When you're a small business, startup, or otherwise a non-leader B2B brand, branding
and brand building are often viewed as luxury items, something you embrace after you become
a leader and get rich. Like running a Super Bowl ad or putting your name on a stadium,
brand-level stuff is often considered B2B marketing bling. But this is utterly wrong, and
tragically ironic, because B2B non-leaders have more to gain if they do brand investment right,
and more to lose if they keep languishing in anonymity.
But before we get into that, let's clear something up.
Branding & Brand Building Are Different
Branding is the crafting of a distinctive identity for your business and conveying it through
elements like your brand positioning, appearance, and personality. In short, your brand is
who you are, what you do, why you do it, and who you do it for. Brand building, on the other
hand, promotes, advances, or elevates your brand in some way, explicitly or implicitly.
And these two aren't entirely either/or, there's some overlap. Branding generally tries to
make your brand identity more distinctive and appealing (at least to your target customers).
Brand building tries to make your brand more famous, salient, trusted, respected, and perhaps
more premium and/or authoritative (all of which could also be considered appealing in at least
Confusing, I know. It's easier to explain which is which with an example. When you design a
nice t-shirt with your brand colors and logo for your employees to wear, that's branding.
When you give those t-shirts away, that's brand building. When you see people on the street
wearing those free t-shirts because they like them, that's good brand building. And when
people start buying those t-shirts and wearing them on the street, that's great brand
building, and great branding as well.
Branding & Brand Building Have A Common Purpose
Good brand building and branding strengthen your brand, but in B2B we tend to neglect the
latter. Which is another way of saying that B2B has been marketing with one hand tied behind
ts back. Which is too bad, because strong branding can be powerful, and not just for large
brands, but for smaller ones as well (i.e., Liquid Death
Why B2B Leader Brands Do Branding & Brand Building
B2B brand-level efforts are often viewed as a defensive measure. Something kings do to
insulate themselves from threats after reaching the top. But this is wrong. Because the best
defense is a strong offense. And brand investment is offensive, because business isn't
static, it's kinetic. It's a constant race that's always happening.
Leaders might look like they're standing still (since a top-three leaderboard looks a lot like
a podium), but they're not. They're still racing. And B2B leaders invest in their brands to
maintain their lead in that race.
Because B2B brand investment isn't just about putting your logo on event swag, it's about
controlling the discourse. Writing bylines, whitepapers, and other content. Influencing analysts.
Coining and popularizing industry terms. Getting a good spot on the Gartner Magic Quadrant
Creating technical certifications with your name on them.
And that's largely just the marketing stuff. Don't forget another big non-marketing reason why
leaders invest in their brand, which is recruiting and talent development. Leader brands want
more talent to recruit from, and they want to attract the talent they prefer, and they want to
keep them, and they want that talent making noise on social media
attracting more talent.
These brand efforts I've just mentioned aren't about merely staying ahead in the game, they're
about controlling it. And controlling any game is inherently proactive (i.e., offensive). And
this might make brand efforts intimidating if you're a smaller brand, but don't worry. It's
not impossible for a smaller B2B brand to stand out in its market and stand out you must.
Why B2B Non-Leaders Need Branding & Brand Building
Brands are all starting to commit crimes against marketing by blurring together
, but B2B
is a career criminal in this area. Buyers can't tell vendors apart
(a trend that'll get
worse as AI
increasingly creates brand and marketing assets). And guess what happens when B2B
buyers can't tell vendors apart? Ninety percent
of the time they pick a vendor
whose name they already knew before the buyer's journey began.
In other words, they pick one of the leaders. This means that if you're a non-leader
you're not making your brand stand out before and during the vetting process, you're fucked.
You are truly fucked.
And I'm not done discussing just how fucked you are yet. It turns out, prior familiarity with
your brand is much more important at the start of the B2B buyer's journey than what B2B
marketing orthodoxy has been telling us. It turns out, when prospects are ready to start
shopping, they visit the names
they know. They don't just ask search engines a question.
But the good news is, there's hope. And I've already told you why. Since familiar brands
dominate the start of the buyer's journey, and buyers are still having trouble distinguishing
vendors anyway, this means even B2B leaders are not doing as great a job at being memorable with
with their brand as it might seem.
Want proof? Think about Cisco. They're B2B royalty. A strong company with a powerful brand. But
can you visualize their logo in your mind? What it looks like? What its colors are? I'm guessing
you can't. Even though they have one of the best and most creative logos in the B2B heavyweight
division. It's really quite brilliant, and it
hasn't changed much since 2006. And yet many
don't know it.
Do I look at this as a Cisco failure? No, for two reasons. B2B brands are inherently at a
disadvantage in terms of familiarity compared to B2C because of the simple fact that we're not
surrounded by them every minute of every day starting from birth like we are with B2C brands,
especially those that sell largely to enterprises (B2B brands that sell to small businesses
like Salesforce have an inherent advantage here). And two, Cisco is a big corporation, and big
corporations inherently blur together to the casual observer, especially in B2B.
