Brands continue to blur border dividing B2B, B2C
Business brands adopt consumer brand-building skills
The distinction between business-to-business (B2B) and business-to-consumer (B2C) brands continues to blur because of increased collaboration and disruption. The emergence of technologies such as the Internet of Things and autonomous cars has accelerated collaboration. Cloud computing has disrupted the IT structure of the workplace, decentralizing purchasing and introducing more consumer devices.
The BrandZ™ B2B Top 20 ranking reflects this blurring. The ranking includes the highest-value brands in the BrandZ™ Global Top 100 that generate over half their revenues from business clients. Nine of the B2B Top 20 are technology brands, four are banks, and seven are divided among these categories: logistics, oil and gas, and conglomerates.
Few brands are purely B2B. Microsoft and IBM, ranked first and second in the B2B Top 20, are primarily business brands, but they also have consumer-facing operations, particularly Microsoft, and they collaborate with B2C brands. Conversely, the first- and second-ranked brands in the Global Top 100, Google and Apple, are primarily B2C brands, but they also gain revenue from business clients.
Amazon, No. 4 after Microsoft in the BrandZ™ Global Top 100, is the paradigmatic disruptor. Its consumer-facing e-commerce business has transformed retail, while its delivery service challenges logistics brands and its replenishment technology threatens fast-moving consumer-product brands.
The B2B brands have some catching up to do. Over the past 12 years, the BrandZ™ B2C Top 20 increased in brand value 233 percent, more than twice the rate of the BrandZ™ B2B Top 20 brands, which increased 90 percent. And the B2B brands lagged the B2C brands in each of the five BrandZ™ Vital Signs: Innovation, Communications, Brand Experience, Brand Purpose, and Love. High scores in these indicators mean that a brand is perceived as Meaningfully Different and has a better chance of growing market share and commanding a price premium.
Recent results suggest that B2B brands may be narrowing the gap in the rate of value growth. Over the past year, both the Top 20 B2B and B2C brands increased in value at virtually the same rate, 11 percent and 10 percent. Several factors may account for this phenomenon, including the disruptive nature of the year, which touched all categories, and the fact that the annual value growth of some of the large B2C technology brands slowed. However, the comparable value growth rates may also reflect the increase in crossover collaboration and aggressive efforts by B2B brands to adopt B2C skills in communications and customer cultivation and management.
Adopting a B2C mentality
To narrow the gap, more B2B brands may need to emulate the way in which B2C brands segment their markets and interact with customers. The default B2B market segmentations that group together small, medium, and large companies are not always most effective, especially when B2B brands serve their small customers with technology, their large customers with human interaction, and the medium-sized customers with a combined approach.
Similarly, some large organizations with both consumer and commercial businesses market the same products one way to corporate clients and a different way to consumers. They emphasize the corporate name with commercial clients, as a service reassurance, while they promote their individual brands to consumers. Ultimately, brands need to cultivate communication and brand-building skills to serve both business and consumer customers.
The logistics brands in the BrandZ™ B2B Top 20—UPS, FedEx, and DHL—have adopted some B2C lessons, perhaps because the rise of e-commerce has placed them face to face with consumers. UPS added new dimensions to the brand with a richer story about being a problem solver, especially for small businesses that lack expertise and resources.
For some B2B brands, access to consumers provides unrealized growth potential. For example, with the right marketing approach, a financial services company could become the bank of choice for the employees of its corporate clients. Unlocking this potential requires a culture shift, and that depends largely on hiring and retaining the right people.
B2B technology brands illustrate the recruitment challenge. Since the advent of cloud computing, businesses now purchase technology differently. As a result, B2B technology brands need to adapt their recruiting strategies. It used to be that decision-making authority was concentrated in the IT director, who reviewed complicated specs and made a rational choice from a small consideration set of B2B brands. That decision often resulted in a long-term marriage between a client and a major B2B technology brand; with products and services integrated throughout the client company, the deep interdependence that was created made divorce unlikely.
Because that decision was so consequential, and potentially impacted the career advancement of the decision maker, the IT director often made the safe choice, a large legacy brand with an impeccable reputation. Today, with nimble cloud-computing brands promising lower costs and less risk, the safe choice for an IT director wanting to demonstrate competence is to review a wide consideration set that includes startups.
In addition, the decision-making process in technology purchasing today is more decentralized. And rather than meet only with the IT director, the B2B brand more likely will interact with potential decision makers in diverse departments throughout an organization. These decision makers often are millennials who have recently risen to positions of authority, and whose experience with technology brands is more with B2C brands than with the B2B heritage brands.
Consequently, B2B brands are looking for people who know how to navigate a corporate organizational chart and find the decision makers. And the B2B brands are not just seeking sales people with these qualities—they want knowledgeable and relatable people at all levels, because the interface with customers happens throughout the organization.
As B2B brands do a better job communicating their purpose, they are attracting more young people who want to make money, but who also want to spend their time doing something that feels more worthwhile than simply making money. To recruit and retain more of these millennials, B2B brands need to become their destination of choice, rather than the default “safe school” alternate to Apple, Google, or Facebook.