B2B CEO as Brand Guru How marketing can find an ally in the C-Suite

Bill Nussey – Former CEO of Sliverpop and Founder of An Energy Project

Bill Nussey, former CEO, Silverpop, with Bob Domenz, CEO, Avenue

Despite making great strides in marketing sophistication, B2B is still often seen as a branding backwater, unfriendly toward the “soft” pursuits of brand purpose, personality and such. That image, however, is becoming more and more outdated, as successful B2B leaders embrace the enhancements in pre-selling, marketplace differentiation, price premium, employee motivation, customer experience and, of course, overall communication that top flight branding can bring.

I had a chance to speak to one such “brand-forward” CEO, Bill Nussey of Silverpop, a division of IBM. His insights should be helpful to CMOs and other CEOs alike.

Bob Domenz: I hear you have a bone to pick with CMOs about how they approach branding.

Bill Nussey: Yes… and it’s based on the experience I’ve had every time I’ve hired a new head of marketing. Each time I’ve told them, “Don’t do what every other head of marketing has done, which is tell me at some point we need a new brand.” One hundred percent of them came back and said, “We need a new brand.”

I guess it’s like a right of passage for a head of marketing. It’s their chance to put their own stamp on the company. So I’d get a brand book that described the color, the logo, the typefaces, and I’d give it to the next head of marketing and say, “Don’t ever bring me one of these.” But they all did. So that’s my cynical view of it.

Bob: Do you have a non-cynical view of branding?

Bill: Well, I think there are some points about branding in B2B that aren’t as heavily emphasized as they should be – and I think they’re far more important than the logo or the colors. One is the process of going through a branding exercise, which can be particularly important for a new executive. It’s about getting an inventory of company perceptions out in the marketplace – and also what the organization’s perception of itself is.

“There are some points about branding in B2B that aren’t as heavily emphasized as they should be – and I think they’re far more important than the logo or colors.”

A good branding process typically includes a heavy interview process with executives and customers, asking “What do you think of the company?” and all that. And while people in B2B tend to trivialize this process, it has real value. When I think about brands, I’m really thinking about mission and vision and market perception and position. It’s sad that all the great research that helps uncover it usually ends up in some appendix in a PowerPoint deck, while the focus of branding projects tends to be on the colors and fonts and shape of the logo.

B2B branding is one of those ideas that’s really stuck in between yesterday and today. It’s rooted in tons of old school thinking and yet most people would agree that it’s so much more than a logo these days.

Decades ago the notion of a brand was as an external or outbound marketing effort. Today, however, a brand is really the collective thoughts of all of our buyers and prospects. Unfortunately, our ability to directly influence those collective thoughts has declined massively.

“B2B branding is one of those ideas that’s really stuck in between yesterday and today.”

For instance, I could run a TV ad for Tide in the 1960s and the vast majority of people that thought about Tide would be getting their opinions from that commercial. They couldn’t speak to each other on any large scale. The TV was such a novelty—some pretty lady singing a song about Tide defined Tide—and it worked! Today when Tide runs ads on TV, it accounts for only a tiny portion of what people think about the brand.

In smaller companies, particularly the B2B companies, where the interaction with customers is so rich, so much more than transactional, being able to influence how the collective world thinks about your business is as much about listening and responding as it is proactively putting out messages and content.

Brand has moved from being a static photograph, as it was four decades ago, to a dynamic dialogue now. It’s a dialogue in which you as the company are one of many voices. And oftentimes, depending on your company and the business, you’re a small voice at that.

I think that as marketers embrace this new view of branding they are going to realize that what they call social media, what they call digital advertising, what they call customer support and relationship marketing, that [these are all part of a] theme, a massive theme called branding. If marketers [recognize that and approach the market with new] intent, then they can actually effect the brand in a way that’s a thousand or a million times larger than the impact of just their logo of choice of colors. That’s the brand that matters.

About Bill Nussey: Bill is Founder of An Energy Project, and formerly the President and CEO of Silverpop, an IBM company that provides cloud-based marketing software and services.

About Bob Domenz: Bob is CEO of Avenue, the B2B marketing strategy and activation firm. He is also the Founder and Executive Director of the B2B Brand Council.