What is a brand?

What does your brand mean? What does it mean to customers? What is your “brand experience?” There are as many definitions of the term ‘brand’ as there are branding gurus (legion). The definition we like best is an enduring promise of value. Consumer examples of well-defined brands are easy to think of:

  • Coke – “the real thing” = refreshment, happiness
  • Volvo – safety, and increasingly, performance
  • Nike – just (get off the couch and ) do it
These are simple ideas, but of course these are well-thought out and executed brand strategies that are anything but simple.  Coke’s “liquid and linked” content marketing strategy video is a great look behind the scenes of a major brand.  Clearly this represents hundreds if not thousands of hours of work, and in execution, it will represent millions in media spending.

But B2B Brands Are Different.

At first glance, it may seem that these shiny consumer brands have little to teach the B2B marketer.  You don’t sell software the way you sell sneakers. B2B products are complex, and require explanation (sometimes lengthy) of their benefits. We also assume that in business, “the buyer” is making a rational choice, unclouded by emotion. Adding to the complexity, “the buyer” is really multiple buyers, often with divergent interests, levels of influence and sometimes hidden agendas. And while emotion may not be the primary driver, the likeability of the sales person, the perceived “coolness” of the company, the location of the corporate HQ can all play a part in the decision. With all of these factors, it’s no wonder that many B2B brands are often in flux, and buying decisions often stretch out for six months or longer.

Developing a B2B brand is different than consumer branding. But at the heart of any good B2B brand you’ll find the same thing as a good consumer brand: an enduring promise of value.  That is, value as seen from the buyer’s eyes.  It’s a simple idea, but in practice it’s tricky.  First you need to understand who the most likely buyers are – not all the buyers, but the ones who are most likely to need your product.  You also want to know what their role is in the buying process.  You want to understand your potential buyers at many levels – their business needs, their technical constraints and even their personal/career concerns.

In other words, you need to get to know these buyers like the real, living breathing people that they are.  And the best way to do this is to create buyer personas.  These are detailed little portraits of the most likely buyers – not all buyers – but the ones you are going to focus your message on.  Buyer personas tell you where your buyers are, so that you can interact with them on their terms and take them on a journey that ends at your doorstep, with your brand as the solution.

Once you’ve created a small set of personas you can begin to craft a brand that is simple and powerful because it relates to actual people with actual needs.  Of course a brand is more than just words – but knowing your buyers at this intimate level also helps to guide the visual development of your brand.  What types of personalities are you appealing to?  Are they conservative and risk-adverse, or do they fancy themselves as trendsetting innovators?  When you get to know your buyers, you can begin shaping a complete brand image that flows naturally from your understanding of the audience.

But how do you make your brand a lasting brand?

Many people worry that building a brand based on a limited set of buyer personas will limit growth in the long run.  How do you know that today’s buyers will be tomorrow’s buyers?  What do you do if needs change (as they always do)?  What about new competitors?  This thinking  is often when gets B2B marketers into trouble.  They start conquering the world before they’ve even landed their first customer!  But there is a legitimate concern  here:  all brands evolve over time, and you need to have a strategy that balances the need for consistency and durability with the need to respond to changes in the market and what you know about your customers.

Again – look back at the definition of brand:  an enduring promise of value.  If you have done your work in the beginning, you understand something fundamental about what your potential buyers are looking for.  You have discovered something simple but profound.  That is the foundation of your brand, and your content and programs are what craft over time to keep that value relevant to your buyers through the twists and turns of the marketplace.  Your brand value is a constant – but the messages and content that clothe your brand can change as often as you need them to – as long as they continue to connect to and enhance your enduring promise of value.

That balancing act is what we call an Elastic Brand.  Learn more about our approach to brand development services.