Are the 2020s the Decade of the Great B2B Rebranding?

Are the 2020s the Decade of the Great B2B Rebranding? Yes, but not for the reasons you may have heard or thought.

This is the intriguing question posed by LinkedIn’s B2B Institute, on which they have written reasonably extensively. It concerns the well-known 60/40 split of brand and activation campaigns - 50/50 split in B2B - recorded by Peter Field and Les Binet. Spoiler alert: their answer to the question is an affirmative yes, in their view, this will be the decade of the great B2B rebranding.

What drives the B2B Institute's thinking is one major assumption — that customers will take control of their own buying journeys —and so with activation reduced in purpose, marketing will default back to branding for differentiation and selling. They urge marketers to “switch sides” now, as the “brand will win by 2030.” They then proceed to tout the many virtues of branding, some new, some old, concluding that branding will become the source of “demand gen” and even “performance marketing”, while today’s tech-driven "demand gen" will retrench to what they are calling  "demand harvesting". You have to give them credit, this is heady, provocative stuff! 

To support their perspective, the B2B Institute cites five key virtues of branding which are hard to refute:

  • Marketing has become too invested in “lead gen” and “demand gen.” Sales activation doesn’t create demand, they contend, rather it just helps businesses capture demand that already exists. Besides, a massive force is already focused on short-term sales, and it’s called the sales team, while in their view, brand-building is what actually generates demand, long- and short-term.
  • Brand is “sticky.” It builds lasting memory structures in the minds of future buyers for when they focus on buying. 
  • Profitability comes from increased pricing, and this does not come from sales leads, which tend to reduce price.
  • Brands build “competitive moats, filled with poisonous alligators” because brands cannot be copied, and trademarks are legally protected.
  • Brands increase talent recruitment and retention. Brands get you meetings, weak brands send you straight to voicemail.

So, are the 2020s the Decade of the Great B2B Rebanding or not? 

From my perspective, the 2020s will, indeed, be the decade of the great B2B rebranding, but not in the ways that the B2B Institute argue. The assumption that activation will diminish (that much) in significance is risky: Who knows what the next 10 years of tech will bring? Enter just these last weeks the Metaverse and Web3. What effect might developments such as these, much less others not yet imagined, have on the buying process? 

Activation campaigns or not, all the Institute’s reasons for building the brand remain critically important -- why would you not build your brand? -- and represent missed opportunities if they’re not acted on. Not building the brand is, arguably, the greatest risk. Their question, however, “Are the 2020s the Decade of the Great B2B Rebranding?” is super-timely, super-relevant, and offers the opportunity to rethink and reframe the debate and take the discussion to a higher level. In my view, the critical, sine qua non stand-off for B2B in this decade is not so much brand vs. activation, but rather, brand vs. mar-tech.

Both brand and martech are pathways to the holy grail of marketing – customer intimacy. Both speak the same language of CX, customer centricity and customer journeys. Both seek to know what the customer wants before they know it themselves. Yet, both have their own proponents and rare is the marketer who correlates findings across these disciplines, or who even sees the need to do so.

In my view, the real juxtaposition is not even brand vs. martech, or brand in lieu of martech, but rather brand and martech. I firmly believe brand and martech should become fast BFFs, although today, this interaction is effectively lacking. My viewpoint: fully, robustly building the brand has intrinsic values of its own – as the B2B Institute cites - while a differentiated, authentic brand can help martech ensure direction, purpose and results. In fact, it is my view that brand can help martech excel! And this, not least, because martech and data analysis are so often cited for focusing on (sterile, robotic) technology rather than on the human element, while great brands swim in humanity!

So, for one reason or another, all of this speaks to the 2020s being the decade of the great B2B rebranding, which I firmly believe in, and which absolutely delights me. 

How can brand help martech excel?

For the sake of argument, let's agree that the most prudent course is to see the 2020s as the decade of brand and martech - together, aligned, hand-in-glove.We speak the same language, desire the same outcomes in bespoke customer journeys and experiences, and crave the customer centricity and intimacy that will bring this all together.  On the branding side, this speaks directly to revitalised brand-building in its own right, but refreshed in two, new ways: 

  1. The creation (finally) of truly powerful, authentic brands.
  2. The addition of Motivational Marketing (MM) in the branding process: work that I am currently developing and refining. 

