B2B Research

From Steve Jobs to the Samwer Brothers, every great business is built upon a rigorous understanding of the market in which it operates.

The B2B world is certainly no exception. Your strategy can only be as strong as the data that informs it. Most strategies are doomed to mediocrity for the simple reason that the people behind it, no matter how creatively gifted, well intentioned and hard working, just have too many blind spots.

In simple terms, there are 4 elements to this research:

  • The business – who are they and what do they do? What are their strengths, weaknesses, threats and opportunities? What is their vision and how do they plan to make that a reality? 80% of this can usually be garnered from the founder/CEO, but interviews with senior management, junior employees and external parties are key in building up a complete picture.
  • The audience – how do you segment your audience and what are the common threads that tie them together? What do these people care about most and how can you satisfy that? What motivates them at an emotional and self expressive level, and how will they rationalise that (as decision makers always will within a B2B context)?
  • The competition – who are the main competitors and where are they positioned in the market? What do they do really well and what are they bad at? This competitor analysis has implications at both a strategic level (you want to “position” your brand (more on that below) away from the dominant names) and at a tactical level (what channel activities are they employing that you can poach and replicate?
  • Broader factors that will shape the above over the next decade – this is very market dependent but in almost all sectors you will need to consider technology, culture, politics and the environment.

Branding Your Firm

The Brand

There is a huge misconception that brands are somehow less impactful within a B2B context. The logic goes that business decision makers, unlike consumers, are so rational in their thought process that ultimately it’s about functions, features, benefits and credibility. Package that up into a compelling value proposition and the customers will flood in.

Nonsense. Decision makers are every bit as emotionally charged as their consumer counterparts. All the detail does is enable the person to rationalise the decision they’ve already made.

This mistaken perception of B2B brand development also exposes another flaw in understanding; that brand is somehow a vague and abstract thing that only exists on a deep, visceral level.

On the contrary, brand is every moment of every interaction that a customer has with your business, from how you answer the phone to the delivery service you use for your products. It’s the events you attend, the insight you share and the networks you develop.

Brand is everything.


Core competence

The first step to developing a brand identity is to establish the core competencies of the business. What is it that no matter how the business evolves or what product/service lines are added in the future, will always define and distinguish it from the rest of the market?

This can be established by asking the following questions:

  • What are we brilliant at?
  • What matters most to our audience
  • What are our competitors neglecting

The intersection of these three answers represents your core competence. Ideally this will be one thing, but that typically requires:

  • You to be operating in a new market
  • You to be operating in a niche market
  • You to have significant budgets so that you can out-invest your competitors in nailing that one thing, both at an operational level and communications level (think McDonald’s and how they own “dining convenience” in a hugely saturated space)

For most companies in most markets, focusing on one thing won’t offer the differentiation they need. Instead, they must bring together two or three complimentary traits. The great accountancy firm that are also technology experts, for example, or the software company that focuses on solving problems for HR departments in a spectacularly user friendly way.

Understanding these core competences and building that into the very fabric of your organisation, is utterly essential if your brand identity is to stand for anything real.


B2B Brand Positioning

Brand positioning can be summed up as follows – what you do and who you do it for.

We have already answered the first part (core competence) so the question is who you do it for?

For example:

  • Are you an accountancy firm that specialises in Xero solutions for small businesses?
  • Are you a corporate law firm for technology companies?
  • Are you a software company that builds financial platforms for global enterprises?

Once your positioning is clear, your entire communications strategy will have a focus and purpose that most companies couldn’t dream of.


B2B Brand Vision

This is a point of some conflict between brand experts – does every brand need to have an ambitious and lofty vision beyond the gathering of profits? Many would argue that in order to really connect with both customers and employees, it’s important you are providing a compelling meaning beyond mere commercials, and that this is only becoming more important.

Others would argue that there is nothing worse than a corporate entity making up a story or pretending to care about something that it clearly doesn’t. People aren’t idiots. They see through it.

The key point here is authenticity. If you’re going to have a compelling brand vision, and there are stronger arguments than ever that you should, it needs to actually guide both strategy and day to day decision making, rather than just be an afterthought. It also requires an equally lofty and ambitious communications strategy to support and drive it, which we will come onto later.


