How to build a strong B2B brand using marketing research

How to build a strong B2B brand using marketing research

Why is it essential to have a strong brand?

What does a strong B2B brand look like?

How to use research to build a strong B2B brand

Why is it essential to have a strong brand?

From time to time, we encounter people who don’t see ‘brand’ as relevant to B2B organizations.

Their view is that:

  • Brands are critical in FMCG environments where products are often bought because of what they say about the buyer. B2B products are not aspirational, and they’re being purchased for the company, not the person, so any aspirational benefit is irrelevant
  • Brands are only relevant when purchase decisions are ‘irrational.’ B2B buyers, being rational creatures, are therefore not swayed by branding – they will make a logical, considered decision about the pros and cons of the different options putting the ‘brand’ to one side
  • B2B purchases are all about the relationship. A salesperson or account manager doesn’t need a corporate brand. They need a good product and social skills

These prejudices are often driven by a misunderstanding of what a brand is. When most people think ‘brand,’ they see it only as a set of visual and verbal cues – a name, a logo, a slogan, a color scheme – that identify your organization and its products amongst a sea of others.

Of course, these identifiers communicate something in their own right, even if the receiver knows nothing of your organization. But for a brand to be born, they need to be imbued with meaning.

We can only say that a brand is present once these identifiers trigger associations regarding:

  • What you do and how you do it
  • What you stand for as a company
  • The functional and emotional benefits to be derived from working with your organization or products
  • What distinguishes you from others in your space

These associations are developed through the sum of an individual’s experience with your organization, employees, or products.

Because a brand is a perception held about you, you have no choice whether that perception exists. However, you can choose to manage your brand. About whether you will be the master of your fate, or if you will leave it up to others.

And if further persuasion is needed, consider the following benefits of having a strong brand:

  • It makes you a must-have on shortlists
  • In situations where the cost of making the wrong choice is high, a strong brand makes you the safe choice. As the adage goes, ‘you won’t get fired for buying IBM’
  • It simplifies the decision for buyers. Less well-known brands require the buyer to work harder to understand the benefits they bring. That matters because despite what textbooks tell us, B2B buyers are humans with emotions, and they often opt for the easy choice
  • It is a point of differentiation, especially in commoditized markets. A strong brand is also vital when it is difficult to compare products and services, e.g., if the buyer has limited knowledge or if the product is complex
  • It allows you to charge extra because it implies that the product or service is somehow better
  • It builds preference and loyalty. Buyers want to be associated with your brand, and switching is seen as a risk

All of this translates into the most crucial benefit of a strong brand – greater profitability. A brand has real tangible value. For example, BrandZ has valued IBM’s brand at $83bn.

As a result, it’s no surprise that 77% of marketing leaders say branding is critical to growth. (Source: B2B Marketing Leaders Report). Adience is a b2b market research agency.

77% of marketing leaders say branding is critical to growth.

B2B Marketing Leaders Report

What does a strong B2B brand look like?

A strong brand has several features:

  • It is prominent, understood, and inspires affinity. Strong brands are widely recognized within their target market. They are top of mind and create a dominant image in the buyer’s consciousness when they think of the category. But they aren’t just loud; they’re seen as familiar and relevant. People have a preference for things they know and feel an affinity towards. For this reason, companies with strong brands seek to build a sense of being on the same wavelength as potential buyers. They also strive to ensure that potential buyers understand the full range of their capabilities so that they’re recalled when shortlists are being created
  • It is based on a clear, anchoring idea. Awareness is vitally important, but strategic understanding is the true hallmark of a strong brand. Not just to be known, but to be known for the right things. To conjure up associations that lead to positive feelings and a predisposition to buy. When building awareness, companies try to identify a space that strongly appeals to the target market, is not occupied by competitors, and can be credibly occupied. Then they firmly anchor themselves here with a central organizing idea, the one core thing they want to be known for. As time passes, this anchor holds strong. A strong brand is then consistent in the message it conveys and how it behaves. From the anchor idea, several supporting meanings are generated, which combine to form the overall brand identity
  • It is perceived to provide a better solution. Companies with strong brands offer a solution that meets expected mandatory criteria, matches competitors on parity points, and then differentiates where it adds the most significant value.
  • It appeals to the emotional as well as rational. A strong brand manages to create emotional associations concerning: who the brand is, what the brand says about the buyer, and how it makes the buyer feel. It has a personality that appeals to the buyer. It has become personified in their mind and possesses a series of human traits which are appealing in its category. The optimum set of attributes differs by market and segment. Still, four are often universal to strong brands across markets: they are competent (reliable, trustworthy, intelligent, expert, successful), they are respected (market leadership, deeply understand their area), they are respectful (appreciate and value customers), and they are an organization the buyer is proud to be associated with. Companies with strong brands also recognize that even B2B brands can have a self-expressive role. In some circumstances, people buy a brand because of what it says about them/their organization. In other circumstances, they purchase a brand because it’s in keeping with their self-image
  • It recognizes that ‘one size fits all’ doesn’t work. In selecting the optimum combination of functional and emotional associations, it is essential to recognize that every individual is different. To some, a particular association could be highly attractive, but it may be a turn off to others. For example, a ‘high performance’ positioning may be attractive to many, but a signal to those in the ‘low price’ segment to look elsewhere. Companies with strong brands group their target market into segments, not just according to firmographic dimensions (such as company size or sector), but also on behaviors, needs, and attitudes. Then it targets those segments which are commercially attractive, where it has credibility, and where it can sustainably deliver a differentiated offer
  • It is built to have multi-dimensional appeal. A strong brand appeals equally to all key audiences – customers, prospects, employees, and opinion formers. Its most telling hallmark is the behavior it inspires in each of these audiences. Amongst customers and employees, the brand has created a strong bond that causes them to be intensely loyal and vocal advocates. Amongst prospects, it is seen as a must-have on any shortlist. And amongst opinion formers, it generates consistently positive commentary
  • It is true to its word. Companies with strong brands recognize that the journey never ends; that its position is not guaranteed. That’s why a strong is true to its word. It delivers the promises it makes (whether explicit or implicit) without exception. It ensures that the brand promise matches reality and that employees genuinely embody and live the brand

