This article is adapted from Rachael's appearance on the CMO Convo podcast.

In the dynamic landscape of B2B marketing, the harmonious relationship between brand awareness and sales endeavors stands as a linchpin for sustainable growth.

This collaborative approach is more than just aligning strategies; it's a holistic endeavor that melds brand-building and sales efforts into a unified force. Having traversed this journey myself, I've come to realize the profound impact of bridging the gap between these crucial domains.

I’m Rachael Donnelly, and I currently serve as the Chief Marketing Officer for Experian Marketing Services. Join me as I explore the transformative power of aligning brand awareness with the sales spectrum.

CMO Convo | Making the case for brand awareness | Rachael Donnelly
How can your customers buy from you, if they don’t know who you are? And yet you still need to make the case for brand awareness, as Rachael Donnelly explains.

Understanding brand awareness: Beyond the vanity metrics

When I think brand awareness, I define it by questioning: do individuals genuinely recognize your brand, understand its values, and know what it can deliver for them? For instance, many are familiar with Experian in its capacity as a credit bureau. Yet, a fewer number, unless they've engaged directly with us or in the past, are aware of our marketing segment and our competencies in data.

Experian has a storied history, especially in the credit services and consumer domains. Hence, it's paramount for us to not only build our B2B brand but also to leverage the existing legacy that Experian holds. The real queries become: Are our customers and prospects aware of us? Do they understand how we measure up against competitors? Are our own employees championing and advocating for us out in the market? It's about coherence and having everyone on the same page.

Yes, measuring brand awareness can be challenging. However, various indicators can help gauge it - factors like share of voice, event coverage, earned media, and even analyst coverage.

In my unique position at Experian, I began almost from ground zero. Thus, while we've made significant strides, there's much to accomplish. Regularly assessing the data helps us ensure we're moving in the right direction and achieving our awareness targets.

Brand awareness in B2B: Gaining traction

Traditionally, B2B sectors may have overlooked the power of brand awareness, considering it more crucial for B2C. However, this mindset is changing, and the reason is simple: businesses, at their core, are about people.

A common misperception is viewing businesses merely as entities or corporations. The reality is that the decision-makers, the buyers, are humans. While we may be marketing to companies, our actual target is the individual behind the decisions.

This thought process aligns with B2C, where a consumer might quickly decide to buy based on an advertisement. In the B2B realm, we are also trying to resonate with individuals - ordinary people with personal lives, distinct interests, and individual personalities.

The objective becomes reaching these decision-makers at pivotal moments, ensuring the brand's message is both timely and relevant to their current mindset. The goal goes beyond mere transactional B2B sales; it's about fostering genuine relationships and connecting with them as unique individuals.

The evolving landscape of B2B branding

The modern business landscape has undergone significant transformations. Rewinding 20-30 years ago, businesses primarily engaged with behemoths like IBM, Microsoft, or the early days of Amazon.

Today, there's an inundation of specific SaaS companies, each offering niche solutions. The sheer volume of options presents businesses with choices, but it also means that brands without any emotional connection are vulnerable to losing customers to competitors. It's not like in the past, when businesses had limited options and were bound to a single provider.

When I began my journey with Experian, we were integrating a newly acquired business, Tapad. Although a startup in the ad tech sector with a 10-year history, there were B2B customers who had engaged with Experian Marketing Services for decades. These aren't mere vendor-buyer connections but deeply entrenched relationships.

The trust that forms the core of these affiliations is the cornerstone. When we develop new products, features, or capabilities, we actively involve our partners in brainstorming and feedback processes. This kind of synergy transforms business transactions into genuine partnerships. It's reminiscent of a consumer's trust in a brand, perhaps stemming from their lifelong loyalty to brands like Apple.

Why trust matters in B2B

In the B2B realm, trust isn't just about personal choices – it can significantly impact a company's bottom line. Choosing an inefficient B2B partner isn't as simple as purchasing a defective item from a store; it might jeopardize the company's stability and even put jobs at risk.

