If It Looks Like B2B Marketing….

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…and Sounds Like B-to-B Branding, It’s Probably Just Bad Branding.

There’s a flaw in the term business-to-business that seems more obvious lately. Put simply, there’s never a situation where a business communicates to another business.

Maybe it’s semantics but recognizing the flaw in the term is a big step toward steering clear of creating some regrettable B-to-B communications — you know, lots of globes and buzzwords and other stuff ripe for either forgetting or parody.

The New B-to-B Normal

It used to be that small companies wanted to seem big; now it seems big companies vye to seem more small, nimble, and personal.

People increasingly expect B-to-B brands to look, sound, and be cool, either like consumer brands, or at least friendlier business brands. At our agency, every day we hear clients say, “We want to be like MailChimp or Apple.” No one ever says, “We want to be like Oracle and IBM.” (Yes, the same IBM no one ever got fired for hiring.)

Ideas that have taken hold in consumer brains permeate business minds, from distrust for institutions to appreciation for authenticity. Even banks, from venture capital to consumer retail, have traded marble columns and suits, for jeans and bringing your dog to work. Banks will never be the same. Will any industry?

What Makes B-to-B Better?

In professional capacities, people may approach decisions differently than when buying, say, dish soap. But maybe not as different as you think. Here are 7 things to keep in mind to keep B-to-B from going bad.

  1. Be in the People Business. Businesses are fictitious. The people in them are not. All good communication is person-to-person. Forgetting the people part is why so much B-to-B seemingly starts by listening to the ongoing industry conversation and ends with a perfunctory contribution to it.
  2. Have a Why. People expect a business to have clear purpose. Not some claptrap about leading an industry, but something centered on what you exist to do for people. All the better if it’s more than money, but just as long as it’s real and you walk the talk.
  3. Visualize the Benefit First. B-to-B companies often don’t sell tangible goods, so they have a tough time coming up with something to show and instead spend weeks honing feature-driven copy. The result can be the sorriest assortment of Powerpoint-rejected stock photos and clip art. Finding something compelling to show – people, software, symbols, infographics – is an important way to determine what to tell at the highest level.
  4. Pick a Persona. Your message may make its way through many gatekeepers. Understand these roles and what drives them. Decide who’s first in line, and last. Always ask why any of them would care about what you’re saying.
  5. Closing Direct. Brands often make their intro via web, tradeshows, and lead gen. But direct sales – person-to-person – remain key to closing. Communication’s main job here is to set people up for success and stay out of the way by understanding where you fit in the sales cycle.
  6. Call for Backup. Good news for lovers of white papers, case studies, and best practices: truly useful information is never out of style. People need to justify decisions and their results to other people in business.
  7. CYA Maneuvers. B-to-B gets pretty big ticket. The scale of things like investing in enterprise software is large. It’s also why if you take away the risk to try (as B-to-B SaaS world beaters like Slack have done with freemium approaches) you win.

Stop Posturing, Start Connecting

There are many ways brand communications can go wrong. But the hardest to catch is when it seems to look and sound like what you’ve seen, but really isn’t doing its job. It’s just an echo of the longstanding marketplace noise.

So, the simplest question is, “does what I’m doing speak to some kind of industry or B-to-B standard, or does it speak to my customer?” In the end, you should be able to take a hard look, and evaluate what you’re doing on whether it will take hold with one individual, and then the next, until a business is collectively called to action.

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