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How B2B Brands Can Find Competitive Advantage through Acting on Their Principles



Katherine Sheen, strategy director at Ogilvy UK, explores what it really means to be a brand with purpose

How B2B Brands Can Find Competitive Advantage through Acting on Their Principles

The task of diagnosing and communicating your brand’s purpose, the reason your company exists beyond making a profit, has been such an established club in the marketing bag for such a long time that I can’t remember when it didn’t exist.

But just because an idea has been around for a long time doesn’t mean that everybody has the same understanding of what it means.

To some, like EY in this example, to be a brand with purpose is equivalent to being a company operating in a way that’s attentive to sustainability. Others, like Accenture, identify purpose-led brands as those who ‘take a stand’ on an issue, in an effort to display values-alignment with target customers and gain competitive advantage as a result. Ipsos seems to agree and says it’s not enough to be a ‘normal’ business any more – just following ethical business practices is rapidly being seen as a given, not a differentiator.

The transition from brand purpose to brand activism

What constitutes a typical brand purpose programme seems to have evolved in the last few years. It’s not enough to just stand for something positive, it’s now becoming imperative to be seen to act on those principles.

Against a global backdrop of fake news, fallible leaders, culture wars and growing inequality, there’s been a general rise in the population’s anxiety and despondency – and a feeling of helplessness. This has created a craving for positive change in society – a craving that audiences don’t believe will be satiated by their government institutions… and this has started to affect expectations of business, and of brands.

People (millennials are usually identified as the primary target demographic, but I’m not sure what value ‘millennials = young people’ really offers here – business philanthropy has existed since the Victorians) increasingly believe that businesses must play a positive role in society, and contribute more than products, employment and taxes. Consumers are looking for action, not just words – activism in the interests of a cause.

An obvious tactic for B2C, but what’s the value to B2B brands? Emotional connection.

For a B2C brand, aligning with the values and principles of your target audience is important – when a consumer buys a product, they’re hoping that it ‘says something’ about themselves.

The challenge for use of brand activism in the B2B space: how relevant is that dynamic for someone who is buying on behalf of their organisation, not just themselves? Surely in procurement cost and utility vastly overshadow any considerations about something as intangible as cultural alignment?

Well. Yes. Sort of. But we all know that B2B decision makers are actually wildly emotionally invested in their purchases. And they’re twice as likely to choose a B2B brand which they believe will lead to better personal value vs. business value (this famous CEB study should be bookmarked by all B2B marketers).

So perhaps, as in the B2C space, B2B brands may increasingly need to demonstrate a personal cultural fit with buyers in order to stand out competitively and build deeper connections with their target audiences.

Plus – B2B decision-makers aren’t in an isolated special ‘procurement bunker’ offshore somewhere; they’re exactly the same generation of people who now have heightened expectations of the consumer brands they purchase in their private lives.

Activism tells B2B buyers what you’re like to do business with

Perhaps even more significantly for B2B brands, brand activism can be a clear and fame-generating articulation of organisational culture.

It’s well-known that culture is the strongest determinant of actual behaviour. I would hazard that a portrayal of a B2B organisation’s diligent commitment to solving difficult societal issues isn’t a bad thing to have out there in the open, visible to your target audiences, who may be trying to guess how your organisation will behave in delivering on its contractual promises.

Purpose-led activism can help build confidence in a B2B brand’s integrity, which is especially important if buyers are relying on a supplier’s reputation rather than previous experience to make a decision.

Using brand activism to steal attention and signal cultural differences to an established B2B brand competitor can also be a way for challenger B2B brands to win share in a category (like Virgin Business championing small businesses in a way that separates them from BT).

Ready to walk the talk? Rules for brands considering turning their purpose into activism 

In our panel discussion at the Marketing Research Society B2B event, we started to explore a checklist of considerations for B2B brands who may want to enter this space:

• Where possible, as with IBM’s hugely commercially successful Smarter Planet campaign and Rolls-Royce’s visionary decision this year to invest in electric aircraft propulsion, find an issue to tackle that also aligns with your business strategy

• Don’t look opportunistic, and make sure your B2B brand doesn’t look bigger or more important than the issue you’re trying to solve

• By being late to the party, B2Bs have the advantage in that they can learn from mistakes already made in the B2C brand activism space – don’t do a Pepsi

• Be ready for discussions with stakeholders in your B2B organisation who will worry about alienating a portion of your addressable market if some decision-makers don’t happen to agree with your point of principle – challenge them with the question: is it better for 50% of your target market to love you or for 100% of your market not really feeling anything towards your B2B brand at all?

• If it’s a principle worth standing by, it has to be seen to cost you something. And that can be effort and resources rather than anything more alarming (such as Nike’s decision to lose some of their customer base who objected to the brand’s stance on racial injustice)

• Consider the full eco-system of ROI for purpose-led activities for your B2B organisation – don’t just focus on the effect on sales; for example, your workforce could become more engaged and productive (thus reducing staff retention cost and the cost of output), and earned coverage of your activism buys fame without needing to buy advertising space

Katherine Sheen is a strategy director at Ogilvy UK. 

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Ogilvy UK, Thu, 08 Aug 2019 12:41:53 GMT