How to use research to build a strong B2B brand

Any strong brand is built on understanding how the brand is perceived and what the market wants.

To build a strong brand, you need first to understand three things:

  • What brand associations are desirable in your market
  • How your brand is perceived and how it credibly could be seen
  • What perceptual space is occupied by competitors

This understanding will allow you to build a brand that is compelling, credible, and differentiated. To gather the required knowledge, companies should follow a four-step research process.

branding research

Step one – look inside out

Successful brands are built on dimensions that matter to the market. But companies with strong brands are also careful to ensure that their chosen positioning is reflective of their essence and is something everybody’s bought into.

That’s why you should start ‘inside-out’ to ensure that:

  • Existing knowledge and expertise is leveraged
  • Key players feel part of and buy into required actions
  • Any changes to the brand positioning reflect and can be lived by the organization

To achieve this, hold a series of workshops involving four key internal audiences – senior management, the marketing team, external agency partners, and critical customer-facing staff.

In a nutshell, these sessions should explore three questions:

  • What attributes and behaviors should a brand display in your market?
  • What does your brand stand for, and what would you like it to stand for?
  • How credible is this aspirational position, and how can it be achieved?

You should then audit competitor brands by reviewing their marketing material, exploring their websites, and speaking with any ex-employees now working for your organization. In doing so, try and elicit their brand positioning – what they seek to stand for and their claimed USPs.

The output of this activity will be an initial ‘brand statement’ which details:

  • The central anchor idea your brand is built around
  • The behaviors, attributes, and values your brand will display to support this idea
  • Your primary points of brand differentiation

Step two – look outside in

But this is just a starting point. A successful brand can’t be built on internal knowledge alone. It lives in the market’s mind, so the research program’s primary focus must be outward-looking.

So, stage two is about external discovery. It adopts a fluid, exploratory approach (focus groups or in-depth interviews) to gather insights into the perceptions of three key audiences:

  • Customers
  • Prospective customers
  • Opinion Formers (industry analysts, ‘gurus’ and media)

In engaging with these audiences, you should begin by exploring:

  • Critical functional and emotional influencers on supplier choice
  • The benefits of making the right supplier choice
  • The attributes, behaviors, and values they want a brand to display
  • The brands – inside or outside your industry – they respect

That will allow you to position your brand in a relevant, appropriate way that resonates with core needs. But to ensure this position is differentiated, you also need to explore:

  • Stereotypes of and frustrations with the supplier community
  • Perceptions of different supplier brands
  • What’s missing from the supplier community

Finally, you need to understand how your brand is perceived to establish the size of the gap between the actual and aspirational position.

When exploring all of the above, remember that there’s a tendency for people to over-rationalize decisions and thought processes when asked to describe them.

It’s also true that when dealing with a ‘soft’ concept like a brand, if you ask someone a direct question, sometimes the answer may not be forthcoming or could be misleading because:

  • People don’t always know what they think
  • People sometimes find it hard to articulate what they think
  • People are sometimes uncomfortable sharing what they think

That means that direct questioning identifies valuable information and explores more emotional considerations you need to be a bit smarter. To really get under the skin and explore thoughts indirectly, you should consider employing various enabling techniques.