Cultivating a solid brand relationship is paramount even to have businesses consider your offerings.

Furthermore, B2B sales cycles can be extensive - often spanning several months to years. This extended period underscores the necessity of nurturing trust and relationships.

Such bonds empower our partners to confidently present their decisions to their teams and superiors, ensuring that they're making a worthwhile investment. In the unique sphere of B2B, it's less about transactional sales and more about mutual benefits.

The focus shifts from simply selling to enhancing a partner's job or boosting their image in their organization. After all, when they achieve success using our data or technology, it's a collective victory for all involved.

The branding conundrum in marketing budgets

In the face of economic downturns, brand-building activities often get the axe first. The straightforward reason, though perhaps not the most accurate, is that brand marketing is harder to measure.

Establishing a brand and building trust takes time. It's not something that can be quantified in the short term. Conversely, with demand generation programs, it's simpler to see a direct return on investment. Spend X amount, and in a few months, you get Y leads. This makes brand investments an easy target when companies look to trim costs.

However, choosing where to cut - be it brand work, lead generation, or both - requires a strategic decision. It's also essential to explore ways to boost our pipeline that aren't tied to high-cost activities.

Since I embarked on this journey, a significant portion of our time, more than our budget, has been dedicated to understanding our current brand awareness. We've delved deep into research to grasp not only the awareness of our brand but also our capabilities.

This involved gauging affinities - how do customers and potential clients feel about certain products, capabilities, or the brand in its entirety?

This research guided us on which qualities from both brands we should carry forward. It provided insights on crafting a cohesive brand narrative moving forward. While such work can sometimes come off as abstract or "fluffy", especially during business updates, its long-term value is undeniable.

Even when discussing seemingly minor details like brand personality or presentation templates, the overarching objective remains clear: crafting a seamless brand experience.

If executed correctly, all these brand elements should blend harmoniously, becoming almost invisible yet laying a solid foundation. Although these updates might sound trivial in the moment, their long-term impact becomes apparent with results. Now, we're starting to see a rise in our share of voice and increased references to our brand.

Balancing short-term gains and long-term brand building in B2B Marketing
Balancing short-term goals with long-term branding strategy requires a holistic, nuanced approach. Here are a few strategies that companies can employ to help balance the mindset between the two.

Measuring and sharing brand awareness metrics

When I initially started, the concept of "share of voice" was front and center. My president often remarked about how we needed to amplify our presence in the market, noting how our competitors were continually making noise.

In contrast, we remained reserved, especially concerning marketing and press coverage. We were analytical in our approach, examining metrics such as share of voice, mentions in the press, requests for commentary on news articles, and analyst coverage. Our goal was to establish a comprehensive baseline across all these brand facets.

We dove into our brand equity, determining how our brand's capabilities stacked up against competitors. This was determined through a combination of quantitative and qualitative research.

After about six months of this intensive analysis, we had a clear picture of our standing as the marketing services branch within Experian. With this baseline, we strategized - identifying areas to ramp up efforts and others where current performance was sufficient. Our focus shifted to setting targets for the subsequent year, looking to adjust our strategy based on our findings.

Now, a year and a half later, the impact is palpable. Whether it's a call from a journalist seeking our perspective or the evident year-over-year increase in our share of voice, the narrative unfolds positively. While the day-to-day progress might seem marginal, a broader perspective reveals the true success of our strategy and its influence on our results.

We regularly updated the company about our findings and the resultant influence on our brand and marketing strategies. Every expenditure, media coverage, or event participation ties back to these metrics.

Today, our team meetings include updates on performance, be it branding or lead generation. Marketing, often viewed as abstract or detached from the core business, in reality, has a tangible objective: influencing revenue. My primary goal has always been to ensure our initiatives are driving growth for every department - be it sales, product, or any other. At the end of the day, the overarching aim is revenue generation.

