by Mark Eardley (@mdeardley) Companies competing in the same market may often look like clones. Similar products, similar services, similar propositions. The problem with looking like a clone is that it’s a constant barrier to increasing sales and strengthening margins.

From a customer’s perspective (the only one that matters), if all the available offerings look cast from the same mould, how can customers decide which to buy? Simple. They use price as the differentiator and buy the cheapest. If you’re a clone, the only competitive advantage you have is a low price.

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Back in 2000, American marketing consultant, Jack Trout, said that to survive in a world of ‘killer competition’, you may either distinguish yourself from competitors or offer the lowest price. In his blunt opinion, if you can’t meet that low-price imperative, you have two choices: “Differentiate or die.”

Opting for the first choice means building a brand that’s based on something more than price. A brand that creates powerfully positive perceptions in the market.

For B2B buyers, a brand is as influential as a sales team. It seriously matters

You are what the market thinks you are. Brands are created by the perceptions of the markets they seek to serve. Broadly, what your market thinks of your company is your brand.

More specifically, your brand is embodied by the perceptions of the people who influence and make buying decisions. Their perceptions are based on answers to two questions: am I confident that this brand — above all others — will advance my success and the success of my organisation?

The sole goal of a B2B brand is to build that confidence by making and keeping promises which are specifically relevant and credible to each of the decision-influencers.

When selecting a supplier — and issuing the purchase orders that create sales — brand-confidence is highly significant.

A brand can get so much more attention than a sales team. Maybe 10 times more

B2B Buying Today. Source: CEB 2017 Digital B2B Buyer SurveyA 2017 survey of buying decision-makers showed that nearly half of the time taken in the decision-making process is spent in research — independently of sales teams.

For vendors, it’s clear that their brand must feature as prominently and positively as possible in all that research. They need a strongly differentiated brand that’s confidently regarded for the right reasons by the right people in the right places at the right time.

In comparison to the lion’s share of hours allocated to research, buyers spend 17% of their time meeting potential suppliers. That’s not much time.

In reality, it’s likely to be a great deal less: spread equally over, say, four would-be suppliers, it drops to just over four%. If that’s the case, then a strong brand will get more than 10 times the attention of its sales team.

Given that a brand can be so central to winning deals, it makes business sense to invest in developing the brand. It pays to empower the brand.

Judging by the legions of clones in B2B markets, that doesn’t seem to be happening. This is odd because, commercially, the consequences of being visibly undifferentiated are severe.

Empower the brand to deliver ‘evidence of difference’

We are all different. Just as no two individuals are the same, no two companies are the same. To discover evidence of difference, and incorporate it at the core of the brand, it helps to answer three questions that are the foundations for building a differentiated brand that will attract and retain profitable customers:

  • Purpose: What do you do?
  • Process: How do you do it?
  • Promise: Why do you matter to me — the customer?

It might be stating the obvious but the questions need to be answered from a customer’s perspective. Without compelling evidence that proves why any of this matters to customers, none of it matters. If customers can’t clearly see how your brand advances their brand, they certainly won’t pay a premium for your products and services.

Branding the customer experience: safeguard it in the hands of its real custodians

Within B2B organisations, everyone who affects customer experience is involved in branding. They are the custodians of the brand’s promise because they do control how it comes to life.

Since the C-suite comprises the brand’s most powerfully influential custodians, its executives should routinely pose a simple question to the people who influence and make buying decisions: how can we deliver an experience that meets your expectation?

They need to frame the question with specific reference to quality; service; time; price; how accurately their organisation perceives customers’ challenges; and how effectively it responds to them

When acted on appropriately, the discoveries made by such an incisive customer-dialogue are the foundation for ensuring customers have a more-positive perception of your brand than they do of your competitors’. That’s what attracts and retains profitable customers.

Be positively different: it triggers sales and strengthens margins

“Brand building starts with understanding the key attributes of your products and services as well as understanding and anticipating the needs of your customers.” — B2B Brand Management, Philip Kotler & Waldemar Pfoertsch, 2006

Positive differentiation may only be achieved if the brand addresses those motivators. The brand should communicate that it understands customers’ needs and has the ability and commitment to meet them:

“We know what you need, why you need it and we will provide it in the way you need it.”

Positively different or commercially irrelevant? It’s a binary choice.


Some elements of this article first appeared on


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Mark Eardley (@mdeardley) 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 and Charlie Stewart have written Business-to-Business Marketing: A Step-by-Step Guide (Penguin Random House), which offers practical, actionable advice on how to make marketing make money. His monthly “Back2Basics” column on MarkLives covers how B2B companies and their agencies should manage their marketing.

The article first appeared in the 2018 edition of Brands & Branding in South Africa, an annual review from Affinity Publishing of all aspects of brand marketing — consisting of case-studies, profiles, articles and research — also accessible at Order your copy of the 2018 edition now!

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