For the past 50 or 60 years, best practices in brand-building and the engagement of customers have come from the consumer end of the marketing spectrum. Consumer brands have had unchallenged clout and experience positioning themselves for large audiences—the lifeblood of consumer branding.
But in a media landscape that has shifted from mass communications to individual dialogue on a massive scale, we now find that business-to-business (B2B) marketing practices have much to offer. In fact, rather than teaching B2B brands how to behave, consumer brands should be interested in what they might learn from their B2B cousins.
This change has everything to do with the rise of consumer-empowering, interactive technologies and social venues that have profoundly affected consumer behavior. Indeed, competitive conditions emerging in the consumer space resemble the customer dynamics long seen in the B2B world: informed buyers, deep relationships, competitive procurement practices, and performance measurements.
A recent IBM study on retailing has examined the impact on consumer behavior of such innovations as virtual flash sales and interactive cloud-based tools for price shopping, concluding that consumers leveraging these tools are often more price-conscious than loyal, and that retailers can no longer afford guesswork in the promotions they launch.
From my own work in building the PwC brand during the past 12 years, I've observed certain B2B dynamics that are common themes in the new consumer space:
- highly networked, sophisticated, informed customers with defined needs and a criteria-based consideration set for determining brands they want to do business with
- competitive procurement in which quality, performance, referrals, reputation, and price are weighted in purchase decisions
- a market dynamic in which small differences in experience have a huge impact on business
The big question, of course, is how B2B marketing techniques can be translated for effective use in the consumer sphere. I've outlined some B2B metaphors for consumer marketers to consider.
1. Search Habits Parallel The RFP List Development
When consumers perform an online search, they are increasingly looking for task-oriented solutions rather than a specific brand-oriented result—“best close-shave razors,” for example, rather than “Gillette”—when seeking a shaving solution. As part of the decision-making process, consumers also seek in-depth product information and a body of opinion to help refine their choices.
Search engines drive broad access to product or service information and competing solutions, thus greatly resembling the RFP process many B2B buyers go through to locate suppliers, refine company vendor lists, and make purchases. A competitive procurement process informs business buyers and helps suppliers target their messages to exactly what the buyer wants to know. Both sides win because communications are rarely wasted.
In fact, business brands with no consumer product offerings might take years before engaging in large-scale brand communications, if they do so at all, because their markets tend to be so targeted. Instead, B2B suppliers excel at market and sector-watching, pipeline development, nurturing one-on-one client relationships, and finding opportunities to break in by proving their company’s value. Consumer brands that have traditionally relied on mass-market appeal might not have considered these tactics, but they would be wise to do so.
The emergence of search as a driver of consumer purchasing has altered the playing field for brands. Search creates an environment in which nonbranded businesses effective in SEO and SEM can leverage consumer search behaviors to quickly challenge embedded industry leaders. A good example is the way upstart Booking.com has been able to gain share at the expense of better-known providers Expedia and Travelocity. Search results have become the de facto RFP list for open-minded buyers seeking competitive solutions. Appearing above the fold on the first page of search results doesn’t guarantee a sale, but brands that use SEO/SEM effectively have at least placed themselves in the running.
2. Product Reviews And “Friends” Are A Consumer Brand’s Referrals
Once a brand begins to appear prominently in search results, it needs solid references—just as B2B companies must have during a competitive bid process. Wary about spending in a down economy, today’s consumers are information-hungry and cautious. They devour product reviews regardless of a brand’s overall reputation, and make decisions accordingly. Positive, or, at least, balanced, reviews of a brand’s performance put it in the consideration set and serve to educate buyers and influencers who further infuse the social-media sphere with information and opinion. Kudos from social-media friends carries enormous weight in perception and buying decisions.
Consumer brands seeking the equivalent of B2B “preferred-vendor” status need their own content vehicles that support positive relations and help mediate the free-form customer review environment. The B2B space often uses thought leadership for this purpose, acquiring the habit of sharing in-depth narratives and offering up case studies, even if it means giving away some amount of intellectual property to do so. The result is a greater sense of depth and connection with clients as they gain an understanding of the unique factors of a brand and who in the marketplace has had experience with it.
3. Consumer Preferences Become An Ongoing Relationship Scorecard
In the B2B space, brands tend to be defined by the relationships and experiences their people create with customers rather than through large-scale advertising campaigns communicated at them. To begin with, business clients have high expectations of service. Relationship scorecards, performance metrics, and regular review meetings have been, for years, integral parts of the business relationship. Through these vehicles, loyalty and satisfaction aren't simply assumed, but instead are measured, managed, and jointly improved on between provider and client.
Consumer marketers might take a similar approach to customer relationship management by setting clear experience expectations and then encouraging consumers to score their performance relative to those expectations and participate in defining incremental innovations and improvements.
Many consumer brands seek customer feedback on such experiences as customer service, the usability of Web sites, and product satisfaction. Others are very good at soliciting new ideas and rewarding loyalty. But feedback results and loyalty mechanisms might need a more public way of influencing the brand experience. Whereas B2B companies can sit down with suppliers and hash out the relationship, consumer brands rarely have this luxury. Whatever consumer brands know about their performance is not always visible to customers and therefore can’t properly influence the relationship. Many consumer brands have become adept at sharing customer-satisfaction metrics through social media and brand communications. Still, in cases where one bad review can dampen dozens of good ones, consumer brands must have an arsenal of customer outreach, performance metrics, and authentic communications to balance the debate.
Ultimately, the lessons of B2B brand practices are simple:
- Customers are networked, sophisticated, and informed. It takes more than reputation to get on the RFP list.
- Customer referrals carry weight, and pricing is often transparent. If you know you aren’t the low bidder, then show clearly where your value offsets a lower-priced competitor.
- Little things count. Many factors could get you the business, but it’s up to you to keep it. Let performance be part of the relationship, and make sure your customers know how you’re doing.
- Forget the big-budget ad campaign mentality. Brand is a long-term promise sealed by relationships and experiences.