BRAND BUILDING: Senior Strategist, Shannon Deep, on how to create a more meaningful B2B brand voice

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BRAND BUILDING is a blog feature in which our experts present an in-depth POV on topics ranging from branding to design to experience, all through the lens of simplicity. Here Shannon Deep, senior communications strategist, discusses what B2B companies can learn from their B2C counterparts when it comes to brand voice. 

The speed and convenience of many experiences in B2C industries are upping the expectations in the B2B space. All customers are people and all people are customers, and they all want better, faster experiences. And we know that B2B brands reap big benefits when they put time and effort into the kinds of customer-experience strategies that B2C brands are executing—and innovating on—every day.

According to a 2016 article published by McKinsey & Company, when B2B companies dedicate resources to transforming their customer-experience processes, they see the same significant impact as B2C businesses. In this case, impact means “higher client-satisfaction scores, reductions of 10 to 20 percent in cost to serve, revenue growth of 10 to 15 percent, and an increase in employee satisfaction.”

We tend to think of businesses as these monolithic, logical profit machines, but they’re run by myriad people who can be anything but logical. As McKinsey puts it: “Even though B2B purchases are commonly assumed to stem from rational decisions, in our experience they hardly ever do.”

Furthermore, business decision makers are more likely to consider a B2B brand that consumers feel connected to—10% more likely.

So B2B has some catching up to do in customer experience. For so long, these brands have seemed like the serious older brothers of consumer brands. While Spotify is sneaking out the window and taking the family car for a joyride, Oracle is in his room, studying for next week’s chemistry test and listening to The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People on audiobook.

Most of our clients are those “serious” B2B brands, and they seek our services to differentiate themselves from competitors and stake out a defendable territory in the market. One powerful tool for doing just that is developing a distinct brand voice to use in increasingly important social media and business-as-usual communications that does double duty: A brand’s voice in these mediums has to stand out, but it also must forge an emotional connection with its audiences.

And it’s in this squishy, nebulous, “emotional connection” department that B2B brands can take a lesson from their fast-and-loose B2C brothers. As branding and communication professionals, it’s our job to help our B2B clients if not joyride, at least turn off the audiobook and open the window to let in the breeze.

That’s not to say that B2B brands should flat-out imitate B2C voices, but there are certainly lessons to glean.

So what can a B2B brand searching for its voice learn from the B2C space?

The first and most obvious lesson is to speak as, and to, real people. There is an antiquated notion out there that even contractions and personal pronouns are unprofessional and undercut the integrity of B2B communications. But just as “professional” doesn’t have to mean “corporate robot,” “casual” doesn’t have to mean “3 a.m. text message.”

A B2C brand that does a great job of walking the line between professional and casual is online bank Simple. Overall, its branding is a study in success, thanks in no small part to UX that actually lives up to the brand’s promises. But their brand voice, in particular, is unique. Its whimsy and quirk is unmatched in the financial services sector, but what’s most impressive about their writing—and indeed, why it’s so compelling—is that it is balanced by transparency, straightforwardness and reassurance. Remember, Simple is dealing with people’s money—you can’t goof around and expect people to trust you with their money unless you’re otherwise doing a good job of convincing them you’re a top-notch, highly professional operation.

(Simple strikes a casual tone, but we never discount the importance of the information contained in this email.)

Simple took a big risk with its eccentric, star-child voice, but they really stick the landing by providing clear, useful communications, proving that even in high-stakes industries, brands can afford to loosen their ties without losing credibility.

(Out there…yet useful. Simple weaves a little lyricism into its very straightforward instructions for dealing with fraud.)

Another thing that Simple does well is injecting humor into their communications, which is the second lesson B2B brands can learn from the B2C space. It’s ok to be witty. It’s ok to slip in a clever turn of phrase or acknowledge an obvious irony, especially if you know that your audiences are already making the joke. We appreciate humor—especially “insider” humor—because it demonstrates a certain self-awareness that relates a business directly with its audience and it brings them closer emotionally because they feel like they’re in on the joke. Everybody likes to feel like they’re part of the team, you know?

(Clever and conversational, Simple puts a twist on the standard “Click here to request a paper copy” CTA.)

But humor is admittedly risky for a B2B communications strategy—and not universal, especially across languages and cultures. So while a light, witty touch is a quick way to warm up a communication, going for full-blown yuks might have an alienating effect or induce eye-rolls. While a B2C brand like Old Spice can lean hard into its surreal parody of hyper-masculinity to crack smiles, a B2B brand with a broader audience may want to stick to smart wordplay.

(The fragility of American masculinity may be hilarious, but a B2B brand could never make this joke.)

Finally, the last lesson that B2B brands can glean from B2C is an appreciation for the cultural moment. With supercomputers in almost every pocket—and increasingly strapped to wrists—audiences are more plugged in than ever. Their awareness of what’s happening in the news, in pop culture and on the internet is another entry point into their hearts and minds that B2C brands are clamoring to exploit while B2B brands seem unaware exists.

B2C brands fret ad nauseam over connecting with Millennial consumers, and increasingly those same Millennials will be running businesses as the workforce naturally ages into retirement. So while a brand like Ruffles can successfully trot out a popular meme, many B2B companies wouldn’t touch one with a 10-foot pole.

(Get ’em, Arthur.)

And they may have good reason. The watch-out here, of course, is that the younger, tech-savvier generation is also far more suspicious of anything that even hints at insincerity, and nothing says insincere like a corporation forcing itself into a cultural moment, seemingly for its own gain. We’ve watched time and time again as B2C brands have really screwed the social media pooch attempting to capitalize on everything from holidays to national tragedies and celebrity deaths. So it’s understandable that a B2B brand may be a little gun-shy when it comes to pulling the trigger on using the “Y U No” guy or Success Baby memes.

(RIP Job of Whoever Wrote That Tweet. You’ll always have the worst ideas in the office.)

But that’s not to say that it doesn’t pay to keep an ear to the ground. While IBM should steer clear of “Damn, Daniel,” subtler, text-based memes and popular internet syntax are tasteful, appropriate and easy to integrate. Take, for example, the meme “TFW,” an acronym used to start social media posts that stands for “That feeling when…,” usually accompanied by a photo. It’s easy to imagine a B2B brand riffing off that convention without trying to be the parent who crashes their son’s house party. (“No, I’m a cool mom!”)

In conclusion, the lessons B2B companies can learn from B2C’s focus on customer experience are a bit of a mixed bag, with the biggest takeaway being this: Try something! Just don’t try to be someone you’re not.

Shannon Deep is a senior strategist at Siegel+Gale. Follow her on Twitter: @sldeep

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