1. Building a truly powerful, authentic brand: (Finally) getting it right!

A truly powerful, authentic brand has nine elements—not two or three, but nine: Vision, Mission, Core Values, Target Audiences and the Insights that drive them to you; Brand Promises, Brand Personality, Total Offering, Name and your Brand Positioning: your Why?, your reason for being, why anyone should care. Imagine these all arrange around an Octagon, an 8-sided figure, with the ninth - your Brand Positioning - at the center, holding everything together.  All are intangible; all are continual sources of richness, renewal and abundance. 

A Brand Framework: The Octagon

The extent to which B2B companies embrace their Brand Octagon, and the robust, comprehensive understanding of their brand that this represents, is the extent to which their depth, richness and authenticity will shine through -  and additionally, will drive loyalty, reference, and preference whilst also providing them competitive advantage and ensure market leadership. How many B2B companies actually see their brands in this way, and build them in this fashion, is debatable, but arguably it is very few. There are very specific ways to create each of these nine elements, coordinate them and build out a truly robust, engaging brand and brand experience from them. I have written about this In previous blogs, such as this one. One thing's for sure: this approach to branding, or rather this philosophy, takes the understanding of brand way beyond logos and graphic Identities. Yes, these are part of an authentic brand, but only one part.

What’s the value of building such a robust brand in B2B?

So, why do this? What is the value of building such a robust brand in B2B when, arguably, you’re selling products or services to value chains mainly interested in price and efficiency? Not to do so misses huge opportunities. Imagine this beautiful landscape for your own brand, B2B marketers! This is the potential your authentic brand holds:

A brand should rouse, startle and shape new thinking, attitudes and behaviors. It should ignite your enterprise internally with the power of your ethos and courage. It should stir new external audiences to sharper, more eager engagement because of your convictions. It should help shape the markets and cultures you operate in and make a statement about the human potential you impact.

If you could say this about your brand, and realize the power and benefits of creating and managing such a truly authentic brand, how could you not make the commitment to create one? Among all other transformations such a brand would make to your organization, e.g., to your products and services, to your communications and culture. How would it not also impact and guide your martech development, analysis and results? How could it not help but make your martech more human, better?  

FYI, this notion of the power of brand Is modelled on philosopher and aesthetician Walter Pater's belief on the impact of art: just as transporting and powerful art can be, so too is the transformative potential of your brand.

What is Motivational Marketing (MM)? How can MM help to develop a powerful, authentic brand?

In a word, MM provides a powerful boost and refinement in the development of your Brand Octagon -  specifically to your Brand Vision, Promises and Positioning - based on the Target Audience insights it illuminates and the window into their intrinsic motivations that it facilitates. MM literally renders your Brand Octagon a mirror into the soul of your customers and acts as a compendium of all you need to know to achieve true customer intimacy. All your marketing and branding can and should build out from there!

To explain a little further:

Let me step back for one instant as I briefly need to introduce Self-determination Theory (SDT). SDT is a discipline of behavioral science concerned with intrinsic motivations behind the choices that people make, without external influence or interference. SDT takes an optimistic view of human nature, that we have a natural, inherent drive to seek out challenges and new possibilities. This drive is universal, innate and psychological, and so global and pan-cultural. SDT specifically defines three main intrinsic needs which, if satisfied, allow optimal human functioning, growth and happiness: competence (we seek control and mastery); relatedness (we desire to interact with others) and autonomy (we desire purpose and fulfilment.)

In the work that I’m currently developing, I posed the question: by uncovering people’s intrinsic motivations in the buying process, could SDT possibly help us get to true customer centricity and intimacy? Spoiler alert: the answer is emerging in the affirmative; yes!

How it comes together:

Deep-diving into SDT, you quickly see how it is reminiscent of other classic pillars of Western thought from Maslow’s Pyramid of Needs to Aristotle’s concept of the four causes and the principle of areté, or excellence. But the real moment of ‘aha’ – mirabile visu—is when you realize how SDT also plugs directly into marketing’s classic tool, the Values Ladder. It connects specifically to the functional and emotional benefits and values on the ladder, the literal “steps” that we have long used to craft brand promises and messages. This unique understanding of the connections of SDT and marketing’s Values Ladder is hugely revealing: there is a natural bridge between hierarchies of messaging and hierarchies of needs; between customer centricity and intrinsic customer motivations—by which we mean those motivations that would even bring customers to you on their own, so long as you insightfully prime and encourage their engagement.