So if you're a smaller B2B brand, a good way to stand out is to be different from the big ones,
on purpose. And yet many do the opposite, even when they're tiny. They deliberately sound like
big corporations, or at least they try to, because they want to make big corporate money, with
some wanting to attract the talent big corporates attract.
In technical terms, this could be viewed as trading one form of brand strength for another
(i.e., trading branding for brand building). But what these copycats are really doing is
sacrificing branding for nothing. Because you can't fake it till you make it in B2B.
Your brand isn't just what you say about it, what others say matters more. And small brands
can't fool anyone into thinking they're big. That's not how it works in B2B. There are too
many other things that give away that you're small.
So, in effect, small B2B firms are sacrificing their brand differentiation for nothing. And
that is a tragedy, because non-leaders have so much more to gain from brand-level investment
than leaders. Let's face it, once you're a leader, you're made. You've got plump margins.
You're staying in nice hotels and flying business class. And you're very hard to kill.
You can do a lame-ass brand revamp and it won't hurt that much. You can have a public
relations disaster or two and survive. You can even fall behind in the market, or on hard
times, and your brand still can't really be unmade, or at least it's very hard to. A king
can lose their crown, but the halo lingers.
But when you're not a leader, you're barely grinding out a living on razor-thin margins.
You're flying red-eye economy flights. You're sweating every little expense, and giving
employees paltry year-end bonuses that make them hate you. You're not made, and you may only
be an unexpected disaster or two away from death.
But what if it could not be like that? What if you could be comfortable? What if you could
have nice things? What if you could attract people who want to be part of you for you? It
takes a strong brand to do that. And a strong brand is easier to build when it's distinctive.
And you'd better start on that part now because it's harder to later. It's far easier to be
distinctive when you're small.
How Small B2B Brands Can Get Started
If you look at it on a ledger, much of the branding and brand building done by leaders
equates to "spending the largesse," which can make both seem out of reach if you're a smaller
brand. But there are relatively inexpensive things your organization can do.
Decide Who You Are
Brand positioning is where it all begins, and it's the most important step on the journey,
and also the cheapest. You don't have to give your brand a 30-page psychological profile.
All you really need to do is decide what your role is in the competitive landscape. Pioneer,
challenger, innovator, artisan, etc. Everybody wants to be a leader, but leaders rarely start
out as leaders, or as copycats of leaders.
started out as a challenger brand. Dell
was an innovator. Amazon
a pioneer. But they've
all become leaders now. And if your brand has been around for a while and you're worried that
you can't find, rise above, or reinvent yourself, look at Crocs
. They started out as makers
of utilitarian waterproof shoes that float (hence the name). But they've since become a
challenger lifestyle brand thanks to their "anti-fashion" sensibilities and extreme comfort.
Another brand that's far away from where it started is Land Rover
. Their first model was a
no-frills farm vehicle, and it was easily mistaken for a Jeep because it actually used a
Jeep chassis. Now it's widely viewed as a luxury brand
Talk To People, Not At Them
You know the thing about pioneers and challengers? They're human. They have souls. They have
thoughts and feelings. So lean into that. When you're a small brand, humanity is not weakness,
it's character. So be an expert. Be a professional. Be an artisan if it works, but not
corporate. No one has the patience to endure the pretentiousness of a corporation of one.
But there's one thing you must do to really reach your audience, you must know who you're
talking to. Which means you must decide who you're selling to. Many B2B marketers don't make
this decision. They just deem the target audience to be "SOHOs, SMEs, and enterprises." And
whenever I see this, I want to pull my hair out.
When the target customer is every type of business, B2B audiences interpret this as you not
doing your homework. Picking a target audience doesn't exclude customers. It tells certain
customers that you understand their problems, enough to be willing to commit to them. And
this is something most B2B brands need to get better at.
In terms of subjective effects on the target customer, it's like a real-live human speaking
directly to you over a loudspeaker, instead of hearing pre-recorded announcements addressed
to no one in particular. And you don't have to be that specific in picking a target audience,
or explicit in stating it. Sometimes it just means putting the word "fuck" in one of your
blog articles and seeing who keeps reading.
Make Your Brand's Voice Heard
It's not enough for your brand to merely have a distinctive voice, monetization only happens
when that voice gets heard. And if you're a smaller brand, your best bet for getting heard is
a savvy mix of inbound tactics, email outreach, and your leadership pressing the flesh in the
And yes, you probably need all three. If you're wondering why, think about it this way. When
your leadership speaks and participates at trade shows and gives TED talks and whatnot, it
has two relevant benefits.
One benefit is third-party coverage, by peers and by the media, which can give your website
some of its first real backlinks, and provide other benefits which will make your inbound
marketing more effective.