How do branding activities drive revenue?

In the business world, there's often a debate on the tangible value of branding activities, especially when compared to direct lead generation efforts. While the latter can easily correlate to a dollar value, brand efforts are more intangible, focusing on building awareness and mindshare in the market.

The value of soft metrics in branding

When we venture into new brand positioning, success isn't always measured by immediate returns. Instead, the validation comes when people - not just our existing customers but the broader market - begin referencing our new brand architecture.

If the market can recall our brand and the capabilities of our products, it signifies a victory in branding. This recall is a testament to the general awareness we aim to build.

Events as pillars of brand strategy

A perfect illustration of this blend between branding and tangible returns is our events. We organize two major events each year - one in January and the other in June. While their primary purpose revolves around branding and raising awareness, they have a direct bearing on revenue generation.

These events enable us to meet customers and build a sales pipeline. Over time, we can trace the journey of a lead, from their initial interaction at an event to subsequent touchpoints like email campaigns or downloading white papers. And ultimately, many of these interactions crystallize into measurable revenue.

While it's a more prolonged journey compared to direct lead generation, it's equally, if not more, valuable.

The evolution of our tracking system

Our capability to track these branding efforts has been a work in progress. When I joined post-acquisition, we grappled with the challenge of running our campaigns on two separate CRM platforms. This meant double the effort for every campaign.

Over time, we've streamlined our processes by consolidating our CRM, refining our email marketing, and integrating our social channels. A significant part of our journey has also been about cleaning up our CRM system. Ensuring that every account and contact is correctly labeled and structured is pivotal. Our rigorous monthly audits are proof of our commitment to ensuring data accuracy. Because, at the end of the day, it all boils down to data.

Collaboration between sales and marketing

One of the cornerstones of our success in branding is the close collaboration between our sales and marketing teams. Our joint strategies and efforts mean that even if leads from an event take six to twelve months to mature, both teams understand its long-term importance.

Having a sales team that champions and advocates for branding strategies is invaluable. Their support ensures that our branding initiatives, no matter how intangible they might seem, always have the backing they need to drive real business value.

Unraveling the power of multi-touch attribution in B2B marketing

Attribution has long been a contentious point in the B2B marketing space. While single-touch attribution offers simplicity, its limited scope can mislead, especially given the long sales cycles typical of B2B. Multi-touch attribution, by providing a holistic view of the customer's journey, promises to be a game-changer.

Bridging the gap: From non-digital to digital activities

We are very much in the trenches of evolving our multi-touch attribution processes. One thing is clear - claiming to have "figured it all out" means you're likely not innovating. Our strategy continually evolves, with monthly audits being a testament to our commitment.

For events, an area often perceived as challenging from an attribution standpoint, we've devised several mechanisms to bridge the gap:

  • Pre-event communication: Before events, we actively communicate with our email list, informing them of our participation. This helps ensure that they know of our presence.
  • Utilizing social media: We equip our teams with social cards to share their event attendance on platforms like LinkedIn. Such shares can signal interest from potential leads even if a formal meeting doesn’t take place.
  • CRM tracking: Post-event, our salespeople meticulously log their interactions and meetings. Over time, this forms a tapestry of interactions that can be traced back to revenue.
  • Web traffic analysis: We leverage tools to understand our website traffic. Recognizing a visitor from an offline event visiting our website is a leap towards attributing their interest to the said event.

B2B Branding and attribution

The entire B2B industry is undergoing a shift. With B2B players now dabbling in strategies traditionally associated with B2C - such as out-of-home advertising and even Superbowl ads - the attribution challenge is mounting.

But the silver lining is the rapid tech advancements that promise to offer solutions. A comprehensive mapping of the B2B buyer's journey, aided by these technologies, will be transformative for businesses.