So what value exactly does MM add to a truly robust, authentic brand?

Fusing the Values Ladder with SDT literally connects classic audience benefits and values to customers’ intrinsic motivations, thus linking customer centricity and intimacy to what’s fundamental to being human. It’s all connected! This places the customer, as an individual –indeed, their humanity –at the center of everything. It will allow you, the marketer, to understand your customers as real people first, and potentially to know what they want before they do it themselves. 

But it all necessarily starts with the creation of a truly robust, powerful, authentic brand that fully roots Vision, Positioning and Promises in customer intimacy. Uniquely offering customer intimacy up-front as the single, unifying principle of your brand, how can MM not impact absolutely everything you do? Employ MM to align and integrate your teams, focus your content and campaigns, drive all product development, generate customer loyalty, be the engine of surprise and delight: absolutely everything. This is why we are calling the marriage of SDT to the Values Ladder, and its incorporation into the Octagon process, MM, or B2B Marketing 2.0. 

A prime example of why this will be the age of the great B2B rebranding: Coming full circle

As we noted at the outset, Peter Field and Les Binet famously recommend a balance of a 60/40 blend (50/50 for B2B) of long-term brand building and short-term sales activation, to achieve maximum growth, loyalty and staying power. (It was by responding to this theory that the B2B Institute kicked off the great, B2B rebranding debate in the first place.) Similarly, in Effectiveness In Context, Binet and Field write on brand and activation that " Smart people do both…The trick is to find a powerful, emotional insight that is relevant in the category and execute it in an unexpected way.”

Hello, MM! Come on down! With your customers’ intrinsic motivations at the center of all you do, defining the 60/40 (or 50/50) balance of brand and activation campaigns may just have found a path forward! Brought to you by brand and activation/tech, hand-in-glove! With brand and activation/tech in mutual support, look forward to a lot more exciting, potentially ground-breaking, business-building and differentiating campaigns ahead! 

Admittedly, this is a lot to take in! Stay tuned for more work in progress, including a B2B case study that will illustrate how all this will come together.

Getting started: What might marketers do in the short-term to get ready for the great B2B rebranding?  

Tearing a page from this being the decade of the brand and martech: do an audit, marketer. Examine your martech findings and your brand developments along the same, key criteria: What does each tell you about customer intimacy and centricity? What journey, what customer experience do they support? What content do they call for in your communications? What product or service developments do they anticipate? The same or different? Where are they aligned, where are they at odds? Where are there gaps between them, and in each of them? If your data tells you what they buy, can your brand rush in to tell you why they buy it? Can they be mutually supportive?

If you can’t answer questions such as these, this should signal and sound alarm bells. Going forward, set a dual, integrated, mutually supportive course for your business based on what your brand and your martech, now hand-in-glove, are telling you -make them both your BFFs. Honestly, survival may be at stake.

Final reflections and takeaways: Some recent personal experience

It may not be obvious, but tech and brand have fought, and are still fighting, common battles. I have recently been witness to discussions with ABM, martech and data specialists talking about the state-of-the-state of their discipline. They expressed numerous concerns especially concerning a lack of management and sales force support. They opined for a board-level advocate for their support and continued budgets; -they reported on the kind of resistance they hear from both sales and management: “What results are we getting anyway?” “What is the value for money in this big martech investment?” “How many people in the company actually use this tech?” “Just give me another sales person.” 

These are not unique battles: What martech is facing today is exactly what branding faced in the '90s. I heard the same push-back about brand some 30 years ago. Striking! What you realize is that these are not only tech or brand struggles, rather they are human battles, the struggles of turf and ownership and professional ego. 

Is there a more compelling insight, a greater, final reason for brand and martech to join forces in these common, shared struggles? Together, brand and tech stand a chance of surviving and prevailing, producing win-win-wins for everyone: true transformative change for the better. As stand-alones, let me quote Benjamin Franklin after he signed the Declaration of Independence during the Continental Congress of 1776: “If we don’t all hang together, we will surely all hang separately.” Wise words still.

A shorter version of this paper is presented in a video of the same title has been posted on Propolis.

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