And effective inbound (i.e., content and SEO) raises your brand's long-term prospects
considerably, especially if you're small. And while a brand can certainly make money without
search engine domain authority or bunches of content, and many brands do, without it that
money often depends on the personal connections and skills of one or a few people, and
people leave, so it's best to build some brand equity.
And remember that I said "effective" inbound marketing, because good content builds your
brand, while lame content just sits there doing nothing, like a turd no one wants to clean up.
The second benefit of real-world flesh-pressing is the "paper trail" it creates, verifying
your brand's legitimacy to prospects when you do your email outreach. Without it, when you
send a LinkedIn DM to a prospect, and they've never heard of you, all they really have to
vet you with are your LinkedIn feed and website, and that stuff can be fairly modest when
you're small, and perhaps lacking in evidence that your exploits are real, or that you are
who you claim to be, so you're better off with it.
The good news is that inbound tactics are relatively inexpensive, and so is email outreach.
The flesh-pressing costs money, of course, but so does digital advertising, and the former
will give your brand a better dollar-for-dollar return than the latter when done right.
And speaking of digital advertising, you might be wondering why I didn't include it with
those three other recommendations. Well, three reasons. One, it's full of fraud
digital advertising works better when you're already famous (since you don't have to waste
limited ad space explaining who you are). And three, digital ad formats are hard to do well.
Even B2C brands with near unlimited resources struggle with them.
I'm not saying digital advertising doesn't have uses. You might need to buy followers in
certain territories to later organically target them
. And it can help get your homerun
content pieces and other greatest hits in front of more people. And if you've got a wad of
cash burning a hole in your pocket, sure, go ahead. Do some digital ad spend for your brand
messaging. It couldn't hurt. But if you're small and have limited resources, I don't
consider digital advertising as reliable a branding or brand building tactic as the others
Make Your Brand's Voices Heard
Trust is so important in B2B
, which is why good B2B brands don't only have corroborative
evidence their leaders exist, and do leadership-type things, they also have it for their
employees. Any slick hustler can put up a website, hand out business cards, and have an AI
write daily LinkedIn haikus for them to share.
But employees, real employees, a roomful, or even rooms full, working together and
celebrating together, are harder to fake, and it can make for some very effective brand
communications, while swelling your social media reach since their personal reach is often
a lot larger than a small brand's company
. So don't be afraid to let your employees talk sometimes (or at least in get
in front of a camera). Such content travels well on LinkedIn by its very nature anyway,
especially as part of a proper brand advocacy or employee advocacy program.
Have Something To Say
"I exist, pay me," only really works as brand messaging when you've got a founder who can
really sell smoke. Or if you're in a hot area like AI. If you're not, your brand narrative
and communications need to dig a little deeper. How is complicated. There are probably whole
books on the various approaches you could take. But if you want a hint on how to get started,
look at your positioning.
Challenger brands might talk about what's wrong with the champion. Pioneers often offer a
vision of the future. Innovators can talk about why they're innovating (hopefully it's to
solve some problem your prospects face).
Brand storytelling is a term that's often used here. But I think this is often misapplied
and misinterpreted. Prospects rarely care about your story and whether you're the hero of
it. They care about their own story, and that's what you should focus on, how buying from
you can make them the hero of their story (at least to their colleagues and boss).
Dress Your Brand With Style
Brands are converging visually
. And B2B brands have always been somewhat converged. Why? Two
big reasons. One, unlike B2C brands, who may be shooting for one of a wide variety of
emotions from the audience, B2B brands all pretty much want to elicit the same emotions
They want to appear trustworthy (blue) or smart (purple) or techy (light blue), while some
might want to appear dynamic (red or yellow).
And the second reason is tribal affiliation. They want their customers to feel like they're
one of them. Or at least they want to appear like they're part of the same club as certain
other brands (it seems like every SaaS startup's website was made by the same clipart-loving
AI doing variations on a theme). And in theory, this makes sense. But remember what I told
you earlier about buyers failing to tell vendors apart. So, in practice, it's not working.
Visual blandness is a luxury of the B2B leadership class. Small brands need to work a
little harder at standing out through their look and feel. Don't ask me how. I'm just a
content guy. But there's plenty of creative talent in the world who can conjure it for you.
And it doesn't have to cost an arm and a leg, which means conjuring it won't be the hard
part for you. The hard part will be accepting it, the actual making of that commitment to
looking different or special. As marketing becomes more automated, committing to being
different or special will get harder. And in B2B marketing, it'll go against every fiber
of your professional being.
Well, boss up, buttercup. If you want to be noticed or remembered, having a distinctive
visual identity, reinforced by being distinctive more generally, may be the best shot a
B2B business with no unfair advantages (i.e., a small brand) has at brand success.
Whether that's by a great logo and visual identity, great promotion of your brand, or
using the f-word in your brand assets, you've gotta try something. Because the alternative
is death, or more of the tedious grind of being an also-ran.
So get cracking. You've got a lot of wool to dye.