Broader B2B Brand Architecture

Of course a brand identity goes far beyond core competence, vision and position. Whilst fundamental, those elements alone fail to paint a full picture of the experience you are trying to create (both for customers and employees) and are far too easy for competitors to replicate.

To build a complete identity, we need to look at:

  • Brand as product – this is where we consider the more functional/rational elements of the brand. What are the features and benefits of the product (or service), and what are the key USP’s we should be highlighting within any sales message?
  • Brand as person – rational benefits will only take you so far, even within a B2B context. Decisions are actually taken at a far deeper level, and to influence this we need to define the full personality of the brand. This is particularly true within a B2B context where the brand often manifests itself through real life sales reps and senior executives. What should these people look like? How should they walk, talk and act? This also extends into the digital realm, so it’s key that a clear tone of voice document exists so copy writers can capture the brand personality across every channel, from the blog to Twitter.
  • Brand as organisation – essentially, these are the values of the company, and they should be established by asking the question – what are the core traits that our leaders and most successful employees share? These qualities must be clearly defined and mechanisms built to embed them into the very fabric of the organisation, while behaviours that contradict and undermine these values should be met with a zero tolerance response, no matter how talented the offender.
  • Brand as symbol – finally, we need to look at how the brand is represented visually. With all of the above in place, the questions of typeface, colour palettes, user imagery and logo are relatively straightforward. The mistake most B2B brands fail to avoid is that of being too cautious. There is a misunderstanding, particularly among corporate companies, that customers value safety and trust so much that they would rather buy from a brand with a conventional, traditional aesthetic, rather than from one that stood out. In the vast majority of B2B markets, this simply isn’t true. Yes, customers value trust, but that is merely a hygiene factor. You need to give them a reason to engage with you over your competition, and that unique positioning and powerful personality must be communicated in your visual identity.


Value proposition and credibility

The final stage of the brand development process for any B2B organisation, is to organise the various benefits that have emerged during its construction (emotional, rational and self expressive) into a compelling value proposition, ideally of no more than a couple of sentences. This then acts as the elevator pitch for anyone representing the brand.

Alongside the value proposition, there needs to be an accompanying source of credibility. After all, I could claim to be offer the most powerful enterprise AI software in the world, and all for a modest subscription of £500 a month, but if nobody believes me then it isn’t going to count for much. This credibility could come from a range of sources, such as case studies, big brand affiliations, press coverage or awards.


B2B Content Marketing

Now that we have a fully developed brand identity, it’s time to create an equally thorough content marketing strategy.

This should begin with an ambitious goal for the content, which should ideally be to help facilitate the vision of the brand itself. So, for example, if the parent brand vision is to “transform customer experience within the market”, then the content strategy should seek to support that. What content would expose the current failings in the market? Which influencers could you engage with and celebrate to showcase how things should be done instead?

A key part of the content strategy should be to identify the key themes that interest your audience. For example, if I’m running the marketing for a technology company that’s hoping to sell software into the owners of SME’s, I need to consider what it is that would engage these decision makers. Likely themes may include leadership, strategy, sales and marketing. I also want to include a “pillar” that relates to my world, but it’s important I begin on the terms of my audience, otherwise it will never capture their attention.


B2B Influencer Marketing

Once the framework is in place for your content, the next step is to identify those individuals within your target market that hold influence. People often think that consumer markets have a monopoly on influencers, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact influencers have always played a key role in B2B markets, long before the rise of instagram. When you go to an industry event, the people speaking on a panel are influencers. The CEO’s of huge organisations are influencers. The founders of disruptive start-ups are influencers.

Your objective should be to identify those that not only carry significant sway over your audience, but that have something interesting to say and you feel will represent your brand well. By engaging with these people you are not only going to capture incredible content, but you’ll raise the credibility of your brand and extend your reach, as by definition these people have significant audiences of their own and their audience is the one you want to get in front of!

