Context: We All Love a Story

Last week, I discussed how business-to-consumer (B2C) startups could handle the challenge of building brands cheaply. Having referred to B2Cs, I now need to comment on business-to-business (B2B) companies.

B2Bs’ traditional branding techniques vary in many respects from those used by B2Cs. But there are some fundamental features that the two approaches share, because human beings are the ones making purchase decisions, whether in the business world or in their personal lives. With this in mind, let’s think about how to build a solid B2B branding strategy.

The first thing you should do is make the product human and visible. I’m not suggesting you use cartoons to launch your brand, but I am asking you to communicate to your audience in a human way, not as if it were composed of robots. Intel, for example, managed to turn computer chips into tangible, understandable products. Of course, this company was equipped to launch its message with the support of one of the world’s largest-ever marketing campaigns. Intel’s approach sure worked, but I don’t expect you to spend several hundred million dollars. What we can learn from the Intel example is that intangible, abstract products can be transformed into visible, concrete ones. Intel humanized the computer chip by using other respected brands to carry its message.

Undoubtedly, many B2B companies represent products that are pretty uninspiring as far as the layperson is concerned. But by teaming up with a second brand — one that can convert the B2B-manufactured product into something interesting — a B2B company can harness consumer attention that would have been inaccessible were the product to be marketed alone. What I’m talking about is a mini B2B2C brand alliance strategy.

The goal of this is to have your B2C clients do the marketing work for you, or at least show the value of your product in a human context. Whether you produce iron, paper, print products, lenses, merchandising, software — you name it — the strategy should be to create partnerships with four or five key clients by building cases around the ways they use and value your product. I’m talking about testimonials, not only from your clients but also from your clients’ clients! Why? Because what touches people, what is meaningful and relevant to them, is to imagine a product in a “real” context. Paper and software products need no longer be comprehended as ingredients in some unknown product; they should be comprehended in parallel with, or as vital constituents in, products about which end-users express positive opinions.

Let me give you an example. One of the world’s largest lens manufacturers, Carl Zeiss, has moved away from talking about lens production in favor of talking about end-user experiences, despite the fact Zeiss almost never sells directly to these end-users. Zeiss asked consumers to convey how its product changed their lives — how its lens technology improved their lives. In one of its brochures, Zeiss points out that, because it produces the lenses that make computer chip production possible, almost everyone is in contact with the Carl Zeiss brand every day. Did you know that Zeiss is an integral part of Porsche production? Zeiss produces the equipment that measures and designs the car’s shape. Suddenly the Zeiss product is rendered comprehensible and interesting because it’s explained within a meaningful context. Carl Zeiss is no longer merely a lens manufacturer; it’s a company that actually has an impact on “my” life!

Why is this so effective? Simply because we all are human beings and we need to comprehend the details of life from a human point of view. The good news is very few companies have managed to create contextual stories for their products so, if you were to go ahead, you’d most likely create a positive stir out there.

For some reason, most B2B companies think they have no alternative to presenting themselves as gray and boring. That’s why they communicate in as formal a fashion as possible. But, in fact, even if I’m a B2B purchasing manager, I will always be affected by my feelings — perhaps not much, but enough to make one company look more human than another.

Does it cost extra? Not at all. What it does is humanize your brand and create confidence among your B2B customers. They will perceive your brand as being popular among end-users, which will strengthen ties between you and your key clients. In addition, you’ll have made your product and its purpose interesting to the world. When people are interested — when they are talking about a product — that captures the attention of the media. As you know, journalists like to be able to put things in context. They know that context is what creates a fascinating story. A B2B2C brand alliance strategy lays the groundwork for contextual understanding. Paper, metal, software, lenses… no longer are such materials mere components. A brand alliance strategy fits them into a product story that is relevant to the human in all of us.

That’s what B2B branding is all about.

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