Experiential Marketing has seen ever increasing attention not only from an academic, but also from a professional point of view. This is at least in B2C markets. Brands are being recommended to strive to provide experiences, which are superior, memorable or exceptional. But, what happens in B2B?
If Nike is moving away from selling footwear, and reinventing itself as a provider of healthy and sporty lifestyle experiences; Starbucks focuses on providing a coffee-break-moment dazzling all the guests’ senses at a time, and Disney is selling the opportunity to totally immerse oneself in a complete fantasy world instead of producing children’s movies, it may prove that in today’s markets the experience sells.
The focus of this article should not be on whether these experiences differentiate in terms of their intrinsic characteristics or uniqueness. Much more it aims to focus on an interesting aspect of all the Brand Experience wave. That is, if it also makes its way into B2B market environments, thought to be characterized by rational decision making.
B2C Brand Experience
Brand Experience has been analyzed, both, in academic and in professional literature from different perspectives. The definitions of experience in marketing coincide in that, it is a multidimensional construct. Experiences seem to be a subjective response the consumer has to a marketing stimulus. They are holistic and require a grade of implication by the customer in an event. They are more or less memorable and generally revealed over time, which means that various contact points with the brand or product take their effect.
A commonly accepted definition, made by B. Schmitt, describes experiences as a holistic mix of sensual, affective, cognitive, physical and social responses to the environment of a consumer. It is understandable, that a consumer is finally convinced to purchase by factors such as design, an emotional bond with the brand or a social environment that expresses their lifestyle by the use of a certain product. Think of the fashion industry for example, where the functional feature of the product seems to be almost entirely removed from buying decisions. People love their smartphones or cars and just mentioning the name "Harley Davidson" should make the point of what is meant by a strong user community.
But what about B2B markets? Imagining a purchasing manager in the construction industry. After conducting a profound analysis of competing wheel excavators, will he decide to buy one model in particular because of his preference for its color? Does he have a personal relationship with the product, or with the community of its users? Unlikely. After all, how would he justify his decision with his superior?
In order to understand whether Brand Experience strategies could work in B2B markets it is necessary to highlight a few particularities of this environment, where activities are about satisfying the needs of other businesses.
Marketers in B2B environments are dealing with more complex decision making units. These are usually formed by groups of people and often changing members and thus motivations. Products in B2B markets tend to be more complex and it often takes a lot of expertise to make a decision.
As a result, the buying process takes more time and is at a high grade influenced by rational factors and functional product features. For example, there is less reliance on packaging, which in B2C markets has become more and more important in the last few years. Due to a generally smaller customer base than in B2C markets and the fact that B2B buyers are long term buyers, there is an elevated importance on personal relationships.
As a consequence of these differences, B2B marketing needs to reconsider its approach and basic principles. First of all, people, in particular sales people, are far more important than in consumer markets. They need to be able to demonstrate high expertise with the complex product, but also in after sales services and problem resolution. As key decision factors are value and risk it is crucial to foster trust and security with the client throughout the various interactions. It is thus crucial to focus on customer relationship management.
This shift from classical marketing to direct selling is often reflected in the relatively small budgets assigned to media advertising compared to the larger amount received by sales organizations.
B2B Brand Experience
In spite of this it should not be forgotten, that even with a strong focus on rationality, decision makers in B2B markets remain human and humans are influenced by their feelings and emotions. When experience is the cumulated result of what the client has gone through in the relationship with a provider, and as we have seen sales cycles tend to span over longer time frames, this means that the B2B marketer has a large number of opportunities to create strong experiences.
Facing the complexity of products, decision making units and buying decision the focus should be on simplicity. Experience is about managing customer touch points, which means that the B2B Experience strategy has to concentrate on the training of the sales people. Simplicity can be created by a well-integrated experience throughout the customer journey. Producing a seamless interaction will reduce friction and save time for the client. Sales person should be trained on how to communicate with their interlocutors in a way that he perceives familiarity, no matter what his particular position is in the buying process or the individual he is talking to.
The cognitive factor of the experience model will definitely play a central role in the B2B Brand Experience strategy. This does not make it less experiential. An opportunity might be to meet the customer at the intersection of clarity and surprise. Presenting the offering in a clear and concise manner, with a well-defined personal touch, will come down to preference as it provokes the crucial factors trust and security with the client. Building strong B2B is an often neglected opportunity. With a well-planned strategy and a consistent execution, by creating convincing experiences it can work out and providers are able to obtain a valuable differentiation from their competitors.
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