Each day brings us closer to reaching a seemingly triumphant exit from spending over a year of our lives in some form of lockdown. The global economy itself seems poised to take off; the expected speed bumps in that process notwithstanding. Leading indicators and economic forecasts point to significant corporate growth over the next three years. Large enterprises all over the world are beginning to open their wallets again and invest in their businesses as they plan for 2022 and beyond. Brace yourselves, B2B marketing and sales professionals, a “golden age” of B2B business activity may be in our immediate future.

What will not be lost on the successful branding executives of the future is that the rules of the B2B marketing game have forever changed. Even as the crisis of the pandemic slowly dissipates, successful B2B branding tactics will not revert to what they were before 2020. The way your audience thinks about your brand and the way they make purchasing decisions have changed—and your brand must evolve, too.

B2B brands need to be more human

Stewards of B2B brands have rarely been comfortable allowing their brands to “let their hair down.” Despite the stampede of B2C brands over the last 20 years embracing their humanity, B2B has fallen woefully short in the brand personality department.

More conservative B2B brands (yes, I’m talking to you, professional services) have always feared sacrificing some of their professional reputation and credibility if they showed too much flair. It’s an understandable concern, but also one that has always been unfounded.

The last 14 months have greatly accelerated a trend that had been on the horizon for the last five years. B2B brands should showcase their humanity. Our agency has been inundated with calls from organizations that seek help to redefine their messaging and position their brand platforms to showcase their beliefs and mission—not just about their place in the business world, but in the entire world, too.

The time is right to take this step. A WPP study conducted after the onset of the pandemic revealed that 62% of consumers feel that companies should continue to communicate with them during the crisis with a particular emphasis on what they are doing to assist their customers and community during challenging times.

Despite the traditional stodginess of B2B dialogue, at its core, it is still human-to-human. Your audience values authenticity now more than ever. Don’t be afraid to tell them what you believe in and why. Showcase your values and ethics.

It’s okay for your B2B brand to have a sense of humor

If making your B2B brand more human doesn’t make your CEO cringe, how about also making your brand a little more fun? Cracking the occasional well-timed joke and tongue-in-cheek one liner is no longer reserved only for B2C marketers with their audiences.

In 2020, marketing research firm Dynata conducted a study exploring if B2B organizations’ reluctance to using humor in advertising and brand communications was justified. According to the study, 91% of the 400+ B2B professionals surveyed said humorous ads can attract attention; 86% said humorous ads can reinforce brand recognition; and 81% said such ads raise awareness. Even more impactful was the fact that humorous ads were 75% more effective in driving website visits and boosted online search by more than 400%. A B2B brand can occasionally be funny and still maintain its professional reputation, and now we have data to back up the positive impact it can have.

It’s been a tough year for all of us. Your audience will appreciate clever and appropriate humor in your advertising and communications. Push your brand out of its comfort zone—a little humor can provide a serious lift to your brand health.

The death of the handshake has been greatly exaggerated

It has been incredible to witness the massive advancements in leveraging digital technology during the past year. By some accounts, organizational adoption of digital technology from April through August of 2020 was on a scale that typically takes five years to occur. Trade shows went virtual; sales presentations took place on Zoom; and millions of professionals around the world were given unprecedented autonomy and resources to work from home on their own terms. In turn, marketers found new ways to connect with their remote audiences.

Thankfully, those new trends are mostly here to stay. But B2B organizations that have long relied on building meaningful and personal relationships with their prospects and clients would be foolish not to get reacquainted with contacts they haven’t seen in a year.

Yes, virtual tradeshows aren’t going anywhere (and hopefully they improve); but as in-person events return, don’t miss the opportunity to connect with your industry colleagues in person when the time is right.

As naturally social creatures, there is a connection that takes place during in-person meetings that can’t be easily replicated on a computer screen. As COVID transmission concerns continue to decrease, your audience will be eager to see you again.

Don’t shy away from visiting your clients and prospects when you can. I personally have heard of two major B2B purchasing decisions made in the last week where a prominent reason in selecting one competitor over the other was that the selected B2B provider took the time to visit the prospect on location to personally meet them and understand their needs. The provider that lost chose an approach that was entirely digital.

B2B buying decisions are surprisingly emotional ones for your prospects. In fact, a study by Gartner suggests that 80% of a B2B purchasing decision is based on the buyer’s experience with your brand, while less than 20% is based on price or the actual offering. Your audience needs to know you and trust your brand before they risk vouching for you to their company and buying your offering. After all, their professional reputation is on the line when they endorse you for a major enterprise purchase.

Keep playing the long game

In challenging economic times, it is not uncommon to see B2C brands reduce or eliminate their branding and marketing efforts to reduce expenses. We’ve all witnessed this last year particularly in the restaurant, hospitality, and tourism industries.

This is a practice that should never be followed in B2B branding. But with some B2B organizations spending in excess of 10% of their operating costs on marketing efforts, the temptation to cut back during downturns can be powerful.

B2B enterprise transactions are typically characterized by longer sales cycles and more expensive transactions than those in B2C. The focus in building a B2B brand involves focusing on longer-term goals: creating lasting demand, maximizing brand impressions, and reducing price sensitivity. It takes time and consistency to do this correctly. The success of B2B branding efforts should not be measured by weekly sales (like we often see in B2C), but instead realized over the course of fiscal quarters and years. It often takes a long time for these investments in your brand to be realized, but they are critical to the long-term viability of your organization.

Your marketing investment should be tied to fueling your organization’s revenue stream. Cutting back on this investment is the equivalent of releasing the handle of the gas pump: the revenue needed to propel your company will slow to a trickle.

B2B branding and marketing efforts should not be considered just a part of a long-term growth strategy—it is the growth strategy. When the pandemic hit and the bottom fell out of everyone’s annual business plans, smart B2B CEOs turned to marketing for answers and guidance on how to respond to customers. Short-sighted CEOs cut their branding and marketing departments.

Times like these are opportunities for B2B organizations to become more visible, be more memorable, and fill the void in the market that was created when your competitors scaled back. Building brand awareness and driving sales activation must be an uninterrupted effort. Any loss of momentum in this pursuit creates a ripple effect that is often felt for years as organizations struggle to catch up with the competitors who maintained a longer-term vision of building the brand and pushed through the temporary challenges. Keep your foot on the gas.

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