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Why agile branding is the next big brand challenge for b2b marketers

  • by Ann Rimmer
  • 26th Jan 2018
    • Brand Creation, Branding, Strategy

In b2b companies today, branding is discussed at the highest level. CEOs increasingly recognise their brand as a strategic tool for building value. Not so long ago, we spent a great deal of time in meetings explaining what a brand is (and is not) and why it matters in b2b. Those days are behind us – business leaders increasingly see brand as a key element of building and growing a successful business. They know good brand strategy can make employees feel aligned with the company purpose while presenting customers with a clear benefit of buying from the business.

Today, there’s another b2b brand revolution taking place. The new challenge is to build agility into business brands in a world where a rigid kind of brand management has long been the focus.

Things are changing…

Marketing and brand managers have spent the last few decades managing the execution of their brands, aiming for consistency across multiple channels and, often in the b2b world, multiple territories and teams. Ensuring your brand was consistently represented in terms of messaging and visual identity was considered a key principle of brand building. Then came the proliferation of digital, with these new channels and touchpoints enabling customers, prospects and just about anybody to access your brand, interact and give feedback and opinions 24/7. Businesses who once served only UK customers have found their brand reaching a global audience through social sharing and the ability to do business online.

Over in consumer land, strong brands were quick to respond and encourage consumers to co-create products and services around their needs, desires and beliefs. Brands like Nike use digital channels to keep abreast of customer opinion and adapt product ranges and marketing communications accordingly. In b2b, this attitude has been forming slowly. Now is the time to seize the opportunity and shape your brand for the future.

Speed has become the new norm as businesses seek to increase their attractiveness and competitiveness. Customer-centricity and the rapidly changing marketing landscape mean many companies are continually evolving their approach to sales, marketing and product development.

If brand management is too inflexible, it’s easy for a b2b brand to become stale and outdated – quickly!

What is an agile b2b brand?

An agile brand has several facets. Fundamentally, it is in tune with the changing competitive landscape. It deeply understands the current and future needs and challenges of its customers, becomes a key part of this conversation and uses the conversation to learn and adapt. Agile brands actively listen, collaborate and share knowledge, knowing that the quest to constantly improve and build value must start with understanding the climate they exist in.

Agile brands are characterised by a willingness to adapt and change, and they do it quickly. They may have even sensed the change coming and be ahead of the curve (a consumer brand like Airbnb is a good example). They’re built around a brand promise and they deliver on this promise through everything they do and the way in which they do it.

Agile brands are not constrained by rigid brand guidelines. They’re constantly evolving their graphic language to excite and engage people.

Managing an agile brand

An agile brand has to look beyond its logo, because branding isn’t just a logo. The logo is simply one facet of the brand’s graphic language. For a long time, maintaining the consistency of the logo and other graphic elements was considered the holy grail of brand management. That belief needs completely rethinking.

The starting point for any brand identity (after articulating in words what the brand stands for) is to consider how to bring that idea to life across the numerous touchpoints, creating visual and written assets that bring the brand’s character and proposition ‘to life’.

For a brand to stay relevant today, it must continually adapt and evolve. Of course, this doesn’t mean changing your logo every six months. But it does require businesses to accept that simply making sure the brand identity is reproduced faithfully every time it appears is no longer sufficient.

Brands need to maintain an active presence in the markets and channels where their customers hang out. They have to lead conversations to position themselves based on their promise and demonstrate an understanding of what matters to customers. If you think of your brand as the experience a customer, prospect, employee or community has with the company at any given time, it’s easier to consider how your ‘brand assets’ might develop over time.

We’re not advocating a branding ‘free for all’ within the business, with employees creating multiple campaigns or documents in numerous styles, colours and voices. The brand still needs to be looked after and users of brand assets will require guidance from a nominated custodian.

This change is more about brand leadership. The b2b marketer of today is required to provide insights on changing customer attitudes and develop strategies to ensure the brand communicates with, not to, its audiences. Staying relevant and leading a sector demands agility.

Agile brand management, consistent brand strategy

For your brand to become agile you first need to really understand what you stand for, why you exist and who that matters to. Your communication methods, content and product or service development should move quickly in today’s hyper-competitive environment, but your brand promise, proposition and core brand DNA should be steadfast.

There is no shortcut to establishing these brand pillars and nor should there be. Valuable b2b brands take an ‘outside-in’ approach to brand strategy, listening to customers, understanding market opportunities and reviewing the competitive landscape before focusing on their internal perspective, beliefs and values. The analysis required to hone in on core insights and the reflection period following an internal review are critical steps in achieving differentiation and authenticity.

The platform you develop using this process should equip your brand with resilience and the ability to adapt in a business environment where brand agility is essential. There must be a clear brand promise and purpose that your team can get behind and bring to life in everything they do.

Avoid agencies who purport to deliver an ‘agile brand strategy’ that is likely to cut corners. Invest in a robust process that will engage people internally and externally, to build a brand that is authentic and reflective of the business you truly are.

Engage internal teams and empower them to live the brand

Delivering an agile brand requires your whole business to be on board. The marketing department alone will not make the brand agile. Agility comes from the conversations your employees have with customers and their ability to respond to meet customer needs. It comes from learning and trying new ways of doing things, from interactions on and offline with anyone who encounters the brand, and from sharing knowledge that enables decision-makers to put a stake in the ground and take action.

The most important step in becoming an agile brand is engaging whole teams. Help them understand what your brand stands for, make sure they know what your promise to customers is and give them an opportunity to appreciate the value they bring as individuals in ensuring the promise is kept. Empowering employees to develop the best way of delivering on that promise in an ever-changing world is where the promise becomes reality. The brand guardian is still relevant today, but the brand activators are more important. These are your employees – go forth together and build an agile b2b brand.