Philip Kotler once described brands as helping people to make decisions. In a world of frenzied competition and bewildering choice, they are of course the fastest, simplest and most effective way to link a name to a perception of value. What can easily be overlooked however is that B2B and B2C brands are not just about very different types of decisions but that they also involve very different types of decision making.
For the most part, consumer brands look to influence an individual and/or groups of individuals (tribes). They are at their most powerful ‘in the moment’. They are about excitement through identification, and they are often strongly influenced by culture, taste, fashion and what’s important to people as people.
B2B brands have different drivers – and the most important of these, I believe, is that no-one buys a B2B brand alone. Normally, there are multiple decision-makers involved, each with their own specific areas of responsibility and priority. There’s normally an elongated decision process (sometimes highly regimed) where final approval for go-ahead must pass set stages alongside the many other agendas and priorities that companies juggle every day. As a result, the decision to use a B2B brand is often strongly influenced by track record, responsiveness, knowledge and of course reputation.
The temptation is to believe that B2B brands lack emotion because they are subject to highly logical decisions. That’s not the case – B2B is purchased emotionally as well as logically – but the emotions for buying B2B are very different from those of consumer brands. For the most part, B2B brands need to focus on risk alleviation. That means that in contrast to the excitement that consumer brands are looking to generate, B2B brands need to focus on generating emotions centred on reassurance – professionally, technically, financially, legally and of course personally (for those championing use of the brand itself).
A study by McKinsey of the different drivers for B2B and B2C decisions shows these different drivers at play. In both cases, brands work to increase information efficiency, reduce the sense of risk and add to the sense of value. In the case of a B2B brand, the motivations for choosing a brand lean heavily towards risk reduction (45% weighting in the decision), with information efficiency next (41%) and the sense of added value third at just 14%. The dynamics for B2C by contrast show perceptions of added value as the most important factor (40%) followed by information efficiency (37%) and then reduced risk at 23%.
Two other insights are worth noting. The first: that the sense of value add is most important for publicly visible products and services, and that the importance of a strong and recognised brand increases significantly for those products and services that are clearly visible to the end user.
B2B branding is not a licence to be faceless. Boeing, GE and many others have proven that you can be a safe pair of hands and still be a strong and deeply valued brand. Indeed B2B brands must have personality and opinions and a strong sense of fashion and evolution if they are to avoid being consigned to the OEM wilderness (where they will be eaten alive) – but their powerful sense of brand must focus on, quite literally, creating and managing distinctive security.
In my opinion, the biggest question for a B2C brand is: how can we best take our customers by surprise? Because, back to Kotler, that’s what consumers are looking for – refreshed and refreshing products and experiences.
But the biggest question for a B2B brand is: what are our customers most scared of – and why do we represent the best choice to tackle and alleviate their fears?