How to do brand research in B2B markets – with best practices

How to do brand research in B2B markets – with best practices

Branding is sometimes dismissed as little more than a set of text and image identifiers, separating one company from another in the same sector. But it’s much more than that.

A brand encompasses what you stand for, what you do, and how you do it. Directly or indirectly, it conveys the functional and/or emotional benefits the company aims to deliver.

In short, how customers and prospects experience your company or its products is a part of branding.

Some have claimed that branding matters less in B2B than in B2C because in the former, buyers’ decision-making is purely rational. These claims not only misunderstand what branding is, but they also ignore research into the part played by emotions in B2B buying.

Branding is a key way to differentiate from competitors – a recent BCG study finds that 95% of B2B marketers agree.

And strong brands show a 74% higher return on their brand marketing investment, with a 46% larger market share than weaker brands.

However, building a strong brand is easier said than done. Many marketers spend a lot of time and budget trying to manage their brand.

It’s not always easy to measure whether your brand has become stronger, in what way, and by how much. Arguably it’s less quantifiable than performance marketing, for instance.

Market research can do it in several ways by:

  • Developing brands’ positioning
  • Optimizing marketing strategies
  • Improving brand architecture
  • Tracking brand perceptions
Contents

Brand development research – positioning and differentiation

Brand development – marketing research

Brand development – architecture research

Brand perception tracking and reputation research

How brand research informs strategic decisions and growth

Best practices for brand research in B2B

Brand development research – positioning and differentiation

Different aspects of brand development market research, for either a new or existing brand, include:

Positioning

Customers and prospects have opinions about your brand, for better and for worse, but you can influence how they think about you.

Building a strong brand puts your company on shortlists when B2B decision-makers need to buy something. And if you have a very strong brand, you become the safe choice on that shortlist.

There are lots of scenarios where strong brands win by default. Faced with a long, complex decision-making process, buyers often simplify things by choosing the one they know best – it’s a point of differentiation, particularly in commoditized markets.

Strong brands also tend to have more loyal customers, who see switching as a risk. And successful brands can also charge extra because buyers believe they’re the best.

You can use market research to understand how buyers view your brand, how they could credibly see it, and how to differentiate it.

Visual identity and logos

You might think that a visual brand identity is a relatively less rational factor in B2B decision-making. But B2B buyers are real people, so subjective preferences can play a part.

It only takes visitors to your website 50 milliseconds to have an opinion, according to 8 Ways Media. And simple aspects such as the signature color can increase brand recognition by up to 80%, CEO Today reports.

Therefore your visual identity needs to be appropriate for your audience and sector. It should also trigger the right desired brand associations, be distinct, and fit in with your positioning.

Market research can show you how the target market will react to and interpret different visual identity options. Moreover, you can find out how to optimize it and differentiate it for a bigger impact.

Brand development – marketing research

Messaging frameworks

For consistent brand communications, it’s ideal to have a framework in place. This is a set of structured guidelines that individual marketing materials should follow to stay on brand.

A framework can clarify the brand’s tone of voice, overall stance, and proof points used to justify it. It may also include detailed descriptions of the buyer personas to target.

It needs to stay up-to-date and relevant – for example, if the key messages become less differentiated from the competition over time. 

The best way to find the right messaging framework for buyers is to discuss their needs with them. Data from targeted surveys, or insights from depth interviews, help ensure messaging frameworks are rooted in evidence.

Marketing and communications

Marketing tends to differ from B2B to B2C because of the more varied audience you need to influence.

You may need to appeal to the users, the buyers – often not the same people – and perhaps others in supporting roles, such as IT.

Their wants, needs, and demands all change over time. Marketing needs to keep up to date with these changes and target them accordingly.

Marcomms research provides insights that can inform your marketing and communications strategy.

It helps you assess which channels to use, which unmet needs to target, and how to do it. It can also help you analyze the impact of a current or recent campaign.

Brand development – architecture research

However, most companies manage multiple brands, which complicates things. Larger firms, especially conglomerates, often have a big portfolio of brands using this structure:

  • Corporate-level: e.g. Amazon Inc
  • Business unit / subsidiary level: e.g. Amazon Web Services (AWS)
  • Product group level: e.g. AWS Customer Enablement
  • Individual product level: e.g. AWS Managed Services

This structure is called brand architecture. The above example is relatively straightforward for buyers to understand, but many companies’ brand architecture is harder to follow.

