In today’s crowded marketplace, B2B marketers strive to build stronger brands by differentiating their offers, communicating crisp value propositions, and producing compelling content marketing–all with the customer at the center. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the No. 1 priority for many senior marketing leaders in 2018 is improving customer understanding.
Most companies begin this journey by exploring individuals’ roles, responsibilities, and performance objectives–all of the things that explain the role they play in the broader context of running a successful company. This type of intelligence has resulted in significant improvements in the market around how companies communicate the business value they provide to an individual, a team, or an organization. But it’s still missing an important piece of the puzzle: Customers aren’t predictable, perfectly rational machines. (Although maybe with AI they will be one day!) Customers are people–and that means emotion is involved.
The latest branding research from CEB, now Gartner–conducted in partnership with Google and Motista–involved a cross-industry study of more than 3,000 B2B customers. It surfaced the following findings, which have huge implications for B2B brands.
1. Business value is not an effective differentiator: Our research shows that perceptions of business value barely differ between leading brands within a given industry–with data spanning manufacturing, software, printing, professional services, network equipment, tech security, and shipping. Where differentiation does exist between the top players, we found that only 14% of business decision makers are willing to pay a premium for it. That’s a really small slice of customers who one, see a difference in offers, and two, value it enough to pay a premium.
2. B2B brands drive much higher emotional connection than B2C: Motista has found that any given brand has emotional connections with between 10% and 40% of consumers. Meanwhile, of the nine B2B brands we studied in depth, seven surpassed the 50% mark, and no brand was below 40%. On average, B2B customers are significantly more emotionally connected to their vendors and service providers than consumers.
While the data is surprising on the surface, on closer examination, high emotional connections make a lot of sense. When a consumer makes a bad choice (e.g., buying a tablet that they never use), the stakes are low–perhaps going through the inconvenience of returning the product or needing to justify the purchase to a partner. Business purchases, on the other hand, can involve huge amounts of risk: Responsibility for a multimillion-dollar CRM system that goes bad can lead to poor business performance and even the loss of a job. In fact, our data shows that B2B buyers perceive real risk when it comes to advocating on behalf of any one supplier. Business buyers won’t proceed unless there is sufficient emotional connection to overcome key risks.
3. Personal value drives nearly twice the commercial outcomes of business value: Our research tested the impact of over 70 brand benefits on a broad range of commercial outcomes. The brand benefits tested included two categories of attributes:
- Business value: Including appeals to logic/reason in areas such as functional benefits (e.g., high performance) and business outcomes (e.g., achieving business goals).
- Personal value: Including emotional appeals in areas such as professional benefits (e.g., being a better leader, simplifying my life), social benefits (e.g., fitting in with colleagues, admiration from others), emotional benefits (e.g., confidence, excitement, happiness), and self-image benefits (e.g., doing good for society, feeling of accomplishment).
We looked at the impact of these two benefit categories by analyzing their lift on 14 commercial outcomes, which include consideration, purchase, premium payment, and advocacy. The data shows that across this collection of commercial outcomes, personal value has twice as much impact as business value. This finding also affirms that building an emotional connection isn’t just nice to have–it’s a critical component of any branding or rebranding initiative with clear commercial impact.
B2B buying isn’t getting any easier. The size of buying groups is growing (now 6.8 individuals, on average), deal cycles are extending (twice as long as five years ago), and buyers report feelings of being overwhelmed by the whole process. Because of this, marketers must invest in customer understanding that extends beyond demographics, firmographics, and NPS to identify typical buyer behaviors, feelings, and buying group dynamics. Armed with this understanding, brands can build much stronger emotional connections and boost buyer confidence in advocating on a brand’s behalf.