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De-commodifying Your Brand Asset

April 9, 2018

red_ball_stand_out_1024I hear it all the time from B2B companies. We don’t really need to brand. Our customers all know who we are. Branding doesn’t work in B2B because the buyers have decision-making committees and systems that eliminate all those humanistic influencers. We don’t want to spend money on branding because none of our competitors do. The people who make these arguments are leaving money on the table – maybe lots of money. Every B2C operation knows the benefits of branding. Every box on the cereal aisle gets designed and redesigned in a constant battle to win the attention of the shopper as she wheels her cart on by. They only have a moment to capture her eye and earn her notice. Their branding has barely a nanosecond to do its thing. By contrast, the B2B sales cycle can drag on for months or years. There are multiple decision makers across various silos. Branding has plenty of time, and plenty of people, to influence. The firm that brands its offerings has a leg up on its competition because, over all that time, it’s shaping its buyers’ perception of the brand in a positive way. Branding is much more influential in B2B than in B2C precisely because so few B2B firms invest in it. Boardwalk proved that when we worked with a software development firm.

Our client came to us complaining that their sales were disappointing. They were a startup, just three software engineers without even an office, still working around one of the partner’s kitchen table. They had reverse engineered all of their competitors’ products and were convinced their own software solutions were far superior to the rest. They felt they should be positioned as the gold standard in their market sector. So why were they stuck with only a 20% market share? Why weren’t they growing? We had some questions for them.

Who do you sell to? Large engineering firms in the telecom space like Nokia (this was back in the day), Motorola and General Electric.

How do you sell? It all happens at the big telecom trade shows. We providers all set up our booths and the buyers all come in, going from booth to booth. Then we follow up with them over the next few months till they make a decision.

We tagged along to their next trade show and saw the problem immediately.

Our client, as well as their competitors, had all booked the same minimum-sized stalls at the back of the hall. They were all 10ft x 10ft. They all had the same generic black curtain in the back of the booth. They all had the obligatory folding table in front, skirted by another black curtain. They all had that same, generic, little, white, identifying sign, affixed with twist wire to the top rail of the backing curtain. They had all placed their tables across the front of their booths where they functioned as psychological barriers between buyers and sellers.

Because the buyers were certain to ask tough questions, all the booths were manned by the software engineers themselves. They sat behind the tables in various degrees of slouch. They were not comfortable with the roles of salespeople and their body language showed it. And every one of them wore the universal software engineers’ uniform: ironic t-shirt, faded jeans and ratty old sneaks.

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We told our client we could solve their problem but they weren’t going to like some of the things we were going to ask of them. They gave us the green light.

1 – We worked with them to develop a brand strategy that would ensure their position as the industry gold standard. If you really are the best, you have to act like it.

2 – Then we designed a logo and visual identity system that looked like it belonged in the same world as Nokia, Motorola and General Electric.

3 – Then we used that identity system to redesign all their sales and marketing communications materials, bringing them up to professional-level standards.

Trade show4 – Then we designed a proper trade show booth for them. We told them they’d have to reserve 20ft x 20ft spaces from now on because the booth we were designing wouldn’t fit into anything smaller. That was the first thing they didn’t like. We designed a booth that was open and inviting. We eliminated the table and put the sales literature in the back of the booth. To explain their product, software engineers would invite buyers into the booth to get a brochure. Once out of the traffic flow in the aisle, buyers would feel more comfortable having a conversation about the merits of our client’s products.

5 – We told the software engineers they’d have to dress in a way that made them more relatable to the buyers. We designed polo shirts embroidered with their corporate logo. Those, we made them wear with khakis and loafers. They really didn’t like this but they agreed to try it.

At the next trade show, the conference hall doors opened and the buyers started spilling in. Our client’s booth filled up quickly. The buyers went to them first and stayed longer, giving the software engineers more time to demonstrate why their solutions were superior. It was a complex B2B sale they were making and they needed time to make it. Approachable, relatable salespeople who knew the product well, plus an attractive and inviting booth with plenty of elbow room, really did the trick.

Of course, the buyers visited the competitors’ booths too. But, now, they were being compared unfavorably to our client. The competitors were forced into unenviable sales tactics like “We’re just as good.” or “Us too”. Very weak positioning considering most buyers had already been 90% sold by our client.

Within a couple years, our client was the acknowledged gold standard of the sector. Within five years, they dominated the market. Within ten years, they had very few competitors left. We worked with them for fifteen years as they moved from kitchen table to small, cheap office to medium-sized luxury office to two floors of a major Los Angeles skyscraper. Then we lost them as a client because Intel swooped in and acquired them.

It wasn’t all branding, of course. Our client, it turns out, really did have superior solutions to the rest of the market. They smart people with a tremendous business model. Sure, they made some mistakes along the way but they always adjusted and recovered.

But their brand, their relationship with the market, made it easy to bounce back from their mistakes. In the eyes of the market, our client would always be forgiven the odd misstep as long as, generally speaking, they continued to deliver on their brand promise.

When you find yourself commoditized, especially in a B2B situation, you end up competing on price alone. That’s a bad position to be in. Buyers like all their vendors to be exactly alike because then they can put downward pressure on prices. They’ll squeeze and squeeze until people start going out of business.

Moral of the story: The first competitor to break out of a commoditized pack wins! And you break out by beginning to build a brand relationship with the market.

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