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Online opportunities

B2B companies can’t afford to ignore digital branding any more
March 2019

TV, print, billboards: these are the traditional tools of the business-to-consumer (B2C) marketing trade. For business-to-business (B2B) companies, it’s seminars, conferences, technical papers and magazine articles. Typically, both types of organizations spend 60% or more of their marketing budget on these channels.

But why do they stick to these old-school marketing techniques? Why aren’t they more attracted to digital channels, where they can directly access consumers and buyers, personalize their messaging at ever lower costs, and send their campaigns viral?

To be fair, B2C companies are starting to pull ahead in the adoption of new techniques. Most B2C marketing efforts seek to develop strong brands, keeping them relevant as consumers’ tastes evolve. As the field of behavioral economics has developed, marketers understand more than ever the value of building emotional connections and the importance of a brand, simply put, being liked.

B2B companies, however, remain heavily focused on lead generation and conversion through marketing initiatives. These practices are in some cases sophisticated and highly effective. But if companies broadened the scope of their digital branding efforts and incorporated some practices from B2C companies, they could make these initiatives go even further.

For example, the sportswear brand Nike has a great example of smart mass customization in the form of NIKEiD, a service that allows customers to change the material, design, color, look and feel of shoes they want to buy. This kind of customized design of a product or service has probably the greatest impact potential for both B2B and B2C companies.

Adopting digital branding in the B2B ecosystem

We experience digital branding every day with B2C brands. However, we see comparatively few B2B brands making the most of it.

B2B brands have traditionally eschewed brand building and engagement in favor of highly technically qualified sales teams. Whether or not these representatives represent the brand successfully isn’t really part of the equation. These businesses tend to use LinkedIn and Twitter, whereas they could develop emotional connections with B2B buyers through other, diverse platforms, driving the purchase decision.

The B2B buying process has changed dramatically in recent years, largely because buyers themselves are more digitally experienced. According to a Forrester study, nearly 75% of B2B buyers prefer buying from a website rather than a sales representative. More importantly, this figure increases to 93% when buyers know exactly what they want to buy. The same study also found that 74% of B2B buyers conduct more than half of their purchase-related research online and 57% have completed their research online before reaching out to a B2B seller.

Some B2B companies have acknowledged this and are adapting their online approach. We’ve studied these, and identified five emerging themes:

Five best practices of B2B digital branding

  1. They’re an engaging employer brand

Leading B2B companies use social media to not just find customers, but also to market their strong employer brand. Cisco has videos on its YouTube, Twitter and Facebook pages that show the daily lives of its employees. GE demonstrates its commitment to veterans by capturing moments in its offices. This doesn’t just build a strong employer brand externally. It also engages employees and their personal networks, enhancing the brand’s reach and visibility.

  1. They connect with the end user

If the buying process revolves only around the immediate customer, it limits visibility to the end user. That makes end-user feedback more difficult, which in turn hampers product and service improvement. Digital branding, however, creates opportunities for brand awareness and online interaction. For example, KONE, the elevator company, shows in its YouTube videos how it uses smart technology to manage people flow in urban centers. It creates interest and generates demand throughout the value chain.

  1. They think beyond LinkedIn and Twitter

Progressive B2B brands flood Instagram and YouTube with videos. Here are a few examples:

    • ISS facility management uses YouTube to demonstrate how it uses the Internet of Things to transform its facility services.
    • DOW packaging uses Instagram to raise brand awareness in Africa. This has resulted in orders and new relationships.
    • Microsoft Data center solutions highlights its sustainability credentials with YouTube videos showing how its undersea data centers consume less electricity.
  1. They are easy to find (online)

Leading B2B companies are investing in search engine optimization. For example, if you search for ‘cloud solutions’ on Google, the top results are the names of leading B2B players such as AWS, MS Azure, Google Cloud, IBM cloud solutions – all of whom have clearly optimized search features. B2B laggards are losing out by not using SOE.

  1. They publish creative and engaging content

Many B2B marketers limit outreach to blogs and white papers on technical topics. Leading practitioners, on the other hand, are creative with their content. ISS facility management uses animated videos on YouTube to highlight day-to-day safety issues in commercial facility management.

What to do about it

The opportunities are there: what is less clear is how to position a business to make the most of them. But here are a few pointers that could be food for thought for a company revisiting their digital branding.

  1. You need a dedicated team

Whether this team sits on its own or embedded in various departments will depend on what your company needs. But they need to have clear brand-building and lead-generation objectives.

  1. Address all your stakeholders

Customize your messaging to specific audiences. For example, in an IT infrastructure provider needs to reach beyond customers to distributors, consultants, installers, planners and contractors. Cisco tailors the channels it chooses to each stakeholder separately, and customizes its content.

  1. Update your performance metrics

This depends on your goals. If you’re trying to increase customer reach, you need to track organic reach (i.e., increasing viewership and making a brand go viral on its own, without any paid media), paid reach, the number times a page or advertisement is viewed, engagement, conversion and follower count. If the goal is lead generation, you need to count the number of clicks, new leads from social media and percentage of conversions. Invest in a social media analytics solution that can provide real-time analysis and insights about the performance of your digital branding initiatives

The B2B world has changed and with the proliferation of online platforms it will change even more. Some companies are adapting their approaches, capturing massive opportunities. This poses a big risk for the organizations that have not adapted yet; they will be left behind. Our advice to these organizations is to build digital marketing capability, experiment with content and messaging, and build your online presence. Be brave.

Article by IMD MBA 2018 participant Sandeep Sharma