Stop Selling The Specs!

4 B2B Marketing Pitfalls That May Be Hurting Your Brand

As a fractional CMO, I’ve worked with a lot of really interesting B2B companies. And when it comes to how they view marketing, they tend to fall into three groups. 

On one end of the spectrum, some firms understand marketing and branding completely.  They see the value in focusing on their customer and communicating a consistent brand value message across every touch point. 

On the other end, some companies have no real marketing practice whatsoever.  These companies have reached a certain level of success by producing widgets and unleashing the sales team to push them onto the market, but at some point, sales plateau. For these companies, “marketing” has generally defined as (1) the dude who does the website, (2) the brochure the intern made a few years ago, or (3) the “marketing specialist” whose real function is to figure out which trade shows to attend and order all the tchotchkes.

Then there are the companies in the middle.  These are the firms that practice some level of marketing, and – in the case of B2B companies – are often exclusively product-focused instead of brand-focused in their communications.  The biggest challenge facing these companies is that they often don’t realize what’s missing from their marketing equation. 

Regardless of where they fall on this spectrum, there are four consistent marketing pitfalls I’ve seen that are inhibiting many B2B companies from taking their market success to the next level:

  1. 1. Building your brand around low price.  There are a number of incredibly successful organizations that have owned the “low-cost leader” space in their categories.  Case studies of Walmart or Southwest Airlines can detail exactly how they’ve built those businesses, and how every single piece of their respective enterprises are fine-tuned to deliver against a “low-cost leader” strategy.

Here’s the problem with that positioning: (1) It’s only sustainable if that mindset is the unequivocal guiding principle of every part of your organization; (2) it only pays dividends if you are able to scale exponentially (to make up for your thin margins); and (3) someone will always, always, eventually find a way undercut you, so you are continuously battling to cut costs – usually from areas that are already incredibly lean. 

In B2B, this may seem like a logical place to position your brand, particularly if you’ve developed a way to produce something at a fraction of the cost of your nearest competitor.  And many contracts are often awarded to the lowest bidder – particularly when you end up negotiating with a customer’s procurement department.   But if you can clearly differentiate yourself from your competition – specifically the benefits your products and services can uniquely provide – you create a different value proposition that goes beyond low price. 

On the other hand, if your product appears fairly indistinguishable from your competitors in the eyes of your customers, you may indeed find yourself in a race to the bottom to try to win contracts and gain market share.  Spoiler alert: you will almost never win this race in the long run.

  • 2. Selling the bit, not the hole.  The marketing adage is “people don’t want a ¼-inch drill bit, they want a ¼-inch hole.”  Many B2B companies – particularly technical and engineering-led firms – can become so focused on the features and specs of their products that they never mention the benefits all those features provide. 

If you take a step back, you can see that this approach is actually all about you, not your customer.  With this approach, you lose the opportunity to explain your product in terms of how it can solve your customers’ problems. And if we move even higher up the benefit ladder, you shouldn’t just be selling a ¼-hole, you should focus on the empowerment you give that customer to hang a shelf, assemble a piece of furniture, etc.. Your product can enable feelings of satisfaction & accomplishment for completing a task.  Without your drill bit, it’s not just that they won’t be able to make a hole – they won’t achieve their goals. 

  • 3. Information overload. It’s easy to rattle off a laundry list of cool things your products do.  But this is a mistake when it comes to marketing.  Now, this isn’t to say you shouldn’t talk about the features of your product, but only in terms of how they benefit the customer.  And this is critical: only mention the three features that are most important to the customer (hopefully you know enough about your existing customers to know what they love about your product). 
  • An exhaustive list of features may seem impressive – and there will most likely be a point when you do need to get into a spec-level conversation once you are engaging with prospects – but keep your benefits to three in all marketing communications.  Customers won’t remember more than that, and you run the risk of diluting your overall message.  Keep it simple and connect the dots for the customer. 
  • 4. Uncoordinated product messaging.  The challenge with building individual marketing messages for each product in the portfolio is you can easily end up with a mishmash of messaging that lack consistency.  One of Ford’s challenges was that as a full line automotive manufacturer, we had full-sized work trucks, family minivans, economy commuters and muscle cars.  Wildly different products for completely different audiences.  To solve for this, in the mid-2000s when we launch our primary brand campaign.  We defined four pillars that would be true of any Ford product: (1) Quality, (2) Green, (3) Safety, and (4) Smart innovations & integrations.  By the late 2000s you could expect to find some level of all four of these attributes in every Ford product in the showroom. Based on the needs of the target customers, how we communicated the benefits from these pillars would vary, but everything we did laddered up to those brand pillars.

I realize Ford is a consumer-facing B2C company, but the fundamentals are the same from a marketing perspective – all of your product messaging should ladder up to a consistent brand promise, and the only way to do that with certainty is to start by defining that promise from the top.  Without that north star, messaging can wander in too many directions.

In conclusion, because B2B companies usually have a finite segment of customers on which to focus, the company leadership may not place the same importance on building a brand as they would if they were running a B2C company.  But by avoiding the 4 marketing pitfalls above, any company, B2B or otherwise, can improve their brand perception and the effectiveness of their marketing efforts. 

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