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Article|McKinsey Quarterly

How B2B companies talk past their customers

New research shows there’s a surprising gap between the brand messages that suppliers offer to customers and what their customers really want to know.

October 2013 | byTjark Freundt, Philipp Hillenbrand, and Sascha Lehmann

Although the digital-marketing revolution’s clearest ramifications and earliest impact may have come in the consumer arena, it’s also roiling the world of business-to-business (B2B) brand building. Business customers, like consumers, engage with companies through search, online communities, and Web-based video, so these are potentially powerful tools for delivering B2B brand messages and amplifying their impact. Our research suggests a potential stumbling block, though: a marked apparent divergence between the core messages companies communicate about their brands and the characteristics their customers value most.

In our research, we examined publicly available documents of Fortune 500 and DAX 30 companies to develop a list of 13 themes and topic areas that companies use to position their brands. These were broad ranging, from the extremely practical (low prices) to the more elevated (corporate social responsibility). We then selected the top 90 global B2B companies by market capitalization across six surveyed sectors.1 We reviewed the public documents of the companies to verify how many of their brand messages were clearly linked to the 13 themes that emerged from the broader sample (3 of them didn’t appear among the 90 companies). Then we assessed the degree to which the companies aligned their brand messages with the remaining 10 themes.

To discover how customers viewed these same themes, we surveyed more than 700 global executives2 across the six sectors, asking how important each theme was to the way they evaluated the brand strengths of their primary and secondary suppliers. We used multiple regression analysis to determine the extent to which a theme influenced the correlation.

The results were revealing (exhibit). Themes such as social responsibility, sustainability, and global reach, which many B2B companies cast in a leading role for brand imaging, appeared to have a minimal influence on buyers’ perceptions of brand strength. The inverse was true, as well: two of the most important themes for customer perceptions of brand strength—effective supplychain management and specialist market knowledge—were among those least mentioned by B2B suppliers. Honest and open dialogue, which customers considered most important, was one of the three themes not emphasized at all by the 90 companies in our sample. In addition to these disconnects, our analysis showed a surprising similarity among the brand themes that leading B2B companies emphasized, suggesting a tendency to follow the herd rather than create strongly differentiated brand messages.3 Here are three questions whose answers may point to opportunities for improvement.

Exhibit

The themes that many B2B companies consider important for brand imaging appear to have minimal influence on buyers’ perceptions of brand strength.

Are you telling the same story as your competitors?

Given the prevalence of similar messages, this is an important checkpoint for many companies. For example, if both you and your rivals claim that your (and their) products derive from renewable sources, this probably won’t move the needle when customers consider your brand. Contrast that with IBM’s Smarter Planet branding effort, which tells a story emphasizing the company’s special capabilities in the digital economy and guides not just external communications but also product development and other forms of employee engagement.

Does your sales force say it is facing headwinds?

Even in the digital era, our surveys show that personal interactions with sales reps remain the most influential factor—across touch points—for B2B customers.4 That makes salespeople a great source of information about the degree to which customers see your products as differentiated or worth a premium. Have an honest dialogue with your sales staff. If you hear about consistent pushback on pricing or an inability to articulate a compelling argument for the value of your products, you’ve got a problem. It could be your product or service, of course. But it also may involve disconnects between what your customers value and the messages you send them in your broader (digital and more traditional) marketing activities. Use your sales force to inform these strategies. Leading companies make extensive use of frontline interaction and market research to stay in tune with customer needs and perceptions. For example, Hilti, a maker of professional construction tools, has its salespeople do double duty as distributors and hands-on market researchers at customer construction sites.

Do you deliver your brand in a consistent way?

Especially at a time when opportunities to deliver brand messages are proliferating as never before, consistency is crucial. If anything, today’s increasingly fragmented environment calls for a more disciplined communication of values and messages across a wider range of channels, including some quite traditional ones, for a longer period of time. DHL’s rebranding effort after its acquisition by Deutsche Post is one example. More than a hundred planes, tens of thousands of trucks, and countless uniforms were repainted or replaced to boost brand visibility. Internal company-wide training was designed to turn employees into brand ambassadors, and a set of binding rules for corporate identity and design govern all campaigns and materials.

Don’t mistake consistency for inertia, though: changes in the market environment should influence brand-messaging priorities. To stay abreast of market shifts, American Express, for example, created Open Forum, a virtual platform that helps small-business owners connect with the company and with one another. Amex acts as an adviser, helping its small- and midsize enterprise customers understand the constant variations in the retail marketplace—and learning, in the process, how it can best differentiate its own offerings. Consistently gathering information such as this and evolving in response are valuable ways of closing any gaps that may be opening up between your brand messaging and your customers’ needs.

About the authors

Tjark Freundt is a principal in McKinsey’s Hamburg office, where Sascha Lehmann is an associate principal; Philipp Hillenbrand is a consultant in the Düsseldorf office.

The authors would like to acknowledge the valuable contributions of Agnes Claye, Blair Crawford, and Jeff Jacobs.

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