knowledge on the customer’s behalf, or they weigh everything down with way too much technical information much too early; or they try to slice and dice how they communicate to their various audiences and tie themselves in knots. I think the main problem is that they think of them as ‘audiences’ or ‘customers’, rather than simply as humans, which makes communication much easier.

All of this was running through my head on the plane home, and I’m not sure I’ve come to any firm conclusions. However, it’s clear that before we engage in any form of brand project at serious scale, we should spend a little time running through language, definitions and defining our point of view of what a brand is and what it can do for a business. We may worry about the risk of coming across as patronising or high minded; but I guess that’s up to us (and our brand values) to make this stuff land the right way.