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The glacier moves: Why the world’s most valuable B2B brands learned to meaningfully engage

Working in B2B sometimes feels like standing on top of a giant glacier. At times it appears little is changing, but occasionally you glance over your shoulder and realise you’ve travelled much further than you imagined. Looking at the current focus of the world’s 20 most valuable B2B brands, I get that same feeling, only they haven’t travelled miles, they’ve crossed continents.

When my feet first hit ice 15 years ago, B2B was a very different place. Where once brands provided transactional product solutions, their aim now is to provide needs-based service partnerships tailored to individual requirements. That is reflective of a dramatically different business environment, and evidenced in the key aim of today’s B2B brand leaders: the meaningful engagement of customers.

The emergence of B2C disrupter brands moving into B2B

Digital transformation has had a huge impact on the techniques, channels and visual language adopted by B2B brands. The sheer volume of touchpoints buyers now engage with is staggering. This is further complicated by the increasing number of people involved in the purchase decision process, and the growing influence of millennials – a group which, influenced by consumer experiences, have begun to demand similar interactions in their professional lives, whilst simultaneously placing increased scrutiny on the ethical side of B2B business practices. We see this reflected in the techniques adopted by B2B brands which have become more overtly B2C/B2H (certainly outside enterprise level), and more broadly in changing working cultures.

Coupled with this is the emergence of powerful B2C disrupter brands moving into B2B. By engaging with decision-makers in a much more human way, these brands appear as agile enablers of business, and are forcing elite legacy brands to reposition.

Finally, the rise of increasingly complex solutions – but with no let-up in inherent pressures on B2B decision-makers – has driven buyers to look for service partnerships with multiple subject specialists who understand their individual challenges and provide solutions in which ‘people and knowledge’ matter most.

ABM is on the rise

What’s interesting is the impact this new environment has had on the approach, methods and channels adopted by the world’s most powerful B2B brands.

If modern B2B marketing is about meaningful engagement, then the most successful brands are using data to construct consistent, measurable personal experiences throughout the buying journey based on individual customer behaviour. This is clearly evident in the resurgence of account-based marketing (ABM) aligned to increasingly powerful automation systems, investment in AI and machine learning and the use of data mining, cognitive computing and predictive analytics to close the gap between insights and action.

It’s also understandable in the age of the connected customer – where 67% of the B2B buyer’s journey is undertaken digitally, according to SiriusDecisions – that successful trends such as adopting a customer centric approach to digital planning have become best practice in a landscape which thrives on technology-enabled content to meet the growing demands of a rapidly changing, tech savvy audience.

In addition, it’s interesting to note the shift in content towards first establishing trust with customers by adding value (still the most important thing in B2B) before looking to extract revenue, a really good example being UPS’s 'United Problem Solvers'. Or how in the face of ‘content overload’ and clients’ constant bombardment across multiple channels, the most successful brands are increasing the use of influencers, a greater diversification of formats and more engaging techniques.

UPS United Problem Solvers™

As B2B purchase decisions have become less purely rational and shifted towards service solutions primarily requiring ‘trust and reassurance’, B2B brands are increasingly creating messages which resonate emotionally and tap into buyers’ personal feelings and aspirations – content accuracy is meaningless if the content isn’t meaningful. GE, in particular, has excelled in this area; it’s why the work from Intel remains so effective and is the reason IBM’s 'Smarter Planet' was the best marketing strategy of any of the brands in the BrandZ ranking over the past decade.

The world of B2B has changed dramatically, with the most valuable brands today focused on four key trends:
•         Meaningful engagement throughout a complex purchase decision process with an increasingly diverse range of decision-makers.
•         Recruiting people with the necessary skills to bring together disparate systems and technologies.
•         Creating service partnerships based on individuals’ requirements, and acting as agile business enablers.
•         Providing brand transparency and purpose which resonates, and is credible and achievable.

The glacier moves on.

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