People are finally beginning to sit up and notice the business-to-business (B2B) marketing movement. More companies are turning to specialist B2B agencies for strategic advice, marketing ideas and creative services to reach and woo C-suite clients.
In Asia, the distinction between consumer marketing and B2B marketing is less clear. Many marketing directors and corporate communications managers are still outsourcing various marketing support projects on a piecemeal basis to advertising, event or public relations agencies for example, instead of seeking the services of dedicated full-service B2B agencies.
Is it surprising then that these companies feel their marketing needs are not optimally met? Many traditional agencies have their roots in consumer marketing and do not have the experience needed to develop comprehensive B2B marketing programmes. A few important characteristics distinguish B2B marketing from mass marketing, and can make all the difference to any B2B marketing effort.
1. The power of many
In consumer marketing, your target is an individual. In B2B marketing, you could be targeting any number of people along the decision-making chain, some of whom may not even be located in the same country as you! It is always useful to find out who is the ‘real’ decision maker. Is the purchasing or sourcing manager as important as the business-planning manager or the chief financial officer? In some companies, the human resources manager commissions services that have traditionally been the mandate of the office manager and vice versa.
Many B2B marketing professionals simply target the ‘C-suite’ but fail to realise that sometimes, it’s the CEO’s secretary who makes the ultimate decision on whether or not they should order products or services from your company. Either that, or he/she could be the ‘gatekeeper’ who foils any number of your marketing and sales attempts.
When the buying decision affects several departments such as IT, operations and finance for example, you should be looking at different ways to present your company’s credentials to a group of people, each with different concerns and expectations!
Being able to identify different groups and their interests, and combining them with tailored communications and a powerful database system, can result in a much higher rate of return.
2. The power of one
Every one of your employees that comes in contact with your customer is your “brand”, whether you are selling multi-million dollar commercial warehouses or consultancy services. So it is crucial that your walking-talking brand ambassadors believe in your corporate values and what you are selling. Get your agency to give them customer-centric brand messages and sales tools to use, and ensure they are trained to make each customer feel as if they are the most important customer ever.
On the flip side, B2B companies must ensure that their corporate brands are strong enough that their customers don’t leave when their brand ambassadors do.
3. Target the head, not the heart
Validating and even quantifying one’s value proposition is crucial for any B2B company. Unlike B2C marketing, it is always about appealing to the head, and not to the heart (or eyes or ears, for that matter). Your B2B marketing agency should help you answer tough customer questions such as, “Tell me why I should choose your company over your competitor? What value can you add to my bottom line or business plans? How much do you understand about my company’s needs? How will your products or services help our company get ahead?”
In mature B2B sectors, where the offering from company to company is almost homogeneous or ‘commoditised’, the value proposition is less about the core product or service and more about the ‘value-add’ or enhancements. The challenges are different, because the central question is often, “Can you do this at a better price than your competitor?”
4. Corporate brand, product brand or CEO brand
I often advise against building personality brands in any company, unless it is the founder. It is important not to let personal egos get in the way of building corporate persona, which will certainly outlive the former.
I also advise that B2B companies focus on building and protecting their corporate brands versus their product brands. Vista can fail for instance, but Microsoft should not.
Corporate brand building certainly comes in handy when closing new business deals for B2B companies – people are more comfortable recommending a new supplier, vendor or consultant that their bosses have heard about, versus one that is relatively unknown.
That is not to say that the lesser known brands will lose out on all opportunities, as long as they can prove that they can deliver. They are less likely to be considered however, if the risk of failure is too high i.e. when the products and services affect the company’s viability (productivity, legal standing, reputation etc.), if the value of the contract is very large, or if the ultimate decision maker is a good friend of your competitor (it does happen!) for instance.
5. Make me look good in front of my boss
This may seem like an odd suggestion but I sometimes ask clients how they can make their target customers look good in front of their bosses.
a. Can you package your products or services in a way that helps your contact’s business and shows him or her to be making a positive contribution to their employers? The closer you do this to the bonus period or your contract renewal time, the better.
b. Do you need to provide tools that help your contact/s present the validations for their recommended vendor ie. your company?
c. Should you prepare documents that demonstrate the value that your company can bring to other departments at your contact’s organisation?
d. Should you offer to help integrate your products or services into your customer’s organisation?
e. Are your ‘green credentials’ in line with your customer’s business sustainability efforts as a B2B vendor?
6. It’s not showing on TV
B2B customers don’t automatically turn on the television when they want to find a supplier. Often, one of the first sources of information they turn to is a search engine. Increasingly, B2B marketing is very much about Internet marketing and helping to raise a company’s profile and search engine rankings. The Internet instantly makes your competitive pool global. A company in India could offer business secretarial services that are almost identical to yours, only cheaper.
It is critical to constantly think of new ways of creating credible customer-driven content, online distribution channels, search terms, Internet links etc. in B2B marketing. Traditional mass media has little or no relevance. That is why the B2B channel mix will look very different and may comprise:
* Search engines
* Niche websites such as LinkedIn
* Industry related online marketing
* Industry listings or online forums
* Accreditation with respected organisations
* Industry endorsements
* Case studies
* Client referrals and testimonials
* Thought leadership articles
* Media relations and press mentions
* White papers and research studies
* Customised demonstrations
* Low-risk pilot tests
* Trade shows
* Trade directories
* Industry spokesmen
* Industry rankings and awards
* Industry publications
* Customer events
* Corporate videos and podcasts
* Executive bios etc.
Often, B2B communications output is best tailored to each target customer. Make sure your agency can also create great PowerPoint decks inhouse, so you can customise them for your corporate presentations.
7. There is a season for everything
Always gear your B2B marketing towards your customers’ planning cycles.
There are different financial year-ends in different countries, and it is important to make your business pitch at least three to four months before your customer’s year-end, to ensure your company has a chance of making the vendor shortlist for next year!
8. The grey line
Unlike consumer marketing, where you can offer seasonal sales and gifts in exchange for certain purchases, such tactics are not always viewed as ‘ethical’ in B2B marketing.
A token of customer appreciation worth 200 US dollars to someone who just signed a multi-million dollar contract may seem trivial in comparison, but it may be hastily returned if the customer’s corporate policy limits ‘lavish’ gifts beyond say, 100 US dollars. Don’t risk embarrassing your customers by forgetting to do a bit of discreet checking first. Search product directory for wholesale b2b product catalogs
What I have listed are just some important aspects of B2B marketing. Ultimately, it really helps to work with a B2B marketing agency that understands your B2B decision makers, decision influences, business needs, stakeholders, sources of information and available channels, and that is also able to add a good dose of creative thinking!