There are numerous such techniques, but when choosing the most appropriate, remember that these are B2B decision-makers, and there’s a danger of trivializing the discussion. So here are two from Adience’s arsenal which we find particularly useful:

  • The dinner party – this exercise helps to explore your brand personality and brand affinity, as well as your competitors’. The respondent is asked to imagine that they’ve been invited to a dinner party with a difference; the guests are all major supplier brands. A series of questions are then discussed, which provide revealing insights into brand perceptions. Who would be hosting the dinner party, and who would have been invited? Who would they each choose to sit next to, and why? Taking each brand in turn, describe them. How would they look, what would they be like to talk to, what personality would they have? Which brands would you get on with best; who would you sit next to? Which brand would the others secretly aspire to be like, and why?
  • The brand user: This exercise is incredibly valuable in situations where brand choice can be influenced by whether a brand ‘fits’ with a potential buyer’s self-image or whether it will send the desired message about them/their organization to the outside world. As people can be uncomfortable expressing or merely unaware of these feelings, allowing them to project them onto another person helps uncover insights. In this exercise, the respondent is asked to describe the typical user of a brand. How would you describe someone who buys this brand? What kind of organization would they work for? What would they be like as a work colleague, e.g., competent, respected? What made them choose this particular brand? What does their choice say about what’s important to them? To what extent would this person fit within your team or organization?

Step three – validate

You’ll have plenty of insights into the optimum brand positioning by now, but there’s one final step. It’s essential to build on previous learnings by:

Ultimately this stage of the research process will determine the final brand positioning and establish where your brand is on its journey towards developing a strong brand. To gain an accurate picture, it’s critical to conduct a structured, quantitative survey which is:

  • Robust enough to draw clear conclusions
  • Representative of all critical audiences to identify any differences
  • Conducted ‘blind’ so that knowing who’s behind the survey doesn’t bias findings

It’s essential to compare the research findings against two benchmarks so that they can be interpreted in context:

  • All questions should be asked not just about your brand, but competitor brands too, to show your relative position
  • Findings from other B2B brands’ studies should also be incorporated to know what ‘good’ looks like, e.g., spontaneous awareness of 20% may be the highest score in your sector, but should you aspire to a higher score given what brands in other B2B industries achieve?

And also, remember to probe deep into the findings. In earlier exploratory stages, we suggested the use of enabling techniques to look beyond the obvious. In this more structured stage, the same rule applies, but this time consider using statistical methods such as Key Driver (also known as Regression Analysis).

Key Driver accounts for the fact that when asked what makes them feel positively towards a brand, people often find it hard to articulate the reasons. So rather than ask, Key Driver deduces the answer.

To do so, two questions are asked about each brand under consideration – how positive they feel towards the brand and the extent they associate it with different functional and emotional attributes.

Key Driver looks for links between a high brand positivity score and high scores concerning particular attributes. It then works out which attributes create a positive overall perception – these should be at the heart of your brand positioning.

Step four – make the journey

After these three steps, you will have a reliable picture of what your brand is, could, and should be. That provides a clear map for building a strong brand. It’s critical to act upon this by:

  • Clearly articulating your brand positioning
  • Communicating it internally and ensure people and processes’ live it’
  • Communicating it externally and monitor your ownership of the position

That, of course, is easier said than done but don’t despair. You’re not alone. B2B marketing leaders say they face three significant challenges when it comes to building a strong brand:

  • Identification – finding a positioning which appeals to all segments, is flexible enough to evolve, and gets internal agreement
  • Resources – branding is a lower priority than revenue-generating activity
  • Delivery – front line staff often don’t live the brand promise

So be prepared to overcome these headwinds in your journey. But remember, it’s a journey well worth making.



Why is it essential to have a strong brand?

You don’t have a choice about whether you have a brand, you just have to choose whether or not to manage it.

Having a strong brand has several benefits: makes you the safe choice; simplifies decisions for buyers; point of differentiation; allows you to charge a premium; builds preference and loyalty.

All of this translates into greater profitability.

What does a strong B2B brand look like?

A strong brand has several features: it is prominent, understood, and inspires affinity; it is based on a clear, anchoring idea; it is perceived to provide a better solution; it appeals to the emotional as well as the rational; it recognizes that ‘one size fits all’ doesn’t work; it is built to have multi-dimensional appeal; it is true to its word.

How to use research to build a strong B2B brand

To build a strong brand, you need first to understand three things: what brand associations are desirable in your market; how your brand is perceived and how it credibly could be seen; what perceptual space is occupied by competitors.

To do so, companies should follow a four-step process.

First, look inside out – engage internal stakeholders to leverage their insights and make them feel part of the process.

Second, look outside in – a series of qualitative discussions with the target audience to explore their behavior, attitudes and needs.

Third, validate your insights with a quantitative survey.

Fourth, act upon your research findings and ensure the brand positioning is articulated internally and externally.

Chris Wells

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