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Chris Schermer
December 5, 2016
Building a B2B Brand Starts With Stories, Not Standards
By | Schermer.co

As a B2B marketing agency, SCHERMER is often asked to do “branding”. Typically, it’s marketers who want help with their brand positioning, messaging and identity so that they can create more consistent and compelling communications.

These initiatives generally spawn a standards manual, website and marketing campaign, but not truly complete and compelling brand experiences – which is why most branding initiatives fall flat and fail fast both internally and externally.

However, some B2B companies we’ve worked with over the past few years had a different intention. They wanted to make the shift from a product-focused to a purpose-driven brand, starting with the experience – not the end – in mind.

Purpose-driven brands are different. They focus on their “why” – why they exist and what they do for customers, rather than what their products do or how they work. In other words, a reason to be (brand) vs. a reason to buy (value proposition).

What makes defining a brand more difficult for B2B companies is that a brand is not typically a single product with an easy to tell story (like beef jerky and Sasquatch). Instead, it’s the sum of an entire solution or experience that is often unique for every different employee or customer. And it’s a story only they are qualified to tell.

So, if a brand is unique experience, it can’t just be relegated to identity, or even messaging management as it is typically defined and usually policed. Instead, it’s an experience delivered through multiple moments and touchpoints – from how the product performs, to how people order the product, to how easy it is talk about it with others. These moments make up a customer’s total brand experience, so they all need to be defined and designed experiences from start to finish. Companies therefore mustn’t go into a branding initiative with the intent to design the standards, but to discover their purpose and deliver it in stories.

One of my favorite examples of how a company’s stories shaped its brand comes from a tech manufacturer we worked with a few years ago. In an input session with a broad range of marketers, engineers and sales people, we asked: “Tell us what your company makes.” The participants attempted to explain the company, with answers ranging from “We make flex circuits” to “We engineer flex circuits” to “We engineer, design and manufacture flex circuits for customers”. Their words were oriented around defining them and what they make, instead of what they do and why they do it.

But then we asked them “Tell us what your company does.” They lit up, telling us story after story that was fascinating and exciting. Stories you’d never suspect a Flex Circuit manufacturing employee would tell. One person told us about their circuits and heaters aboard NASA’s Cassini space probe that is currently circling Saturn. Our minds pictured colorful, mysterious images we’d seen, not the thousands of parts and millions of lines of code that made it possible. They told us that the imaging equipment aboard Cassini was dormant during the seven-year trip, until their components were activated, warming up and powering the equipment that has sent us all those incredible pictures we’ve marveled at for years. Imagine not knowing if your product would work for seven years, and that billions of dollars and countless hours depended the reliability of your tiny little circuit. Now, imagine having the confidence that it would. They did.

The last story I loved most though. A product manager, reserved until that point, said in a quiet but passionate voice, “I’ll tell you what our company does. One of our flex circuits is in the pacemaker inside of my father in law’s chest. That circuit will deliver the charge that saves his life. So, we make components that work. Every time. No matter what. Because if they don’t, people die.” There was a beat of silence. Out of respect, but also out of realization. Realization that they didn’t make just flexible electronic components. They make something much more – they make “critical components for critical applications.” That promise did more than standardize their marketing, it inspired customers and galvanized the workforce from the top floor to the plant floor. It also drove sales in the year after by 33% – a remarkable achievement for a privately held, 50-year-old company, and a true testament to the power of stories.

When a clear and compelling purpose is defined and designed in a way people can believe, embrace and share, they will feel empowered to deliver their own version of a consistent and compelling brand in the moments and touchpoints that matter most – the ones that marketers may inspire but can’t control.

With this inside/out approach, we see time and time again an increase in strategic alignment at both the organizational and individual levels. In fact, employees start to self-police the brand expression because they see themselves as brand stewards. So do customers in the best circumstances. The execution of the brand then becomes seamlessly delivered across all touchpoints, experiences and interactions, positioning the company for success in the minds of employees, partners and customers.

Sure, brand guidelines, messaging, campaigns, websites and other digital experiences are necessary to formalize the expression of the brand. Those are the building blocks for a consistent brand experience. But to make your experience compelling, you’ve got to get at the stories that matter most, and then get them into the hands and hearts of the people who matter most – your employees and customers.