Our primary task is to decode our buyer's journey. We're striving to comprehend our sales cycles, touchpoints, and effective ways to track them. The crux lies in assimilating data and presenting it in a cohesive, compelling narrative.

When a marketer can weave a story where a lead attends an event, browses the website without significant interaction, and later participates in a webinar, it emphasizes the multifaceted value of our marketing programs. The end goal? To demonstrate that every marketing touchpoint, however subtle, plays a vital role in the grand tapestry of customer acquisition and conversion.

How B2C practices inform B2B strategies

B2C, particularly in the e-commerce domain, excels at facilitating smooth transitions between platforms and effectively monitoring all customer touchpoints. This holistic view of omni-channel marketing, which ensures a cohesive and seamless customer experience regardless of channel or device, is a model B2B businesses should embrace more.

While we're not yet tracking sentiment during our CRM audit, our primary focus at the moment is ensuring up-to-date information. We implement random audits, analogous to airport spot checks, wherein we might focus on specific accounts with heightened engagement to confirm they are accurately documented.

It’s akin to a sporadic review, varying monthly, to guarantee a comprehensive coverage. The objective isn't just to ensure data accuracy but also to determine if engagements are categorized correctly and if sellers attribute them to the right funnel stages.

We further analyze where potential clients get stuck in the funnel, adapting our approach based on those observations. Whether it means redirecting them to a different marketing process or altering our engagement strategies, the audit serves as a vital touchpoint for fine-tuning our tactics.

A seamless buyer journey significantly influences brand perception. Activities that may appear to be merely about funnel building also contribute to broader brand-building initiatives. While the buyer journey's efficiency and seamlessness form part of the brand's promise and perception, understanding this connection can prevent marketers from isolating these activities.

Thought leadership initiatives are designed to enhance brand awareness and emphasize our company's unique strengths and offerings. Simultaneously, we provide avenues for immediate action, enabling prospects to capitalize on the information immediately.

For instance, if we produce content about specific audiences and their predicted behaviors, we also offer actionable pathways for clients interested in targeting such audiences right away. By catering to both brand awareness and direct lead generation, we aim to create a comprehensive marketing strategy that meets various consumer needs.

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Building a strong partnership with sales

In the realm of B2B, fostering a seamless connection between brand-building activities and sales efforts is paramount. The common perception of sales and brand activities as separate entities can sometimes hinder cohesive business strategies. However, my experience has shown that aligning these functions can yield substantial benefits.

Working closely with our Chief Commercial Officer, who oversees the sales teams, has been a game-changer. Our collaboration is built on a foundation of daily communication, which enables us to strategically execute and prioritize initiatives.

Given the size of our sales team and the diverse verticals we serve, strategic alignment is key. We address questions like: What needs immediate focus? What should be emphasized down the line? Are there any bottlenecks or obstacles emerging in the sales process? By sharing insights and updates, we ensure that our marketing efforts complement sales strategies and vice versa.

Our collaboration isn't limited to one aspect of marketing. It encompasses a range of functions, from product marketing to vertical-specific campaigns, lead generation, event management, branding, and more. This diverse scope requires us to be agile and flexible, responding to ever-changing needs and market dynamics.

We also collaborate closely with sales leaders assigned to different client types, tailoring our strategies to address the unique pain points and competitive challenges encountered in each segment.

We've recognized the value of sales leaders who work closely with different client verticals, as they provide vital on-the-ground insights. This perspective is essential for understanding the nuances of various industries, identifying client pain points, and responding to market trends. When our marketing strategies are aligned with the unique needs of each vertical, we can more effectively influence decision-making and nurture stronger client relationships.

The collaboration with our sales team has led to numerous successes. We've documented the progress of client accounts over extended periods, illustrating how marketing touchpoints have contributed to their growth. These case studies highlight how our joint efforts have transformed accounts, from prospecting to closing deals, and emphasize the shared responsibility for these achievements.

