B2B Brand Positioning Gets Emotional: To Unleash Untapped B2B Brand Value, Add Some Empathy

Brand Strategy

Yes, your B2B customers are feeling beings.


You might expect that business leaders would make buying decisions based on a cold, mean analysis of functional value propositions in the competitive landscape. As a B2B branding agency, we have been on the front lines time after time and can report with confidence that strategies that fail to engage the emotions of customers consistently fail superior products and services.

Nearly a decade ago, Google’s pivotal study confirmed what our B2B brand consulting team members had already figured out firsthand: B2B buying decisions are highly emotional, especially compared to B2C decision-making. As Brene Brown said at SXSW, “We like to think we are rational beings who occasionally have an emotion and flick it away.” Instead, she says, “We are emotional, feeling beings who, on rare occasions, think.”

How Agencies Can Spark B2B Brand Love
For B2B brand leaders, it’s well worth the effort to reconcile the cognitive dissonance between how people behave in B2B and how we believe we act –  the top 100 B2B brands alone leave $1 trillion in untapped brand value on the table.

Meanwhile, B2B customers are experiencing brand love, inspired by the “delightful,” “charming,” “quirky,” “playful,” “warm,” “thoughtful,” “light-hearted,” and “human” B2B experiences that made brands like Slack, Zendesk, and MailChimp such great commercial successes. These brands made B2B branding feel as relevant, fresh, and authentic as it did when visionaries like Montgomery Ward and John Deere first pioneered emotional B2B brand positioning – nearly a century before the term ‘brand positioning’ was coined. Ward and Deere approached it the same way our B2B brand agency would do it today – by solving a problem for the customer better than anyone else.

When Montgomery Ward and John Deere launched their businesses, the B2B market was primarily independent farmers whose access to supplies and equipment was hyper-local and hit-or-miss. If your area was underserved or your retailer had it in for you, you were out of luck. Large-scale enterprises were rare outside the railroad business, where monopolistic practices made marketing unnecessary. So if Chicago salesperson Montgomery Ward didn’t originate the idea of mass marketing on his own, his inventive catalog certainly put it on the map by delivering mail-order products to the communities now served by the burgeoning rail system. 

Pioneering Problem-Solver Nails B2B Brand Positioning
Before Montgomery Ward, you were stuck with whatever supplies your local shopkeeper provided, whether you liked it or not. Montgomery Ward de-positioned the classic general store with a customer-driven experience that echoed the emotional tenor of the Westward Expansion. Exposing Americans to new horizons, choices, and a sense of personal autonomy aligned with and shaped the unfolding American psyche. For the first time, a B2B shopper could compare costs, quality, and features without relying on a local vendor. 

Montgomery Ward wasn’t merely providing farm supplies and equipment – the brand presented a new way to think about the business of farming where you could plan ahead or just dare to dream, all in the privacy of your own home. Montgomery Ward’s game-changing B2B brand transformed the face of commerce and raised the bar for brand trust by successfully conveying credibility and certainty to customers who couldn’t meet the merchant or inspect the merchandise before buying. 

John Deere and the Birth of B2B Content Marketing
If Montgomery Ward’s eponymous catalog was a breakthrough for introverts and a new paradigm for brand relationships, John Deere’s trajectory to agricultural cult status was propelled by the company’s ingenious and prescient B2B content strategy. John Deere’s brand publication, The Furrow, was launched in 1895 and is still in print and available online. With readership peaking at 4 million farmers in 1912, The Furrow’s evolution bridged advertising and marketing with a strategic B2B brand positioning focused on advancing farmers. “Looking back at our archives, you can see the changes, from an advertorial to an agriculture journal a lot like the Farmers’ Almanac,” explained John Deere’s manager of corporate history. The company wove its product story with the achievements of the nation and the individual farmer to create a sense of purpose and destiny, Even the most technical subject has a human story behind it, and John Deere’s concept was agile enough to evolve incrementally with the market and its creators’ understanding of customers’ needs and desires.

Both brands adapted something familiar – advertising – to make it more relevant to their B2B customer base.  The ensuing disruption that Ward and Deere unleashed into the market compares to the impact of Amazon in recent times – nothing would ever be the same in B2B.

A great B2B branding agency is adept at anticipating individuals’ personal and professional needs, pain points, desires, and fears and weaving them into a singular B2B brand positioning that aligns with the customer company’s overall agenda.

B2B Brand Agencies Adjust, Adapt, Repeat
As a rule, markets only get more competitive – spiraling up in brand sophistication, spurred on by each others’ advances. Agricultural B2B brands are no exception. After 2021’s historic machinery shortage upended the segment, McKinsey’s “Voice of the US Farmer” survey reported that 30% of farmers had de-prioritized farm equipment brand loyalty compared to five years ago. Commodity prices and COVID-19 led to low and declining available stock across all brands, making buyers’ preexisting brand allegiances secondary at best. We can only assume that the team at John Deere is mourning the segment’s disintegrating customer loyalty, with its impressive #3 ranking in the newest Axios-Harris brand reputation survey. Cultivating agility is now table stakes in a world beset with turmoil – even for wildly popular B2B incumbents like John Deere, a beloved brand for farmers and wannabes alike.

New B2B Processes, New Brand Strategy Problems
Exacerbating the need to rethink B2B brand strategy are new buying channels, which are making the B2B shopping and sales experience increasingly digital and self-serve. Since 2016, B2B buyers have gone from using five channels to ten, so B2B brands now have twice as many touchpoints to cover. So how can B2B brand leaders create consistency across new channels and close the brand value gap in this high-speed, low-touch environment?

