What Makes a Brand in B2B?

Part 1 of IRCG’s Distributor Branding Series

Brands are all around us. Most people can identify iconic brands and point out many of the traits that make them unique, but few can clearly define what branding is or explain why it is important to have a branding strategy. In the first part of this four-part series, IRCG Associate Consultant Dan Horan argues that a company brand is defined by much more than its logos or letterhead and outlines branding guidelines that lead to loyal customers.

What is a brand? The American Marketing Association defines a brand as: “A name, term, sign, symbol or design, or a combination of them intended to identify the goods and services of one seller or group of sellers and to differentiate them from those of other sellers.” I would argue that this definition is too narrow, that these elements in themselves are not a brand. Things like logos and slogans are “brand assets” that, only when combined with a company’s voice, tone and visual identity, contribute to a brand.

It’s true that logos are important for brand recognition. Intel’s “Intel Inside” logo, for example, helped customers distinguish between premium, Intel-powered computers and competitor products. The logo itself, though, would have been meaningless to customers if it had represented a sub-par product, or if it had existed without the support of an accompanying marketing campaign and Intel’s unique OEM marketing partnership.

A brand is made up of much more than your company’s logo or letterhead. Think of the Intel Inside “chime,” 3M’s iconic red packaging, Salesforce’s reputation for customizability or Oracle Founder Larry Ellison’s entertaining “rags to riches” story. None of these are a company’s logo, but they all contribute to a brand.

Paul Rand, the designer behind the iconic logos of ABC, IBM and UPS, said a logo “derives meaning from the quality of the thing it symbolizes, not the other way around.”

So a brand is more than the sum of its brand assets, more even than the image a company attempts to project through marketing and graphic design efforts. A brand is best defined as a customer’s perception of a specific product, service or company.

The key to this statement is a customer’s perception. It means your brand is not yours – it belongs to your customers. Intuit’s Scott Cook said, “A brand is no longer what we tell the consumer it is – it is what consumers tell each other it is.” It consists of both the tangible attributes of your brand (what customers can see, hear, taste or touch) as well as the emotional ones (how their direct or indirect experiences with your company – for better or for worse – make them feel).

It is created through the actions and interactions of every department, every operation and every employee. It is the way your customer service people answer the phone, the packaging you use, the vehicles your sales team drives and the services you offer. Even employees that are not customer-facing have an indirect impact on your brand.

A brand, broadly defined, is your first impression. In “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking,” Malcolm Gladwell writes that “Buyers make most decisions by relying on their two-second first impressions based on stored memories, images and feelings.” This impression is unique to each person, and it is constantly evolving your brand through each new customer interaction.

In B2B, where sales cycles are long and customer interactions occur regularly over a long period of time, brand impressions can make or break relationships. You could have dozens of great engagements with a customer (most you won’t ever know about) under your belt only to have one bad impression or interaction change your customer’s view of your company, requiring many new positive future interactions to rebuild the favorability of your brand.

Your brand is not something created solely by your marketing department, nor defined by something as simple and dimensionless as a logo. Your brand touches every aspect of your business, defined by everything you do.

How strong is your company brand? Find out by:

  1. Directly asking customers about their perception of your brand. Find out how both your “good” and “difficult” customers describe you to their friends, colleagues and customers. Don’t rely on your outside sales team for meaningful insights. If possible, have someone in a leadership position conduct these interviews to make customers feel special and encourage them to talk.
  2. Asking for suppliers’ perspectives on your brand. Do they value it? Do they feature you as a customer on their website or promotional material? If so, why? How does your company image compare to your competitors’, and what specifically do your suppliers like or dislike about working with you? Try to dig deeper than how they feel about your operations, logistics and sales processes to get to the heart of what they think makes for a strong brand.
  3. Comparing supply chain partner priorities with your own. Suppose your customers tell you that they place the highest value on working with a distributor with a reputation for helping select the right products for the right applications. Are your KPIs and resources aligned with this customer priority? Put metrics in place to assess your performance in this area, and leverage that data to identify investment areas with the highest potential ROI.

In the next blog in this series, I’ll discuss how to develop a consistent branding strategy that helps successful companies build a loyal customer base. To be notified when that post and other new blogs are published, join our “Industry Insights” email list via the form at the bottom-right corner of this page.

Dan Horan contributed this article.