Sitting on fences. Why is there so much “blah, blah, blah” out there in B2B land – and what can we do about it?

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The latest BMC XChange took place during March, at the Dead Doll’s House, Islington, London. A lively event attended by client and agency marketers alike, the role of positioning in B2B marketing was passionately presented and debated.

Adam Greener of Span Consulting kicked things off by showing two short videos; Always “Like a Girl” and Nike’s, “Dream Crazy” and posed the question, “what do Apple (Think Differently), Volvo (Safety First), Always (Like a Girl), Nike (Dream Crazy) all have in common and why in B2B Marketing should we care?

 

Stand for something vital.

He then pointed out that they have all set out their stall clearly in terms of what they stand for and why this should matter and in doing so have established a level of uniqueness and individualism that many of their customers align with.

The best of them doing it with a level of honesty and integrity – backing their words with actions and standing for something vital – showing not just telling.

 

Risky business.

Adam went on to explain that for some of us these ‘positions’ have positive connotations, for some of us negative connotations – but virtually all of us register these things and stated, “these positions come with risk”.

The recent Gillette “the best men can be” campaign being one such example – drawing as many negative reactions as positive – and possibly ostracising the core consumer base.

 

A perfect storm for sitting on fences.

So, Adam asked the audience, “why so much sitting on fences in B2B Marketing? Where’s our Always, Nike or Gillette moments?”

He then suggested that perhaps it’s risk, or “the reduction of risk” endemic in B2B marketing that effects things. Watering down creativity, impacting intuitive thinking, reducing our capability to have an opinion in case it offends and impacts the bottom line, as well as our own personal status and career prospects.

Adam described B2B decision making on seller and buyer-side as “personal opinion, conclusions and recommendations being brought into pubic play – everyone is visible and accountable – and exposed to risk”. He then suggested that in B2B we have the perfect storm for sitting on fences – and asked “so what to do?”

 

It’s not what we do to the product, it’s what we do to the mind.     

The answer, Adam suggested, is positioning – as pioneered by Jack Trout and Al Ries in the 70’s and celebrated in their book “Positioning. The battle for your mind”. Adam shared his thoughts on positioning citing,

 

“Positioning is not what we do to the product, it’s what we do to the mind and should be a critical strategic component in how we go to market, what we say in market and what we do to back this up”, “It’s about knowing what you want to say, where you want to say it and why this should matter to your customers.” “We have to embrace some risk, to see the bigger benefits”

 

Context is king!

He then underlined the importance of understanding context before defining a position. The context of our market, competition, capabilities, brand and importantly our customer.

Adam described how if we refract all of this information through a “customer-lens” to try to get the bottom of “how our customer see’s the world and how this impacts on their behaviour and decisions”, we can then identify a position that is both true to our business and that the customer can orient around and assign value to (thus mitigating at least some of the risk).

 

A framework for success.

There’s always a buttoned-down-business-bit at our XCHange events, and building a positioning framework informed by context was this event’s nod to best practice – as described by Adam it comprises roughly of:

  • Category: where we choose to be judged against our competitors and want to win
  • Product: what we are selling – plain, simple – non-emotive
  • Positioning: why we are selling what we are selling – clear, concise, bold – often emotive
  • Value proposition: the value we provide and promise we deliver
  • Differentiators: functional elements that can deliver value and are different from our competitors
  • Differentiated approach: emotional elements that deliver value and/or matter to customers e.g. how we operate, think, believe – different than competitors
  • Proof points: evidence that demonstrates the value we deliver

It’s this framework that we should all use as the informer and anchor point for future marketing initiatives such as messaging, content, programs, etc. said Adam (giving us a nod towards our next speaker)

 

“I need a new TV, not an LG”

Always good to go left of centre – Adam described the “concept of category” by first explaining how the human brain is an amazing thing. 100 billion neurons with memory stored at the microscopic chemical changes at connecting points between the neurons, but to help store, retain and then retrieve information, we all assign categories or labels to this information.

He then gave an example “with very few exceptions, customers think category first, brand second “I need a new TV”not “I need a new LG”.

