Businesses Don’t Buy Things. People Do.
The Only Way to Succeed in this New Age of B2B Selling: Stories
Oracle is the world’s second-largest software company, a feat they have managed to accomplish without a single consumer-facing product. They are the global experts in business-to-business (B2B) selling. Despite offering highly technical solutions to sophisticated business, they have long realized that success does not hinge on the features and benefits of a given product. When Oracle is in front of a customer, they don’t sell a database, they sell their story:
“Large companies are often very adept at explaining what their products do, but not as adept at explaining how and why their customers use their products … salespeople don’t often know the real stories behind why their customers bought.”
For many B2B companies, the complexity of their product distracts them from building a strong brand identity. A common perception is that businesses — especially those operating in information-dense industries like aerospace, engineering, medicine, finance, and tech — are purely rational customers, and, as a result, when making purchases, they only need a comprehensive list of product features and benefits, not an emotional connection to the brand.
The truth is that there is no such thing as a business-to-business sale. Business purchasing decisions are always made by individual people. And people, even those representing businesses, are affected by factors beyond rationality. Technical decisionmaker or not, people’s decisions are deeply rooted in emotion.
So, it should not be surprising that a study by McKinsey revealed that, B2B companies with strong brands outperform companies with weak brands by 20 percent. Not only that, the B2B brands that are the strongest have a powerful emotional element.
Examining the B2B financial services market, McKinsey found that, in contrast to the myth of the rational business buyer, “the emotional dimensions of a brand really matter for B2B companies.” They also concluded that most B2B companies don’t realize this, and instead focus on communicating product specifications. “For all the difficulties the banking industry has faced, for example, banks have also been enabling businesses to survive, invest, merge together and create funds for shareholders. But they don’t tell that story.”
A Company’s Brand is its Story
Stories are as old as humanity itself, and, for thousands of years, they were essential to our survival. Prior to the mass dissemination of written texts, humans relied on stories to remember and share vital information about who could be trusted, who should be feared, and where it was safe to roam. Weaving facts through emotionally gripping stories empowered people to remember a significantly larger amount of information.
The unique ability of stories to communicate complex information with emotional resonance make them a perfect vehicle to drive B2B businesses’ brand identity. When speaking to key business decisionmakers, even more so than when speaking to consumers, there is a need to communicate in a way that is both factual and emotional. Only stories can do that in a compelling way.
Virtually every story to ever gain widespread adoption follows an arc codified by Joseph Campbell, called the Hero’s Journey: the hero is an ordinary person living in a broken world, who, after being handed a powerful gift by a sage mentor, is able to mend that world and restore it to harmony. This simple structure resonates so deeply with people it can be found in stories across time and place, from the Bible, to Moby Dick, to Jane Eyre, to Star Wars. B2B-oriented organizations can use this arc to craft a brand story that will inspire key decisionmakers inside their target businesses, as well as to ensure their whole team, from sales to customer success to HR to marketing, is sending a consistent message, a vital part of building a strong brand.
Speak Directly to a Person, Not Their Organization
UPS Supply Chain Solutions has built a strong B2B brand by following the Hero’s Journey arc. On their website, for example, they describe the broken world of retail businesses: “We understand what keeps you up at night … the competition is tougher and more aggressive. The customer has demands unthought-of a few years ago. The business is ever changing …. The need to justify the required innovation to stay competitive has become more difficult, justification takes longer, and results aren’t always a guarantee.”
This broken world has emotional resonance for the person inside a retail company who would be driving the decision to use UPS supply chain services. This key decisionmaker has fears about keeping up with the competition, and frustrations about the difficulty of meeting customers’ ever-changing demands — anxieties fueled more by emotional realities than a rational business analysis.
UPS positions itself as the mentor with a gift for this beleaguered protagonist, writing that they can provide personalized and reliable service that will ensure the retail business’s customers will be happy. UPS explains, “We combine our expertise with yours to create new opportunities. We understand logistics and we’ll work to understand your business, and how they work best together…. Our goal is to develop business solutions that create value and competitive advantages for our customers …”
In the final element of the story, UPS describes the mended world the customer could experience, promising that, if they contracted with UPS, instead of dealing “with supply chain issues,” they could “focus on [their] retail strategy.” UPS assures the hero: “We can turn your retail supply chain into a competitive advantage …. Let us take care of your supply chain so you can concentrate on your core competencies.”
Contrast UPS Supply Chain Solutions’ use of a brand story to Groupe Cat’s, another provider of supply chain solutions. Groupe Cat’s website declares, in large letters, “Building a healthy and sustainable growth for everyone,” and then launches into specific features of their services, writing, for example, that they can coordinate “the physical and administrative management” of various “automotive parts.” By focusing on services, and failing to tap into a larger story unfolding in their customers’ businesses, they miss an opportunity to connect over their customers’ struggles, or inspire excitement about the product experience. B2B companies without emotionally invested customers see only 66% of the revenues of companies that have emotionally invested customers — which may partially be why UPS Supply Chain Solutions is about ten times larger than Groupe Cat.
More technical organizations may remain skeptical that they can achieve success without focusing on the details of their solution. In addition to the previously mentioned Oracle, another B2B company that successfully executes a compelling brand story is Salesforce. Salesforce tells the story of providing businesses with the gift of growth by making it easy to cultivate meaningful relationships with their customers. That they do this through a CRM and data solutions is almost incidental. Many companies make the mistake of depicting themselves as the hero of the brand story, but Salesforce clearly understands it is the mentor, and its business customers are the heroes. Salesforce messaging is filled with language like, “Explore all the ways Salesforce helps you connect to your customers in a whole new way” and “Create deeper relationships with your customers.”
It’s More Than Marketing and Closing Deals
In a 16-year study of 450 B2B companies in 47 industries, it was determined that brand equity provides anywhere from a few million dollars of added value for companies with weak brands to tens of billions of dollars in added value for companies with strong brands. Another exhaustive study revealed that what most B2B companies thought were the most important components of their brand identity — promoting corporate responsibility, diversity, and sustainability — had zero impact on buyers’ perception of the strength of the brand. It’s easy to see why, as those are generic platforms signed on to by almost every large company, and they are rarely tied into the larger purpose of the company.
Instead, B2B buyers perceived brands as strong if the brand appeared to care “about open, honest dialogue with its customers and society,” had “a high level of specialist expertise,” and fit “in well with my values and beliefs.” Business buyers, for all their factual expertise, are foremost people: and all people have emotional struggles, frustrations and hopes, and respond most acutely to messaging that taps into those emotions.
Across all industries, only 29% of B2B customers are engaged with the company they are buying from. For the preponderance of companies failing to make this connection, it costs them revenue in the short-term and significant market share in the long-term. But, for everyone else, it creates an opening for disruption and massive growth. By investing in the right story that resonates with individual decisionmakers, B2B organizations can establish an emotional connection that unlocks a new level of sales success and brand loyalty.
Kelly Sarabyn is a manager at Woden. Whatever your storytelling needs may be, Woden can help. Read our extensive guide on how to craft your organization’s narrative, or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss how we can help tell your story.