To many of my clients, branding has become meaningless. It is no longer sufficient to be a good company; you must have a good brand too. Most companies in the B2B marketing space have adopted this logic, which raises the strategic issue of whether there is a need to go beyond what used to be called corporate reputation.
The issue is complex. The threshold question is, "How many (brand) names do you have?"
If all or most of your products and services use the company name (eg: Intel, LPS or most professional service firms), then a branding strategy is necessary. If not, that is, if your company follows the P&G approach, then while each brand requires a strategy, it is not self-evident that the company name needs to be thought of as a brand more than just a name. Both have merits and problems.
At the very least, marketing a company brand name usually means playing to different target audiences, including shareholders and venture capitalists, than are typically the top targets for the actual B2B products or services. Rarely does a company see a return on any investment in marketing the company brand among the buyers of those services and products marketed under their own individual names; the money is better spent on the product's or service's brand. (Of course, this is debatable, and millions have been spent on corporate reputation.)
Assuming you do want to create a corporate brand strategy, the first step, as in all things strategic, is to pinpoint the target and the objective for each. First, you must ask, "Why do we want to spend money to convey an impression about our brand name to this audience?" and "How might we over time gain a return on this investment?" If you get good answers to these questions then the strategy focus turns to objectives.
In some instances – in the case of a start-up, for example – the objective may be simple awareness, like name recognition that will make selling easier. But generally, I would not call this a "brand" strategy, as the concept of a "brand" should entail more than name recognition.
In most cases, a true brand strategy should consider the following issues:
> What do buyers value and drive them to take a “buy decision” on your products or services? If buyers value reputation, integrity, service or other corporate attributes, branding campaigns are usually important. But if they make a purchase decision almost entirely based on product or service features – and price – then the money is better spent on improving the offering or reducing the costs.
> Are purchase decisions made by a group or primarily by one individual? Where group decisions predominate, branding strategy should be less aggressive and tilted toward the rational benefits.
> Is the product intangible – Is it a service? If so, branding is important as a signal of quality. Essentially, the brand comes to represent what is behind the service. A service firm with a solid brand name can more easily weather lean times and risks such as lawsuits than the companies with a weaker or no brand strength.
> Does the overall strategy entail aggressively growing the customer base? Branding strategy is most necessary to attract new customers. Also, companies interested in acquiring other companies (or in getting acquired, or in an initial public offering) should also consider an aggressive branding campaign, although the target for these efforts will likely not be their product or service buyer.
Once the brand strategic objectives are established, another oft-ignored issue to address is the need for rigorous measurement. You may want to do a research on whether the various components of the strategy create the desired impression.
Finally, particularly for professional services, and to some extent for all B2B marketing, the people who produce and deliver are major contributors to any branding strategy. If a packaged good's brand is intimately entwined with its package, then a service brand is intimately entwined with its people. Companies that provide uniforms for their employees, from banks to ice cream parlours, implicitly recognise this truism.
Too often, companies embark on expensive branding campaigns as if their "brand" was independent of the people who produce it. Provide employees with the tools to be part of the marketing effort (handing out branded T-shirts is but one trivial example), and make sure they can explain the brand to others.
Thus, for B2B marketers, the brand starts at home. Think first about informing the employees about the brand strategy and make sure they believe that the strategy represents the company's reality in order not to let the campaign fail. After all, the best B2B marketing is really the people of a business communicating to the people of another business!