This, Adam said, is no different in B2B buying and even more important considering businesses benchmark vendors often using analyst reports – and these reports are almost ‘category’ based. Therefore, establishing the category in which we want to play and win, is critical to positioning.

 

Creating a new category.

Adam warned against creating a brand new category citing that unless we’ve established the relevance of this category from a customer perspective and have the resources, appetite, focus and support to educate the market on this new category, then chances are we’ll fail!

 

Find the gap in our customer’s mind.

On a more positive note, he then pointed out that good positioning is about creating a “distinctive” position in an existing category and using that to “climb the category-ladder” saying he believed at least 80% of B2B brands need to do this better, or even consider doing it!”

He noted how it’s also not about immediately going head-to-head with the market leader, giving a simple analogy using car rentals.

“Why go head-to-head with the car rental company positioned and perceived as the very best car rentals service in the customer’s mind, instead find a “niche” that’s relevant, achievable and where possible, available. Position as the best for business trips in the UK, or the most efficient, eco-friendly fleet, or the most family/child friendly.”

 

Competitive positioning vs. Customer-first positioning.

To wrap up, Adam advised that we don’t follow the default competitive positioning focus on functional differentiation, “a utopian pursuit of USP-based differentiation at all costs and position availability, that although commendable is very difficult especially considering the number of competitors, similar offers, sparsity of insight, time and budget”.

Instead he advised us to think ‘customer-first positioning’ where we identify the more emotive, ‘differentiated approach’ our organisations take – how we operate, how we think, what we believe and why we believe it, that represent value to our customers and use this as the basis for positioning.

Finally, he warned (with a smile on his face!) that taking a position will be challenging – especially for organisations that think sitting on fences reduces risk rather than increases the risk – as it can cover such “dangerous and contiguous areas as; opinion, thinking, sentiment and belief – but by taking this position we can control our trajectory and set the terms around which we can win…”

 

David McGuire of B2B copywriters Radix Communications then took over and challenged us to think about the way our positioning is delivered in our marketing content.

In an interactive and fun session David demonstrated how on a personal level, we all understand that talk is cheap; that we need to show, not simply tell.

We instinctively distrust anyone who says, “trust me”. We doubt people who declare themselves to be experts, without any evidence.

When we’re writing for business, we lose sight of that. Our LinkedIn profiles are full of grand, overinflated claims, while our business “about us” pages can be self-congratulatory to the point of comedy.

This was expertly and hilariously pointed out by David passing cards to the audience and asking people to read them out. More like a session of “Bullshit Bingo” than supposed serious B2B marketing, these cards featured copy from the audience’s own (!) LinkedIn profiles and corporate websites…

The problem, David suggested, was that we too often simply state our desired brand position, rather than earning it and he shared three examples of content that actually demonstrate a position instead:

Swiss electric motor manufacturer Maxon shows it’s a trusted expert partner to design engineers, by making its product catalogue into a valuable reference book – with the diagrams, drawings, charts and equations an engineer needs to specify a motor well. The book was passed around an admiring audience that realised immediately that a design engineer would value in this content and orient around Maxon’s position as trusted expert partner.

Until recently, specialist valve maker ASEPCO’s website featured a long photo gallery, showing specific aspects of the manufacturing process, and explaining – in detail – why each step is important. Rather than simply making claims about quality, they let a little of their obsession leak into their content. Again, we could see why a literal demonstration of ‘obsessive engineering by obsessive engineers’ would resonate with their audience.

SaaS customer service platform Help Scout, believes great customer service is essential to business success. So far, so obvious, but Help Scout delivers on this position by surveying customer service agents about their earnings, and campaigning for its own customers to pay their (customer service) people more. It’s a bold move – but if they actually believe what they say they do, it’s logical. How many competitors would claim the same position, but fail to follow suit?

In summary. We looked to B2C marketing for inspiring if contagious examples of taking a customer-first position. Identified risk as big factor for B2B marketing not doing this. Cited that done with rigour and in context, we could de-risk taking a (more emotive) B2B position and by standing for something that customers assign value to.

Finally, we agreed, talk is cheap, its’ about the actions that demonstrate the position, not the words. So let’s get off our fences…now!

Come along to the next BMC event – Take a look.

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