The partnership between marketing and sales is more than just aligning strategies - it's about crafting a cohesive narrative that resonates with clients, delivering value at every touchpoint, and celebrating victories as a unified team. Through daily communication, strategic alignment, and mutual support, our collaboration underscores the interconnectedness of brand building and sales in the B2B landscape.

The role of sales in shaping brand perception

Our sales team has played a pivotal role in the brand work we've undertaken. They've been instrumental in helping us identify the customers we should interview for our qualitative research. They also pointed out prospects that seemed elusive. This collaboration ensured that they were regularly updated about our findings, and these insights deeply influenced our strategy shifts.

A major change we undertook was simplifying our product architecture. From an overwhelming list of about 150 products when I joined, we streamlined it down to two. This wasn’t a reduction in capability, but a strategic move to present our offerings more cohesively. The decision was based on feedback which suggested that our narrative seemed scattered, focusing too much on individual features rather than presenting a strategic solution. It was crucial for the sales team to buy into this change because they're the ones on the frontline, interacting with clients and prospects.

However, it's not about just aligning on the products; the conversations have evolved. Instead of discussing uncertainties about our offerings, the dialogue now revolves around specific feedback from customers or looking at competitors' strategies. The aim is to collaboratively ensure we’re putting our best foot forward, refining how we present ourselves to the world.

Integrating brand awareness into company culture

When I first joined, our team was quite lean, comprising just a few contractors handling design and content. However, recognizing the need for a more holistic approach to branding and marketing, we've expanded our team.

We now have a product marketing function, partner marketing function, brand and experience function, and even a lead generation function. This growth is all about offering more comprehensive support to our sales team, enabling them to focus on what they do best: selling.

Our aim is to ensure they're not bogged down with tasks like crafting the perfect outreach message.

Instead, our goal is to provide them with the resources and content that allow them to engage potential clients effectively. The journey has been full of testing, learning, and refining. In all our endeavors, feedback is essential.

Whether it's from someone on my team, a seller, or a product specialist, this feedback loop ensures that we're collectively marching towards our primary goal: generating revenue for the business.

Being part of a company with a well-known brand, like Experian, can be an advantage when explaining the significance of brand awareness. However, elaborating on the unique demands of B2B branding is a different challenge.

To really get buy-in from stakeholders, especially in situations where there might be skepticism or a lack of understanding, it's crucial to turn to data. By bringing in a third party for brand research, we could produce an unbiased, data-driven narrative. This approach not only removes emotion from the equation but also ensures that decisions are rooted in tangible findings.

Being data-driven creates a comfort zone for stakeholders. They know that the choices being made are informed, calculated, and based on real insights. Therefore, when performance is measured against initial goals, there's a reliable benchmark to reflect upon.

Balancing short-term gains and long-term brand building in B2B Marketing
Balancing short-term goals with long-term branding strategy requires a holistic, nuanced approach. Here are a few strategies that companies can employ to help balance the mindset between the two.

3 golden rules for brand awareness

  • Humanize your brand: Always remember that behind every business transaction, there's a human. Crafting a brand awareness strategy that resonates on a human level ensures a lasting connection. Whether it's an email campaign, cold call, or a thought leadership initiative, think about the people at the receiving end.
  • Trust the data: Being clear about your objectives and always referring back to the data is paramount. By setting clear goals and consistently measuring your progress against them, you create a roadmap that's easy to follow and justifies your strategic decisions.
  • Embrace failure and adaptability: Fear of failure can be a significant roadblock. But in the ever-evolving realm of branding, not everything will always go according to plan. It's essential to recognize when something isn't working and be agile enough to pivot. The key isn't to avoid failure but to learn from it. Being transparent and data-driven empowers you to acknowledge what didn't work, adjust, and strive for better outcomes.

If you need advice on making the case for brand building to your internal stakeholders, there's no better place than the CMO Alliance Community Slack channel! Join the conversation with a global network of CMOs and marketing leaders.