B2B Brands Are Different. Or Are They?

by Bruce Tait

Man changing brains

We humans don’t get to swap out our brains when we go to work in the morning. And decisions are usually made in the part of the brain responsible for emotions.

We’ve been fortunate to work with some world-class B2B brands in the last few years, across a broad variety of categories. But it seems we often go through a rough patch at the start of the relationship because Tait Subler is not a B2B specialist. Many B2B marketers seem to believe that a business brand is fundamentally different than a consumer brand. Consumer brands are routinely cast aside as unfit analogues. B2B is just too… different.

Many of the people who assert this most aggressively have never worked on consumer brands, so we wonder how they’ve come to this conclusion. These same folks often believe that the mushy, emotional stuff that is part of consumer brand marketing has no place in the rational world of decisions made in the work place.

And yes, there are some differences that need to be taken seriously as you address a B2B brand strategy. The sales force is a more important target segment and the decision-making process involves multiple people playing different and important roles. Complexity plays a role. But when we are trying to figure out the most compelling, differentiating way to position a B2B brand, we haven’t seen fundamental differences. Moreover, not all consumer brands are as simplistic as they are cast by B2B marketers. Every brand and every situation deserves its own attention and a customized approach to determining the best brand strategy. That is true of consumer and B2B brands.

We say B2B brands aren’t fundamentally different because they still need to be differentiated and relevant. And they still exist as concepts in the same place – the human brain.

The myth that some B2B marketers hold onto is that decision-making is different in a work context. It’s purely rational. We agree that the pressures and weight of a high-involvement business decision can be different than some consumer decisions, but in very complex decisions the brain science shows that people are more likely to rely on intuition and emotional parts of the brain. This is why we see B2B brands and consumer brands as fundamentally similar.

We humans don’t get to swap out our brains when we go to work in the morning. And decisions are usually made in the part of the brain responsible for emotions (see the work of Antonio Damasio at USC for more on this). This fact of our biology is the same in a B2B decision as it is in a decision about what kind of perfume to buy. Yes, we need to provide a rationale in a business context, but the decision often precedes the rationale. The rationale is used as armor for the decision made in a different part of the brain. And a B2B brand needs to address that emotional part of the brain.

Here’s an example that brought it home for me. We were doing a focus group with physicians (men and women of science and rationality). We showed them all the same data around a particular drug. They fought vehemently around its appropriateness to prescribe for a particular malady. And when we dug to the bottom of their dispute, it had nothing to do with the facts or the science. It had to do with how they wanted to be perceived by their patients and how they wanted to see themselves as physicians. On this they differed and it helped us define meaningful segments – based on emotional drivers. Not unlike how we created segments for Gucci.

A lot of sophisticated B2B brands are beginning to make the same kinds of connections with customers and prospects that great consumer brands do. They appeal to values and emotions as well as intellect. Look at IBM’s smarter planet effort or GE’s Imagination At Work as examples.  Our B2B clients are moving in this direction too.

Of course B2B brands have distinct challenges that need to be respected, but when you get right down to it, the best B2B brands and the best consumer brands are able to make powerful emotional and values-based connections that support the features and functional benefits they offer. And that’s what we set out to do in either case.

Posted in Brand Strategy, Ideas & Insights, Published Articles, Quick-Take Perspectives.