Some B2B marketers shy away from ever uttering the term “brand image.” After all, the very notion of “brand” is suspect in many sales or manufacturing-driven B2B organizations. Adding the term “image” (common in B2C) likely reinforces the misimpression among doubters that branding is too soft a discipline to generate any hard cash at the bottom line.

But business-to-business marketers who operate in relationship-driven selling environments are wise to not dismiss “image” as fluff, but instead, rethink “brand image” as an essential element that helps us define how “our brand helps customers imagine what it’s like to work with us.”

To further explore the nature and function of brand image in B2B, we recently spoke with Chip DeGrace, chief design officer at Interface, a global leader in the design and production of carpet tiles.

Brandingmag: How do you define ‘brand image’ in a B2B context?

Chip DeGrace: Our brand image is the sum of impressions we leave in the heads of our customers after they have engaged with us. Hopefully that’s over a long period of time, but in the case of new customers, it’s what they think having participated with us at some level. Maybe they’ve bought a product, or engaged in a discussion with us or had some other Interface experience that’s helped them do their job. What’s their resulting impression of our company? That’s our brand image.

We’re a global group, with sales people in some 110 countries. We’re ostensibly delivering the same value proposition around the globe, so we would be thrilled to find that, whether you’re in the UK or Saudi Arabia or New York City, our customers say, ‘Interface is the kind of company that’s really behind me, wants to help, is very collaborative, and always tries to do the right thing.’

Bm: So that’s the nature of brand image — what is its importance?

CD: It’s super important. We’ve been in business for about 50 years, and we’ve got pretty tough competition. So how do we separate ourselves from other firms in the same B2B arena?

It comes down to whether or not customers believe we are doing the things that they want to associate with. That may be in terms of product performance, or in a general sense about corporate responsibility, or most likely, both. For example, how do we deal with our materials and processes as a company that acts responsibly towards the earth?

That’s important to our specification customer, and even to our end-use customer.  Specification customers —  which is to say, architectural designers — certainly value those company attributes. And in a situation where all other factors are equal, they’re going to go with us because we’re trying to do the right thing in a broad way.

Bm: Your brand image emanates not just from a product value proposition, but actually from a set of brand values, one that aligns with customer expectations?

CD: I believe so. But our values aren’t necessarily our values because we think the customers will find them fashionable. Instead, we’re always trying to design a better way. We try to be genuine and generous. We try to inspire others around us in our day-to-day activities — certainly around sustainability, which is a major component of who we are. We try to think about the impact of what we’re doing today and tomorrow, both in our products and in our processes. Those are things we hold dear — and again, that’s not necessarily because they align with our customers’ expectations and desires. That said, I think that one of the main reasons we’re a leader in this category is because we do share a lot of the same values that our specification customers and end-use customers hold dear.

Also, if an organization like ours, which is part of the textiles industry — one of the “smokestack” categories — can become known as one of the most generous companies, a company that loves the earth and pays attention to all constituencies (but also makes money), well then maybe we can be an example for our customers in terms of how they do their business.

“So much of what really convinces customers, in terms of brand image, is experiential.”

Bm: How exactly do you become known as ‘one of the most generous companies?’ Are we talking communications here or something deeper?

CD: Much deeper. I believe brand image is hard to fabricate. Oh, you can run a campaign and do a really good job of it, but ultimately, so much of what really convinces customers, in terms of brand image, is experiential. That means you actually have to be who you say you are. You need to focus on the things you say you’ll do so that the customer can see and feel your impact.

Sometimes we’re not the best at ad campaigns or promotions, but we do make sure we’re publishing about our progress on our broader mission, our commitment to showing that sustainability is better for business. In essence, we’re validating that we’re who we say we are.

And it’s not just about claiming aspirational goals on sustainability. We also like to say that ‘through the process of redesigning ourselves, we hope to be a catalyst for the redesign of our global industry.’ So we make sure we’re helping customers realize better spaces, helping them think about floor covering differently. And we make sure we share the voices of other customers – that seems to hold a lot more weight than running a clever ad campaign for a couple of years.

Bm: So actions speak louder than ad copy?

CD:  Yes, but some of those actions wouldn’t be visible to a customer unless we showed them. They’ll certainly see and feel the relationship with our sales people, installation crews, technical and design support…but will they know that, say, we’re changing supply chains to be cyclical, to improve our environmental impact? Not unless we tell them. Not unless we publish what we’re doing.

Bm: Is it fair to say your customers are a creative breed… and does that provide any extra challenge or add any extra pressure to have a good brand image?

CD: Our customers are absolutely creative — they’re all designers, but that means they’re pragmatists as much as they are romantics. We need to make sure we’re inspiring them and giving them new tools to work with, while at the same time making them feel good about themselves, their sources, and the materials they’re using.

I believe that even if you’re delivering a good product, the brand doesn’t begin or end with just product. In our case, and for our brand image, there are all sorts of additional considerations. Who are our partners for raw materials? What does our supply chain look like? How are we buying energy? And as I mentioned earlier, these are the unseen things we need to make visible to our customers – customers who aren’t just buying gray rolls of carpet as inexpensively as they can. They want it to look good, but they also want to feel good about it.

“It’s brand image that keeps us at the table.”

Bm: Does creating this deeper sort of brand image help you on a practical basis, say with improving purchase intent, loyalty, or even the ability to command a premium?

CD: No doubt about it. We operate all around the globe and get really stiff competition from places like Asia — but unless a competitive situation is acutely price-driven, the fact that our brand has helped us build customer relationships and loyalty will at least get us a second look on an RFP. In other words, it’s brand image that keeps us at the table.

Bm: And you see that paying off at the bottom line?

CD: At the end of the day, I’d say our stock ‘punches above its weight’ because of our brand image.

Bm: It’s tough to make a better case for creating a strong B2B brand image than that.

For more insights on building B2B brand image from this author’s experience, and elaboration on DeGrace’s point of “brands needing to actually be what they claim to be” see the video and read our free eBook from Branding Roundtable No. 8 – The Challenge of Rebranding.

Image: Interface via Facebook