In their new book Absolute Value, two well-known marketing thinkers, Itamar Simonson and Emanuel Rosen, make the case that the hegemony of the brand is coming to an end, due to the widespread availability of information. Brands, they argue, took the place of perfect information and gave consumers the tools they need to make decisions. Now, excellent information is everywhere, and Simonson and Rosen maintain that, rather than being overwhelmed by it, we're finding the answers to our questions with relative ease. This enables buyers to assess what the authors call the 'absolute value' of a product or service.
B2B marketers have already realised that they need to inject emotion into their brands.
After all, B2B brands have moved from being consumed by operations management and technology specialists to being central to senior management and C-suite conversations, particularly for critical technologies.
At one time, companies that sold to other businesses didn't have to worry about the squishy world of branding and human emotion. They were selling a product that had clear functional and enterprise-level benefits, and the role of advertising was to alert potential customers to the product attributes they needed to know about.
IBM, as major global B2B player, is a venerable company that has been in business for more than a century.
As successful similar global B2B players, it realised, however, that it is not enough for their products to stay ahead of the competition: their marketing must, too. It has learned to humanise not just their product portfolio but the brand essence itself.
For most of the 20th century, IBM's striped logo was almost ubiquitous in offices, homes, and retail. Now, the technology pioneer has shifted out of the consumer business and into a concerted drive to make a Smarter Planet. As Ann Rubin of IBM (and her colleagues) have written: "This new direction brings new challenges for a brand whose accomplishments aren't visibly apparent in the marketplace. To offset some of that resulting brand-awareness mind drift, our job is to find new and relevant ways to put IBM in front of people, besides on TV and in airports, and beyond C-suites and server room. One way we do this is having relevant stories to tell."
IBM's Smarter Planet work helps individuals better understand how the world is changing as it becomes more instrumented, interconnected, and intelligent, and it is work that has brought the company great success. But that is only part of humanising the brand. Sometimes, humanising the brand requires showing people that even the most arcane and complex work that a company does is done by people.
Done right, B2B marketing can step into the ambassador's role. Humanising the brand allows B2B companies to make their marketing an avatar for the brand, supplying the information of an expert, the personal touch of a great salesperson, all with the emotional connection we crave. B2B marketing spends too much time focusing on the things B2B buyers care little about – things such as global reach, corporate social responsibility, or being a market leader – when what B2B buyers really want is an honest, open dialogue. You know, acting not like a corporate monolith, but like a real person instead.
Among the many changes digital technology has brought about is the breakdown between who we are at work and who we are as people. The same things that move us when we are consumers for ourselves, move us when we're shopping for our companies, which Bryan Kramer has summed up nicely as this: "There is no more B2B or B2C. It's H2H: Human to Human."