That’s the case in particular when a corporate-level brand acquires other companies without a clear plan for how these new brands fit in or link together.

Well-structured brand architecture reduces confusion, simplifies marketing efforts, boosts customer awareness, and increases cross-selling opportunities.

Brand architecture research explores attitudes toward the current setup. It also evaluates the impact of changing the architecture – in terms of structure and/or brand naming at different levels.

Brand perception tracking and reputation research

These areas of brand research measure a series of KPIs over time and should provide recommendations around areas for improvement.

Brand tracking

There are lots of ways to measure brand value or brand equity – by awareness, associations, performance, authority, consideration, and so on.

Brand tracking studies show how effective marketing activities are by:

  • Measuring brand health and how it changes over time
  • Demonstrating the ROI of marketing overall
  • Identifying low metric scores needing improvement
  • Comparing your brand health against competitors

Customer satisfaction

More satisfied customers are increasingly likely to raise their spending with your company and recommend its services or products to others.

Likewise, dissatisfied customers will spend less with you (or switch providers) and perhaps dissuade others.

You can replace these customers, but it’s more expensive than retaining them – customer acquisition costs in B2B have increased by 60% in five years, according to Profitwell.

Customer satisfaction research can tell you how to keep customers, what their unmet needs are, and how your brand performs against benchmarks.

NPS and hero metrics

If customers are likely to recommend your brand or products, they’ll likely help you acquire new ones – in theory, anyway. It also suggests these customers are loyal and you’ll retain them.

That’s why the net promoter score (NPS) is a popular brand metric to monitor and improve, but it’s arguably a less reliable indicator in B2B than it is in B2C.

There are different types of brand loyalty in B2B, including:

  • Forced loyalty: There’s no other realistic choice of provider
  • Preferential loyalty: Buyers need to use several suppliers but have a main one they tend to spend more with

So we haven’t been surprised to come across businesses seeing revenue growth even while their NPS declines.

However, brands need some type of ‘hero’ metric to measure – something which increases as and when sales do.

This is similar to the ‘north star’ metrics used by product managers. For example, for Zoom it’s reportedly the number of weekly hosted meetings on average.

You can track a hero metric as part of a brand tracking study, or separately.

How brand research informs strategic decisions and growth

You can use the insights and recommendations from brand research for the following goals and objectives:

  • Informing M&A activities
  • Identifying new market opportunities
  • Driving organic growth
  • Evaluating customer behavior and preferences
  • Acting on competitor intelligence
  • Informing product and service development

Taking each of the above in turn:

#1 Informing M&A activities

Perception tracking is a reliable way to measure and monitor brand health. 

When it comes to M&A activity, if you can prove you’re acquiring a well-performing brand, the due diligence report should look good.

If the brand is strong, it will be many customers’ go-to choice. They’ll understand the benefits of buying and may be willing to pay a premium for it too.

However, it’s important to understand why the brand is strong, so you know how to maintain and grow this reputation after the acquisition.

Similarly, if there are any negative brand perceptions, it’s important to explore the reasons why and how much it will take to improve things.

#2 Identifying new market opportunities

Beyond the untapped potential of improved products and services, feedback during brand research could indicate an opportunity to expand into new markets.

That’s particularly the case if competitor analysis suggests there is some white space for you to play in.

Further market assessment research can inform your go/no-go decision, evaluate the competition, and forecast the market size.

After that, you can also use research to inform your go-to-market strategy. These studies can test your roadmap, timing, pricing, sales approach, and marketing strategy.

#3 Driving organic growth

There are lots of different ways that brand research can tell you how to get new customers – and sell more to existing ones.

  • Finding the ideal positioning: Use the insights to move your brand towards desired, differentiated, and credible positioning… Then longer-term, build on your credibility, aiming for more aspirational positioning to become the ideal brand
  • Improving brand value: Identify specific areas of poor brand health and address them – e.g. to increase awareness, consideration, and purchase intent

In these ways, brand research can contribute to an organic growth model, one not reliant on developing new products or entering new markets.

#4 Evaluating customer behavior and preferences

Brand research reveals a lot about your customers. Crucially, it indicates what they want and how they react as a consequence – strong brands inspire ideal buyer behaviors such as preferential brand loyalty and advocacy.

For example, below-par brand recall or awareness scores on a tracker could indicate that there are significant barriers in the customer journey. Further research can analyze how your brand performs at each touchpoint.

