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How to Differentiate Your B2B Brand in 2014

By John McTigueApr 15, 2014

b2b differentiatorsHaving trouble setting your brand apart from your competitors? You're not alone. If your brand isn't a household name, like Amazon or Fedex, you must find other ways to differentiate and capture market share. Millions of companies like yours struggle with this challenge. The key thing to remember is differentiation is in the eye of the beholder. Your customers will decide who gets the sale.

Brand Differentiation is Not a New Challenge

The Four P's of Marketing (a.k.a "Marketing Mix"), Price, Product, Promotion and Place, have been discussed since the 1960s to describe the primary differentiators of commodity products. In the 70s, a more customer-centric model, the 7 Cs Compass Model, was introduced, including Corporation, Commodity, Cost, Communication, Channel, Consumer, Circumstances. Things have changed a lot since the 70s. In fact, the ability to change rapidly is now a significant differentiator in today's online marketplaces.

The Past 5 years Have Changed the Game Completely.

In today's wired economy, having a great product or service isn't enough. Once launched (and even before), everyone knows what you have to offer, and they're talking about your brand in their favorite channels. Everything is transparent—features and functions, price, support, even your roadmap for the future. Competitors have the same access to information as consumers, and their development efforts will almost certainly match yours. Consumers have multiple tools, including search, to size you up against your competitors and make decisions before your sales team has had a chance to try to sway them. So how can you differentiate your brand today?

Know Your Customers and Their Preferences

There's no substitute for understanding how and why your customers choose your brand. Before you update your brand, go-to-market strategy, website, messaging and content, do your homework. Ask your customers why they chose you over your competitors. Pin down what the tipping points are and how your customers perceive your company, people and the way you do business with them. Set aside your pre-conceived ideas of your brand's strengths and weaknesses and go with what's worked instead. This might break down into several differentiators that represent key criteria for your customers, including:

Industry Vertical

Companies that focus on a single, unique industry vertical, with expertise and customer history to back it up, enjoy a significant advantage over the generalists. BuilderTrend.com is a SaaS/Cloud project management application for small home builders and remodelers. The good news: according to SoftwareAdvice.com, within the builder community more than 72 percent said that the specialty software was very useful, while only 18 percent supported more generic project management applications. The bad news: there are more than 100 competitors in the construction project management space. Clearly, additional differentiators are needed.

industry-vertical-as-a-differentiator

Specialty or Niche

Well, I'll cite Kuno Creative as an example. We're an inbound marketing agency within the broader sector of marketing agencies. Further, we specialize in companies working with (and we resell) the HubSpot inbound marketing platform, and we're one of approximately 1500 HubSpot Partner Agencies. To narrow it down a little further, we're one of eleven Platinum Level Partners with the highest HubSpot sales volumes. The good news: we are well known and respected within our niche. The bad news: there are a lot of competitors, and the field is growing larger every day!

Product or Service Level

Now we're talking about the size, needs and budget of your customers. Do you sell a basic product or service at a relatively low price, or do you sell exclusively at a premium level with features and benefits usually not included at the discount levels? Or do you provide multiple levels? Much depends on the resources you allocate to your customers in terms of dedicated support and training or customization to fit their network or workflow needs. Smaller companies will generally have a hard time providing the higher levels of service and may have to build these resources over time. Salesforce.com is a good example of a software company with multiple levels of service designed to fit small, medium and enterprise-level customers. The good news: Salesforce is the de-factor standard in online CRM systems. The bad news: there's a lot of competition, especially at the small business end, where SaaS startups seem to be emerging on a daily basis.

Location

The more you can appeal to a local market (or perhaps multiple local markets), the better. This gets tricky with your website and SEO strategy. How do you appear to be focused on one market and still serve multiple markets within one brand domain? Here are some SEO tips to help with that apparent dilemma. It's one thing to optimize your site for local search, but you still have to be relevant to the local market. Your messaging, content, events and demand generation campaigns all need to have a local flavor. Oh yes, you need to have boots on the ground, too. Based in Austin, TX, Complete Web Resources knows where its customers live and work, so it created an Austin-flavored infographic to help promote the city and its local talents. The good news: Austin is rapidly growing, a great place to find new customers. The bad news: there will be lots of new web design firms popping up as the city grows.

Target Persona

Another way to differentiate is to focus your marketing on specific personas. Sales Benchmark Index has this approach down in spades. The first thing you're invited to do is to choose your role: CEO, Sales Leader, Marketing Leader, Sales Ops/Enablement, HR Leader or Sales Rep. As you drill down, each section has relevant blog posts that will appeal to you and your business challenges. Because you have self-identified, SBI can continue to engage you with email, events and social media updates that help you find the right solution for your needs. This is content marketing at its best. The good news: SBI is killing it with persona-targeted content marketing. The bad news: other consulting firms are learning how to do this, too. 

choose-target-personas-as-a-differentiator

Real, Demonstrable Experience

Now let's assume you have chosen one or more differentiators that help you reduce the competition and gain market share. You can't just claim to be good at your niche. Everyone says they're experts in your area. You have to back up your claims with real, demonstrable experience you can prove. Don't make your buyers dig deep to find your niche-specific case studies and testimonials. Celebrate your successes with blog posts, webinars and videos that show you are the market leader in your space. Since B2B buyers often take months or even years to decide on a purchase, you need to keep this proof-of-experience publication fresh with new success stories and challenges. HubSpot does this really well with hundreds of customer case studies, organized into topics for easy search and selection. Good news: you can't lose by showing your experience, unless, bad news, you don't have much.

hubspot-backs-up-experience-with-case-studies

Real, Demonstrable Leadership

One of the best differentiators and drivers of brand awareness is thought leadership. Having one or more clear leaders in your industry or niche is a classic recipe for success. These days, that means blogging regularly, building social media reach and engaging every day on Twitter, LinkedIn and Google+, writing eBooks and books, speaking at industry events, making media appearances and sponsoring industry and charity events. Ideally, you want your CEO doing this, but don't force the issue. Find the best thought leader for your company and channel her thoughts and experience into this role. Some of my favorites include Jay Baer, Joe Pulizzi, Ardath Albee and Rand Fishkin. Other things being equal, your acknowledged leadership in your niche will mean the difference between success and failure.

Other Differentiators

There are many possible ways to differentiate your brand, as listed in this post by Derrick Daye. Cosmetic things, like company name, logo and website design may help when it comes down to deciding between your brand and another, but I think the main things will be proven performance and alignment between what you do and what you say you do.

A few more differentiators that come to mind:

  • Agile product development and marketing
  • Really outstanding, live-person customer service
  • Customer user groups and forums, supported by you
  • User meetings highlighting customer success stories
  • High-profile brands as customers
  • Multi-language capability
  • Recognized expert-level publications in your niche
  • Aligned sales and marketing teams

What are your most important brand differentiators?

Enterprise Inbound Marketing Guide photo credit: photography by rockfingrz
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The Author

John McTigue

With over 30 years of business and marketing experience, John loves to blog about ideas and trends that challenge inbound marketers and sales and marketing executives. John has a unique way of blending truth with sarcasm and passion with wit. You can connect with John via LinkedIn, Twitter and Google Plus.
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