Brands are more important than ever.
Sure it’s a cliché. It seems every book I have read on branding contains that sentence. Yet, the Internet has created an environment that makes that statement truer than at any prior point. The Internet enables incredibly fast access to an enormous amount of information and provides connectivity and community that can empower buyers.
According to a popular branding theory, when marketplace choices increase, buyers tend to have an increased preference for familiar brands, thus, saving them research time and limiting their exposure to risk. The Internet has, without question, increased the amount of choices for business-to-business buyers.
Buyers increased access to information often results in increased expectations. In markets where products and services are largely perceived as commodities, or strong weight is given to technical specifications and price, given that all other things are equal (e.g., delivery time, etc.), a strong brand may be the single characteristic that differentiates a product from competitive offerings.
The significance of geography, which had once created advantages for many companies and obstacles to others, has, in many instances, been greatly reduced. Customers can now quickly and easily research product information, detailed specifications, experience computer-based presentations, search competitor offerings, find peers through professional associations or affinity groups where they can ask questions and share experiences, as well as make purchases online.
PROPAGANDA IS OUT. DELIVERING ON PROMISES IS IN.
There’s an old saying in the advertising world: “Nothing kills a bad product faster than good advertising.” With the mainstream adoption of the commercial Internet, the time it takes to kill poor or undifferentiated products (for the sake of simplicity, this paper uses the term “products” to describe both products and services) has been shortened considerably. Innovations are quickly imitated by competitors, rarely providing long-term sustainable advantages.
It is clear that the most sustainable advantage any company can have is a strong brand.
In the age of the informed customer, the concept of “image is reality” is dead. The revised formula is: Image + Information + Customer Expectations + Customer Experience (delivery) = Reality.
Customers new found access to seemingly endless amounts of information results in their being more demanding than prior to this access. While image remains significant, the new access to information often results in placing increased weight on specifications, capabilities and price during the buying process. This complex situation may appear to lessen the significance of brands, but, in actuality, it has elevated the significance of the brand.
Great B2B brands have the right technical specifications, connect with customers, deliver on promises that matter, exceed expectations and have a positive buzz within the buying community.
Consider the popular mantra of IT professionals: “No one ever got fired for buying IBM.” This is a good example of a brand that stands for quality in the minds of customers and provides them with a shortcut in the buying process that helps them avoid risk.
The ideal brand connects with customers on an emotional level.
Think B2C brands are the only ones that do this? Consider commercial photographers and Kodak; graphic and multimedia designers and Macintosh; business executives and recruiters and Harvard Business School; computer professionals and IBM; and mechanics and Snap-On.
Smart B2B brands use the Internet to deepen emotional bonding between the brand and customer. These marketers will often create places customers can go online that help encourage their bonding where they can find out more information about the brand, communicate with other brand advocates and feel a sense of a community that is connected by the brand. Microsoft is excellent at creating emotional bonds with the developer community through its various developer groups. These groups have their own special sections of the Microsoft Website, training (including some at no cost), special access to information (they can receive advance notification of announcements prior to the general public), membership, online events such as seminars, discounts on Microsoft products (software and books) plus offline meetings and events.
Microsoft understands how to meld the offline and online worlds together for the benefit of its brand.
THE FALLOUT FROM THE “NEW ECONOMY” HYPE
During the dot-com explosion, the Internet became so over-hyped it seemed that many people had lost touch with (or never understood) sound business principles. Huge amounts of cash were spent in a mad rush to be first to create strong brands in “Internet Speed.” Now, long after the Internet bubble has burst, in many instances, there has been a reactionary backlash –a tendency to discount all things related to the Internet.
Either extreme is unwise.
The Internet is certain to play an increasingly significant role in how business is done and the management of brands. Those interested in building and maintaining strong brands need to understand and exploit the Internet’s power, integrating it with offline efforts.