Why is it that so many B2B brands struggle to differentiate themselves? 

My theory: it’s that they have yet to get real. Many B2B brands are working to project themselves in a business-like way that they believe will be appealing to other businesses, so much so that they forget about the real people decision-makers who they are selling to. 

Most common B2B sales challenges

Many B2B businesses operate in very crowded competitive environments. Often, on the surface, the solutions they offer are similar to what others offer. Dare I say, many B2B brands are at risk of being commoditized unless they find a way to differentiate beyond the specific services they provide.

Importantly, B2B brands need to have substantial lead generation capability, a skilled and savvy sales team, content marketing, and effective customer relationship management tactics. These competencies on their own, however, are not enough.

The challenges facing B2B companies, especially in the professional services space, are all too common. Many articles have similar lists of challenges; a lack of alignment between sales and marketing, not having enough quality leads, long sales cycles, getting to decision-makers, and demonstrating ROI. 

The real challenge for many B2B brands

Let’s get real. One of the biggest challenges often left off the list is more foundational than these commonly stated hurdles. 

The biggest challenge B2B brands often face is a lack of having something compelling to say to spark desire for what it has to offer. When brand messaging is undifferentiated, companies are unable to make their brand stand out as uniquely different or personally desirable.

How many times have you heard multiple brands using the same talking points? B2B brand messaging often defaults to talking about partnership, innovation, being a trusted advisor, custom-designed solutions, driving success, creating synergies, integration, exceeding your expectations, one-stop-shopping… the list goes on. 

But wait, there’s more. How about heavily used cliche statements like: “Your success is our Business”, “Work Smarter. Not Harder.”, “Helping your business thrive” or “Your better tomorrow starts today.” The biggest problem with language like this is that it creates a sea of sameness, in a way that unsuccessfully tries to push the envelope – to use one, make that two, last clichés.

Not only is this kind of language familiar, it’s not what real people respond to. Jargon and clichés in marketing create distance between the brand and its desired customer. When something feels so familiar and so inauthentic, it is either completely ignorable, or even worse, a turn-off.

What sparks brand desire?

We are emotional beings. In our personal lives and in our work environment, we are moved by things that we care about or that capture our instinctive attention. It’s this tension between our unconscious instincts and conscious decisions that is so important to understand.

It’s no surprise that B2B brands often rely on lists of services, proof points and all-to-familiar language in their marketing. Our training and biases as marketers have taught us to flood our brand messaging with rational proof points and reasons to believe. Not only have we always been doing it this way, but our rational minds make us believe that this is how to attract the attention of business people – rationally, with lots of data and justification.

It is true that people will ultimately go through a conscious evaluation process before making an important purchase for their business. They’ll want to understand all the services and features. They’ll want to have confidence that it’s a worthwhile investment. You know, they need to “sell it up the chain” and be sure it’s a “win-win”.

That said, how you ultimately close the sale is different from how you stand apart as a brand. This is why understanding how our instinctive emotional responses impact brand desire is so important.

“What we continue to find is that what really motivates most of us to do most of the things we do, most of the time, has less to do with conscious reasoning than we thought. Emotion is a powerful driver of our choices, perceptions, conscious considerations, and the narratives we construct about them. The most rational evaluations we make depend on a million imperceptible cognitive ‘shortcuts’ that function just like emotions.” Cyrus McCandless, PhD, SVP Scientific Discovery & Innovation at Sentient Decision Science, goes on to say, “Brand leaders should seek to better understand why consumers really choose their brand over competitors. Very often, the most powerful reasons are emotional or intuitive.”

Importantly, B2B brands would benefit from standing apart in an emotive and compelling way, at the earliest stages of someone’s interaction with the brand. It’s those first moments where people are evaluating, often instinctively and subconsciously, “what’s in it for me?”. Their interest is either piqued or not, then they move forward.

When we use category generic language, we become invisible. However, when we use specific messaging that gets to the heart of what people care about, we have a much better chance of sparking their attention and desire.  

3 Ways to differentiate and spark brand desire

1: Get real about brand strategy
To truly differentiate your brand, it’s important to invest time and resources in clarifying what sets your company apart. What are you incredibly good at and what meaningful benefits do people get from it? I sometimes hear business leaders question the value of brand strategy before they launch a new website, marketing campaign or account-based management program. “We don’t have time or budget for that” or “we don’t need that” they say. Instead, they invest their budget in sales tactics without differentiated or compelling talking points.In my work, the most effective brand strategies come from discovering the intersection of what’s most motivating to both the brand and its audience.

This not only clarifies how you are meaningfully different from any other available option, but it also ensures that it will be conveyed in a way that is relevant to what people care most about. The more alternatives there are to choose from, the more important this is. If your website, pitch decks, sales team, CRM blasts and blog posts are simply repackaging the same talking points as everyone else in your industry, you’re not differentiated. Simply put by Bernard Kelvin Clive, “Without differentiation, you have no brand.”

2: Get real about emotional brand benefits
To truly differentiate your brand, it’s important to be specific about the unique impact that you have on clients’ businesses. What are the most desired benefits that clients get from you and how does it make their lives better? I work with a brand that provides businesses with a SaaS solution that is truly unique and has transformational impact on the businesses that use it. Historically, however, their brand messaging has been relying on a lot of industry jargon about helping businesses be more successful.

Due to the familiar and non-specific language, what the company does and why it matters was very unclear until salespeople got into a room with potential clients. I was told, “people don’t really understand what we do until they see a demo.” My curiosity was, how many potential clients are you not getting because you lose their attention before the demo?

Now, we’ve eliminated the jargon and replaced it with language that is much more specific about the transformational impact that this SaaS solution has on a client’s business. This approach is more emotive and effective because brand messaging now overtly shares the outcome of eliminating one of the biggest challenges that these businesses contend with, instinctively sparking their desire to find out more.

3: Get real about emphasizing customer experience
To truly differentiate your brand, it’s important to recognize how much brand experience plays a role in customer desire and loyalty. How does your brand experience make people feel and would that be a compelling benefit for others who want the same experience? Often, differentiation isn’t about the things you offer, it’s rooted in the style of service you provide, and the feelings your clients get as a result of interacting with you. Proven by Forrester over and over again, “emotion is the largest driver of brand loyalty”. How your brand experience makes people feel has the most impact on future business.

I work with a brand in the IT services space. They do the same things as many of their competitors. What sets them apart, however, is their customer experience, which is designed specifically to address people’s frustrations with many other service providers in their field. So instead of emphasizing their service offering, their brand messaging is now focused on the experiential benefits that their clients are so happy with – incredibly fast response and resolution times, accommodating client schedules, proactive guidance to prevent future problems, and enabling clients to focus on running their business without disruption.

The work we’ve done together identified that the customer experience is what clients love most about this brand and drives the greatest loyalty. We also recognized that potential clients are seeking the same benefits. Now, sales are going up at a faster rate with the brand experience being featured as the primary differentiator, on the website and in sales discussions. Brilliantly said by Kerry Bodine, customer experience consultant and former Forrester analyst, “Exceptional customer experiences are the only sustainable differentiation.”

Time to get real about brand differentiation

It’s time to set your B2B brand apart. The thing is, you can’t pretend that your brand messaging is one business talking to another business. You must recognize that there’s a person on the other side of that message who thinks, feels, and reacts first as a person. 

Our instinctive emotional responses play an outsized role in guiding what we pay attention to and our future behaviors. If you want to spark desire for your B2B brand, start with understanding what matters most to people who you’re trying to reach, and let them know specifically how your brand will make their life, and business, better.

Cover image source: Dan Meyers