Confession: as a died-in-the-wool direct marketer, I am a branding cynic. My general attitude towards branding is summed up in the old maxim:
“Branding is what your agency calls your campaign when they can’t measure it.”
Now that’s not to say that a brand isn’t real, for some. Starbucks is a successful brand. And so is Nike. And Coke. These companies thrive, in large part, not just on the quality of their products but upon their image, and the general, emotional view that their customers have about the company, and how those customers believe the company aligns with their own personal beliefs or preferences or aspirations, or however else you care to define a brand.
But does a B2B company, particularly an early-stage company, need branding? I would argue: no.
What makes branding even more irrelevant for most B2B companies today is the very nature of modern demand generation: namely, content marketing. If generating leads depended even in small part on how consumers felt about your company, branding might have a role to play. But successful demand generation today has little to do with your company, and much more to do with your content.
The leads that you generate from a white paper about best practices, or a Webinar about ROI, or an infographic about industry trends, or (ahem) a blog post about a “hot topic” all serve to make your brand irrelevant. To reinforce this point, consider that most successful demand generation content has nothing whatsoever to do with the company or the product, and everything to do with the topic, or issue, or business challenge that the same company and product can solve.
Where brand might yet have a role to play is in lead nurturing. Once a prospect enters the lead cycle, the conversation turns from an interest in a particular topic to why that prospect should do business with your company. At that stage, the image that your company portrays, your “brand personality” (to borrow a phrase) comes into play. Does your brand speak credibility, authority, and stability? Or does it convey a company on the cutting edge, a company that understands its customers, a company that (gasp) doesn’t take itself too seriously? All may impact on the rate at which you convert that casual interest in solving a particular business challenge into a sales ready lead, an opportunity, and ultimately, a deal.
When start-up clients ask us if they should invest in “branding,” we tell them: no. They’re better off investing precious marketing dollars into identifying, and engaging with, those prospects feeling the “pain” that their product or service can address. Once the challenge turns to converting leads to prospects and opportunities and sales, then, and only then, does brand becomes more significant.