Get obsessed with the B2B customer on a human level.
B2B gatekeepers are always human, just as they are with B2C brands. But unlike B2C decisions. Your brand pitch is always received – or not – by individuals. B2B decisions are highly-public and will impact the professional status of the individuals involved. A great B2B branding agency is adept at anticipating these individuals’ personal and professional needs, pain points, desires, and fears and weaving them into a singular B2B brand positioning that aligns with the customer company’s overall agenda. Choosing B2B partners to manage a digital transformation, for example: such an initiative may be the biggest accomplishment of an executive’s career. Their status, the boss’s reputation, and the company’s success may all be riding on their decision, so your brand must communicate the right things to the right people – even when those people have little in common with each other.

To Resonate With B2B Customers, Empathize
It’s all about empathy, though most B2B brands try to appear as buttoned-up as the most buttoned-up person in the customer’s chain of command to mirror the customer company’s culture. The same rationale can be applied to everyone who has the potential to make or break the B2B relationship. That’s not limited to just the finder or decider – technology B2B vendors often go through many layers of review before they make it to the final decider, or not. When communicating with individuals, you can’t predict what they care about, but you can be the best-prepared contender in the space and cover all the most relevant possibilities. 

That starts with understanding each prospect, competitor, and touchpoint in context, then positioning your brand to maximize value for each of them and their company a whole, all while creating new competitive advantages for your business. Every case is unique, but here are five emotional B2B brand strategy moves every business leader can use and one multitasking brand successfully employing all five insights.

  1. Commit to ongoing, organized competitive analysis.
    Your B2B brand positioning must embrace every specialty and personality type that impacts the decision – but you must do it better than the competition. To maintain an agile, competitive brand that can outmaneuver opponents, monitor your competitive landscape at all times. 
  2. Study your finders, deciders, and everyone they consult.
    The more you anticipate and address their needs, the more confident they will feel about selling you through the chain of command. Every aspect of your brand reflects on them, positively or negatively, so tailor your B2B brand messaging to their roles, requirements, and motivations.
  3. Create consistency and certainty to simplify decision-making.
    The ‘finders’ who bring your brand up the chain to the ‘deciders’ are vetting more than specs lists and demos. They want to see how detail-oriented and competent you are – even in areas that aren’t your specialty. Help them out by coordinating a unified cross-channel experience.
  4. Appeal to the customer’s most passionate advocates and experts.
    Segment your message by the audience to avoid objections and convey that you ‘get it.’ Help change-resistant engineers ‘get to yes’ with rock-solid technical content, for example, or craft your ESG and DEI pitch to convince the customer’s most enthusiastic advocate.
  5. Update, innovate, cross-pollinate, and cultivate agility.
    In a world beset with turmoil, a B2B brand that stands still can only stagnate. Brands in perpetual motion reinforce business resilience by imitating life. Fortune favors the bold! To build a brand that advances and adapts to change, stay receptive to new ideas and diverse inspiration.

B2B Case Study: Scaling Back to Scale Up
Cofounded at an accelerator program in Cork, Ireland, Perfect Day is an enterprise biology firm that creates innovative animal-free dairy. To help stimulate initial interest in the products, the team created a suite of consumer brands, including Brave Robot (ice cream and cake mixes), Modern Kitchen (cream cheese), and California Performance Co (sports nutrition products). 

Perfect Day announced plans to sell off its consumer product divisions this month. The company is streamlining its B2B Brand Architecture to focus on its core competencies as a B2B supplier offering ‘Biology as a Service,’ a clever bit of brand languaging that contextualizes and normalizes food biotech in terms familiar to its current customer base of CPGs and large-scale food retailers.

Perfect Day does a great job of capitalizing on consistency, a best practice mentioned above that begets trust and simplifies B2B decision-making. Deftly aligning brand, product, and growth strategies with ‘scale’ as their unifying principle, Perfect Day is working to shift global enterprises toward more resilient production methods, a field where expansion is practically a moral imperative. Spinning the brand’s pivot from B2C to B2B as a transitional brand strategy, cofounder Ryan Pandya explained, “We’ve known since day one that the needs of a consumer business are fundamentally different than the needs of an innovation-based and partnership-based B2B business… We needed to kickstart the category to catalyze the kind of collaborations with bigger companies that truly drive scale.”

Perfect Day’s newly-refocused B2B brand positioning lays the foundation for to its enterprise vision, which transcends the unicorn’s ‘starter’ category. Fixating on ‘scale’ rather than any specific field or format, Perfect Day made its mission broad enough to embrace innovative ideas and creative cross-pollination. The brand’s B2B vision extends beyond the dairy aisle, encompassing diverse categories, including agriculture, pharmaceutical, biologics, textile, and personal care.

Perfect Day’s B2B storytelling is purpose-driven, yet peppered with practical proof of concept – a strategy pointedly tailored to the task of closing massive CPG partnerships. With multidimensional considerations to manage, including corporate reputation and public relations, ESG, and consumer trends, Perfect Day’s ambitious brand story de-positions competitors who opt to ‘stay in their lane’ by making their missions feel meager and myopic in comparison. 

B2B brand strategy is emotional, so solve your customer’s pain.
You’re selling to the most sophisticated, brand-literate B2B customers of all time. Can you see your company through their eyes? B2B brands that exude authenticity and humanity will always de-position those who don’t. B2B is relationship-driven, so brands that balance sophistication with approachability strike the right emotional chord. Cold, transactional branding doesn’t cut it. Communicating like real people confers significant brand advantages when digital life can feel so dehumanizing. In life, as in branding, most brand interactions are considerably improved with more empathy. That’s especially true in B2B relationships, where we take our wins and losses so seriously. If innovative business services brands like Zendesk can create compelling brand personalities with playful, humanizing features like ‘The Thank You Machine,’ so can your B2B brand.


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