Companies that sell directly to other businesses have long debated the importance of a distinct brand strategy. And many still argue it’s a waste of money and effort: They say customers base their purchases on functional decisions like cost, quality and availability, not the emotional pull of brands. We couldn’t disagree more: With major forces like globalization and digital commerce upending markets, we’ve got a front-row seat to the many ways business-to-business (B2B) branding is more critical than ever.

How B2B Branding Differs from B2C

Of course, B2B markets are distinctly different from those that sell to consumers. The buying cycle is usually longer, the requirements are better defined, more people are involved and the stakes are typically higher. These are functional decisions: On the surface, there’s no comparison between American Airlines buying $12 billion worth of jets from Boeing, for example, to a kid shelling out 89 cents for a bag of Skittles.

But the truth is, there’s a difference between rational and functional buying. B2B transactions are typically heavily weighed and considered purchases. Functional requirements must be met. But there are higher-order elements in play as well. While attributes like competitive pricing, delivery and technical support drive sales, there’s much more to your customer’s decision.

These higher-order traits also drive buying decisions and are much harder for competitors to replicate. When you’re easier to do business with, your customers feel it. It makes their work more efficient and predictable. They are more confident and less anxious. They see you as a partner to their business and an ally in their struggles. When you bring your customers fresh insights and ideas, they feel that, too. They come to you more often not just to buy products, but for help solving problems.

This is precisely the power of brands. Instead of just relying on superstar account executives to carry this message one meeting at a time, the strongest B2B companies create brands that do it for them.

How to Build a Successful B2B Brand

Smart branding makes it easier for the marketing, sales, product and technology teams to do their real work: Develop and provide solutions that help customers grow. For this reason, we’ve outlined some of the most important considerations:

Use brand stories to reinforce business strategies.

Look closely at the fastest-growing B2B businesses, and you’ll see they are all propelled by a brand story that supports their business strategy. These brands, like Salesforce and XPO Logistics, have defined their business around the benefits they provide to customers, not the products and services they offer. They intentionally link brand and strategy in a way that makes it easier to move into–and even create–new categories. The brand is purpose-built for the company’s mission and also for the commercial opportunities they see coming.

Yes, B2B brands need a story. Your customers want to know what you believe, what you can do, and where you can go with them. For inspiration, spend a little time watching the masterful ways Getty Images is injecting its mission into new products, or Adobe’s award-winning story of creating lost masterpieces.

Remember that your brand is experience and experience is your brand.

Experiences, not messages, define brands. You can have the most compelling brand message in your category, but it doesn’t matter if the experience isn’t reinforcing it. For B2B businesses, it’s increasingly important to start with the experience your customers want as you define your brand.

The strongest B2B brands build highly relevant and hard-to-replicate experiences. From the first impressions they make in the relationship building and early evaluation phase, how they integrate with their customer’s business, the expertise and problem-solving they bring, it is all connected back to their brand.

Are the employees designing products, services and customer touchpoints all starting with a shared understanding of the brand, and what makes it relevant and distinct to customers? The strongest B2B brands have achieved their positions by ensuring that everyone understands the brand attributes and how those traits show up throughout the experience. Every interaction, at each step of the purchase process and beyond, makes it clear that they are not just vendors, but partners. Companies like American Express and MailChimp are succeeding because they take this partnership so seriously, creating steady streams of content and interaction that inspire and inform experiences.

Your brand goes far beyond customers.

While a strong brand identity helps B2B companies grow faster than generic competitors, it can also cement relationships and connections with other key audiences.

–Employees and prospective employees also benefit from stronger brands. Increasingly, people care about the story of who they work for and expect a clear purpose and strategy. They want leadership to articulate that brand, and create a team they believe in. Brands play such an essential part in making sure a company’s talent is engaged that many companies are now defining an “employer brand” that works in concert with the “customer brand,” treating it as two sides of the same coin. The businesses that use their brand as a storytelling vessel for current and prospective talent are winning the intensifying recruiting wars.

It’s no surprise that the largest and most competitive B2B companies, like IBM, Microsoft, Cisco, GE and UPS, continue to invest so carefully in branding campaigns: Their workforces are enormous, and recruiting and retention are essential to maintaining their edge.

–Wall Street is another critical audience, and well-defined B2B brands can give investors and analysts a view into the business that financial statements and forward-looking guidance alone cannot. How do you want analysts to value your business’ growth prospects? What peers do you want to use as benchmarks? Strong B2B brands have found out how to connect their story with investors in a way that is both credible and compelling. When UnitedHealth Group wanted to shift how investors viewed their business, from a carrier to full-scale health services, it changed the narrative.

Final Thoughts

What does all this mean for the future? As more companies step up their efforts to build strong B2B brands, we expect we’ll see more innovation in ways that convey value to both primary and secondary audiences.

Some of these efforts will likely look more like B2C efforts, including smarter content marketing and more seamless experiences using mobile technology. They will likely energize employees for greater engagement. They will grow faster than competitors: How strong your brand can make the difference between negotiating price reductions and capturing price premiums, and between merely holding onto core volume and finding the next opportunity. These strengthened brands will have that extra edge, providing an intangible value that goes one step further than price or function.

Learn how Prophet’s brand experience consulting helps create more powerful and relevant brands.

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