Back2Basics: How the brand impacts the business
by Mark Eardley. Want a brand that generates sales, strengthens margins and side-lines competitors? Who doesn’t?
Let me tell you a story. A while back I was asked by an ad agency to help define its approach to B2B marketing. It wanted a methodology that could be presented to a potential client and thereby describe how the agency would manage the account to attract and retain profitable customers.
Even by Neal Armstrong’s standards, implementing such a methodology would be a giant leap forward for the agency’s potential client whose existing brand is a logo and a slogan. Which would be terrifically groovy, except for the debilitating fact that the logo signifies nothing and the slogan could be for anything from golf clubs to washing machines. The brand’s current manifestation serves no commercial purpose because it has no commercial relevance.
I knew enough about the client and its markets to propose that the agency presents a four-step methodology: differentiate, segment, target and track.
In terms of differentiation, the task would be to highlight evidence proving how the client’s offering is distinct from its competitors’ and why this is positively significant to customers. For segmentation, the goal would be to identify everyone who influences buying decisions in the client’s markets and then define how the client contributes directly to the success of each and every one of them. Once those first steps were completed, the client would have a series of distinguishing messages that address its markets’ buying motivators. Its marketing would be on track to generate sales and reinforce margins.
It would have a brand that represented what it does, how it does it and why it matters to customers. (B2B marketing 101…) It would have a brand that was the sum of all the credible, relevant reasons why its markets should buy from it — and not its competitors.
The next two steps would then be straightforward: translate the messages into content, and target that through channels and formats known to be appropriate for each audience of influencers. Then track the results against the benchmarks of sales and margins.
You are what the market thinks you are:
Why a B2B brand seriously matters
Unless the client in question adopts a marketing methodology — any methodology — that will measurably attract and retain profitable customers, the multimillions it’s already budgeted to spend on strengthening its brand are going to be completely wasted.
Why is that? Brands are created by the perceptions of the markets they seek to serve. Broadly, you are what the market thinks you are. What your market thinks you are is your brand. If what you think your brand represents is at variance with what your market thinks, then your perception of the brand is irrelevant. And so is everything you do to promote it.
More specifically, the significance of a B2B brand only exists in the minds of the people who influence and make business buying decisions. Nobody else’s perceptions matter. Nobody’s. And influencers’ perceptions are based on answers to just two questions: May I trust this supplier, above all others, to advance my success and the success of my organisation?
The function of the brand is to build that trust by demonstrating how compelling promises are consistently kept.
Brand management is therefore most definitely not the job of communications agencies. Their job is to help communicate what customers may expect — and do that in ways that are relevant, credible and trusted so that positive, sales-creating perceptions of the brand are instilled in the minds of everyone who influences the decision to buy from a particular brand.
Agencies have no control over how the brand is managed day-to-day and how that management ensures that expectations are matched by customer experiences. Brand management has always been — and always will be — about managing customer experience. It’s about consistently keeping compelling promises.
How the story ends. Who knows?
In this case, it’s going to be interesting eventually to hear the client’s promises to customers, how it describes the ways it will keep them and the results its marketing consequently achieves.
Experience tells me that I should keep my expectations low. I shouldn’t be surprised when the same, irrelevant, blah-cliché-blah marcoms appear dolled-up in bright new guises. Nor should I be surprised when its big-ticket marketing spend contributes exactly zero to increasing sales and strengthening margins.
Mark Eardley advises B2B companies on how to govern their marketing to attract and retain profitable customers; several of his clients have grown to become market leaders. He is the author, together with Charlie Stewart, of Business-to-Business Marketing: A Step-by-Step Guide (Penguin Random House), which offers practical, actionable advice on how to make marketing make money. Mark contributes the monthly “Back2Basics” column, covering how B2B companies and their agencies should manage their marketing, to MarkLives.com.