Channel Activity

Channel Activity

The exact makeup of channel activity will depend on the business in question and, more importantly, their audience. However, there are a number of channels that are likely to play a key role for any B2B organisation:

  • Search engine optimisation – there are only two assets you own online as a B2B organisation. One is your website domain and the content on it. Building this content each month to offer an ever more rich and comprehensive user experience that caters to an constantly expanding range of search queries, will help ensure your website is able to generate more value to your business, month after month. This compound effect can yield transformative results to many B2B organisations. After all, over 70% of all business purchases begin with a search into Google.
  • Email marketing – the other asset you own is your email list. Email is often viewed as a rather tired and old fashioned, but the reality is that for most B2B organisations, from technology companies to HR firms, it has a bigger impact on customer acquisition and retention than any other channel.
  • Social media – a lot of attention has been given to social media for B2B brands in recent years, and it certainly has a role to play., but it’s important to understand why you are investing in social as it’s the channel where the time, energy and budget is most frequently wasted:
  • Brand positioning and credibility – are you seeking to establish a level of credibility via your social presence and communicate something about your organisation through the kind of content you post? That’s absolutely legitimate if so, particularly for attracting prospective employees, but if so you probably don’t need to be investing too heavily in either frequent content or high levels of promotion. A modest monthly commitment should be adequate.
  • Direct lead acquisition and email capture – can you use the likes of LinkedIn and Facebook to generate lead data and build your email database? This is how most B2B organisations should view social – as a means of filling their pipeline and growing their email asset.
  • PPC – The fastest way to generate Sales Qualified Leads for most B2B brands is to run a PPC campaign. The key is to have a clear Cost Per Acquisition (CPA) strategy in which you understand the lifetime profit value of a customer, and can scale the campaign within these financial parameters to ensure it maintains profitability. This CPA model can be applied to any paid channel.
  • Webinars and events – In the B2B space, webinars play a hugely important role in the customer journey, particularly for more technical audiences. For senior prospects, engaging via offline events is typically more impactful. Ideally, this should all align with the overarching content and influencer strategy, so if you’ve been engaging with key thought leaders in order to capture and distribute great content, it makes sense to place these people at the heart of your events – could they sit on a panel? Could you bring them together for an industry board meeting? This kind of intimate offline event can be a tremendous means of transitioning your online activity into the sales and BD pipeline.


Cost Per Acquisition Modelling

The mecca of any B2B marketing strategy is what we call a Cost Per Acquisition model. This is where the company establishes the cost of leads from each channel, both online and offline, and compares them to the lifetime customer profit value for that product or service line. In simple terms, if the cost of a lead is less than its value (taking into account anticipated conversion rates), then that is a channel that can be scaled.

As part of this, it can be worth distinguishing between the different forms of lead. For most B2B organisations they will fall into two broad brackets:

  • Marketing Qualified Leads – this is where you capture the data of highly targeted individuals along with their permission to be contacted, but there is no explicit need on their side. Likely sources include LinkedIn and Facebook direct response campaigns and email marketing.
  • Sales Qualified Leads – this is where there is a specific need expressed by the lead. Typically SQL’s represent far greater value, but also come at a far higher cost. The most common channel online is search marketing.


There is such a broad array of performance metrics for a B2B organisation to review that there is a danger of the most important being overlooked or diluted. By all means those within the marketing department itself can dig into every last bit of data, but when it comes to creating reports for senior management, we’d recommend limiting it to just one or two metrics within the following categories:

  • Brand metrics – how many people have been exposed to the brand? Who are these people?
  • Engagement metrics – what percentage of the above are be nurtured? How and via what channels?
  • Conversion metrics – how many have been converted into Marketing Qualified Leads or Sales Qualified leads (see definitions above)?

For B2B companies, we’d also typically recommend that from a channel perspective they prioritise the search engines, email marketing and events, as these are the channels that typically act as the greatest direct driver of leads.

Taking it a step further, the company may want to identify a “north star”; one metric that sits above all others and acts as a guiding light for all decision making. The north star should align with the company values, be a reflection of customer experience, and a strong indicator of present and future revenues.

Identifying this one hero metric is hugely challenging, but if you do then it should reported to senior management every single week in the simplest possible format that guarantees people see it, such as SMS.