Similarly, low consideration or purchase intent scores may indicate friction in the purchase process. Buying process research explores how it works and how you can influence it.

#5 Acting on competitor intelligence

Arguably, in all forms of brand research, there’s an important role for some competitor intelligence.

That way, you can benchmark your brand positioning or health with that of rivals in your sector.

You might think a key metric score is strong, but compared to your closest competitor, it may not be.

If that’s the case, the competitor insights should drive efforts to improve your brand health in these areas.

Furthermore – understanding how rivals are targeting the market, what their strengths or weaknesses are, and how they’re positioned, can all inform how to develop your brand.

#6 Informing product and service development

Improving your brand positioning and/or monitoring its health could reveal gaps in your product portfolio.

Alternatively, it may reveal unmet needs that neither you nor your competitors are currently servicing.

The insights should lead to a market opportunity analysis and if that’s successful, they can also inform better products or services. 

Additionally, new product development research can help you:

  • Get closer to what customers and prospects want
  • Optimize concepts
  • Identify the best pricing strategy
  • Forecast demand for the product
  • Develop the right promotional strategy

Best practices for brand research in B2B

#1 Sense check new brand positioning tests with stakeholders

Any changes to brand positioning need to resonate with key internal stakeholders. They will need to set the tone for the brand in its interactions with customers.

Brand research conducted in a vacuum risks alienating stakeholders. If its insights and recommendations don’t build on existing internal perceptions, they’ll be less likely to accept the results.

And if a brand changes its marcomms approach to embrace a new identity, but customers see something different when interacting with its representatives, there’ll be a disconnect. This disconnect could undermine the new brand positioning.

Therefore any brand development study must also include some key internal stakeholder research, to capture their perceptions of what the current brand stands for.

It should also include their input at regular intervals – so there are no bad surprises at the end due to leaving someone out of the loop.

#2 Include different customer segments in your research

Different groups in your customer base will have varying perceptions of your brand. Brand research at only the overall level risks overlooking some important nuances.

Therefore, for the best results, brand research should build on your customer segmentation by including your most valuable buyer types.

B2B segmentation studies themselves can support a wide range of sales and marketing activities. 

They help you target prospects and prioritize high-value customers. The insights can also inform how you provide the right marketing content for different audiences.

#3 Explore customers/prospects’ subconscious brand perceptions

Ultimately, brand perceptions are both conscious and subconscious. Both are difficult for research respondents to articulate accurately. 

So, to get their true perceptions, you often need to use some smart techniques, depending on whether you’re using quantitative or qualitative brand research methods.

In the former, there are advanced statistical and trade-off techniques that can provide a fuller picture – such as regression analysis.

Choice-based conjoint is a popular regression tool that measures different factors’ importance according to your customers. It examines the influence of independent variables on a dependent variable.

In the latter, there are projective interviewing techniques. Examples include presenting a respondent with hypothetical scenarios, inversions, analogies, personification tasks, and so on.

Additionally, an experienced interviewer also knows how to pick up on non-verbal cues and identify the subconscious factors behind what respondents are saying.

Summary

B2B brand research

A brand encompasses what you stand for, what you do, and how you do it. Directly or indirectly, it conveys the functional and/or emotional benefits the company aims to deliver.

But building a strong brand is easier said than done. Many marketers spend a lot of time and budget trying to manage their brand.

Market research can provide insights into your brand activities in several ways, depending on whether you want to track its health, reposition it, or optimize it. These include brand development research; perception tracking research.

Brand development research

Different aspects of brand development market research, for either a new or existing brand, include: positioning; visual identity and logos; messaging frameworks; marketing and communications; architecture.

Brand perception tracking and reputation research

These areas of brand research measure a series of KPIs over time and should provide recommendations around areas for improvement: brand tracking; customer satisfaction; NPS and hero metrics.

How brand research informs strategic decisions and growth

You can use the insights and recommendations from brand research for the following goals and objectives: informing M&A activity; driving organic growth; acting on competitor intelligence; evaluating customer behavior and preferences; informing product and service development; identifying new market opportunities.

Best practices for brand research in B2B

If you conduct brand research, we recommend that you: sense check any new brand positioning tests with internal stakeholders; include different customer segments in your research; explore customers/prospects’ subconscious brand perceptions.

Chris Wells
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