Guest opinion by Paul Roberts
Thirty years ago, adverts on TV and radio and in print publications focused solely on products and services.
We bought Diet Coke because we saw a sweaty builder drinking a can, to the delight of female office workers, or Milk Tray because a box of chocolates was routinely delivered to a bored socialite by a man in a black polo neck.
Following the digital revolution, adverts now appear across a significantly wider range of media, but that’s not all that has changed.
Today, advertising makes little, if any, direct reference to the products or services being promoted because, for the advertiser, it’s more lucrative to promote the brand.
In the modern marketing world, it’s the brand that does all the heavy lifting and it’s a strategy that clearly works. But what happens when the brand misfires?
A common refrain among many customers and investors is that they just don’t know what the brand stands for.
Paul Jones, Senior Investment Manager with the British Business Bank, was quoted recently as saying: “After five or ten minutes of listening to some entrepreneurs seeking funds, nine times out of ten I find myself trying to play back what it is that they actually do.”
The reason why branding has become so important, particularly for business-to-consumer (B2C) companies, can be explained in a single word – ‘differentiation’.
A generation ago, competition for space on supermarket shelves was limited to a handful of brands of soft drinks, toothbrushes, jars of condiments etc. Today, there are literally hundreds of each, all fighting for the same retail space.
What marks-out each product as better, cheaper, tastier, healthier, or longer lasting is articulated in their brand identity.
Jeff Bezos hit the nail on the head when he said: ‘Your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room.’
The market has changed significantly and B2C companies with recognised and properly defined brands are reaping the benefits. As well as establishing themselves in the market and building a loyal customer base, they have also spent time refining their messaging and marketing strategies, in response to detailed customer feedback and market trends.
But what about business-to-business (B2B) companies that don’t have established and instantly recognisable brand identities, nor access to ongoing customer feedback?
Legal or accountancy practices, quantity surveyors, architects, financial services providers, fintech companies – or any other professional services firm – seeking to launch, develop or measure the effectiveness of their brand, will immediately be faced with two challenges.
The first is to define their brand in a way that differentiates them from their competitors, while the second is to measure the effectiveness of their brand.
They need to do this to determine whether what they are telling the market about the quality, effectiveness, and reliability of the services they provide chimes with what their clients are saying about them.
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos hit the nail on the head when he said: “Your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room.”
Many B2B businesses tend to see their brand in terms of how they want it to be rather than how people on the outside see it. That is known as an ‘inside out’ view of a brand and the difference between those perceptions is the “brand gap”.
In contrast, a strong outside-in brand is one that is clear about what the product or service does and is equally effective in pushing out that message. What the brand tells the market accurately reflects what its customers are experiencing.
Because word-of-mouth referrals from existing clients remain the gold standard of sales leads for B2B companies, it is critically important for them to know what their clients think about them.
Always-on client listening is the most effective way to ensure where and how your brand is working well and to identify areas where additional work is needed
If clients are underwhelmed or they think a brand is failing to deliver on its promises, they are likely to articulate those feelings verbally, or in writing, through private and public feedback channels.
Many large B2C companies will have the benefit of regular customer feedback through market research panels and through social media platforms, often with millions of followers?
Because B2B businesses are less likely to have those trackers constantly monitoring and reporting back on their performance, they will be less well informed, on an ongoing basis, about whether their brand promises are accurately reflected in the experience of their clients.
Many will dedicate the bulk of their marketing resources to pushing their brand message out while doing less – or nothing at all – to measure its effectiveness and to identify and measure the extent of the brand gap.
The latter may be done by commissioning market research once every three or four years, but that approach tends to be sporadic and unreliable because often, by the time the research findings are published, they are out of date or have been superseded by other issues and problems.
The most successful B2B firms are those which have adopted the mindset of the B2C marketer, by constantly listening to what their clients are saying about them and acting on the feedback.
Modern marketing technology now allows even the smallest professional services firm to constantly listen to what their clients are saying about them and to ask more brand-related questions in their customer feedback processes.
The always-on nature of the technology means B2B firms can constantly receive feedback back from clients, telling them how their brand is tracking, while sophisticated text analytics software can locate and measure brand-related comments, regardless of what clients are talking about.
Equally important is its ability to identify what clients are not talking about. A financial services firm whose brand stands for strong innovation and expertise will want to see those qualities reflected in customer feedback.
If client chatter is all about innovation, while expertise is rarely mentioned, this may suggest aspects of the firm’s brand messaging is misfiring.
It may be a signal that one or more areas of the business are not delivering on this aspect of the brand promise or, equally, that the brand messaging needs to be tweaked to reflect better the things that those areas of the business are doing well.
Effective client listening is often about facilitating marketing teams to help the rest of the business to make messaging more consistent. It’s not about marketing departments being told they are wrong, but rather it’s about helping them to influence the business more effectively.
Always-on client listening is the most effective way to ensure where and how your brand is working well and to identify areas where additional work is needed.
Acting on feedback allows you to deliver more and better on your brand promises, which means you will be better differentiated in a positive effective way and benefit more from word-of-mouth referrals.
The Milk Tray man may now be collecting his pension, but the business of selling and marketing continues to evolve and flourish in new and exciting ways.
Paul Roberts is CEO of MyCustomerLens, an AI-driven, always-on client listening platform for professional services firms
Watch: And all because the lady loves Milk Tray
Watch: Him take a Diet Coke break