INTERVIEW: B2B marketers face “purpose-washing” pressure as brand gains importance

Alex Sword


The Financial Services Forum

For the first time in 2022, the Cannes Lions marketing conference featured a specific B2B marketing category, signalling the growing acceptance of brand in the B2B space.

Launched at the festival was a new piece of research by specialist B2B marketing agency Transmission, which sought to delve into brand within B2B. According to Head of Brand Vanessa Cheal, the report sprang from the company noticing that very little serious research on brand building existed in the B2B space, and that which did was not aimed at marketers.

The report aims to offer clients a benchmark while also offering the opportunity for thought leadership. It polled 500 B2B VPs, CMOs and senior level decision makers that own budget, with a third respectively in each of North America, Europe and Asia.

The findings revealed a considerable shift in awareness of how important brand building is in the customer journey, explains Vanessa, with it now considered either equally or more important than demand generation.

“I’ve been in the B2B marketing industry for 25 to 30 years and I don’t think I’ve ever seen the importance of brand building being given as much focus as I have in the last couple.”

According to the report, 61% of respondents said brand is now considered to be a strategic business priority by their CEO and board, with 32% believing it to be of “very high importance” in the boardroom.

“Every business has a brand,” says Vanessa. “But I think the importance of it in terms of its ability to attract and drive customers, keep employees loyal and retained, and the importance of it in terms of vendor selection has risen significantly.

“I think in the past, it’s always been down the league table compared to things like demand generation and digital experience. If you’re looking at a holistic marketing budget, brands always had a small part of that budget and to a certain extent, sometimes it isn’t even controlled by the marketing department but is sitting up in corporate somewhere.”

“You can’t just rely on a tech, support or consultancy solution to get your company heard in a very busy marketplace. Brand is probably the only place that you can have some control of something unique to you.”

The report saw 54% of respondents stating that brand building was “equally as important” as demand generation in achieving marketing goals, while 61% said the same when comparing it to account-based marketing.


B2B vs B2C

The relevance of brand strategy to B2B has grown as Covid has driven home the importance of emotional relationships with organisations, says Vanessa.

“When you buy into a B2B company, you’re buying into a partner not just a product.”

Drawing a parallel between B2B and B2C, she notes that both involve dealing with human beings

“You haven’t got long to build trust. People haven’t got time to court a brand to make a decision.”

However, in B2B the risk of buying from the wrong company is a lot higher than that of making a bad choice on a consumer purchase, she adds.

“If you buy into a big tech company and spend half a million, the consequences [of getting it wrong] are really severe.”

Correspondingly, the costs for the seller of getting it wrong and generating a negative reputation are also severe.

“In B2C, you might annoy a couple of customers, but you’ll find another five waiting in the wings. But in B2B, if you have 100 accounts to target and you have a bad reputation, everyone’s going to know about it and you’re going to lose that market share and the opportunity. So this business of getting your brand right definitely matters more in B2B.”


Purpose in B2B

This emotional attachment to brand has led to a greater focus on purpose beyond simply making money, Vanessa adds.

“Brands are realising their current proposition is focused much more on the rational features of their solution rather than standing for something important to society.”

However, this is not what buyers want, she says.

“They want to buy into a company that is standing for something that makes the world better. They don’t want to buy into a brand that’s just taking money.

“People want a relationship with a company that is doing something meaningful.”

This has led to marketers, she says, reporting feeling under pressure to promote a purpose as part of their brand, with 76% of B2B marketing leaders in the research saying they “feel a lot of pressure” or “some pressure” to take an active stance on societal issues. According to the research, 56% of marketers may be creating misleading cause-based messaging.

“One of our questions in the study was ‘what extent are you currently taking an active stance in societal issues? We found that most B2B companies if they weren’t doing it, were considering having a really strong activism stance on things like sustainability and the environment, LGBTQ rights, racial discrimination and MeToo. So there’s definitely a big focus on brands really owning that space and being part of that conversation.”

However, Vanessa cautions against saying something “just because everyone else is”.

“The pressure to have values is outweighing the ability to prove you are really doing it,” she says.

This is particularly risky in financial services, she adds.

“In financial services you are completely risking all brand credibility and trust, which companies in financial services especially have spent thousands of pounds and years building.”

The research did show a rise in “purpose washing, green washing and woke washing” across all industries. While there was no specific spike in financial services around these areas, Vanessa says:

“I think that sector has the biggest amount of trust to lose. There are challenges about the perception of companies. I don’t think this will help in any way, shape or form.”

You can read the full report here.

Image: Viorika

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