Distribution or differentiation?

The complex relationship between channel marketing and brand value.

The relationships between B2B technology organisations and their vendors, distributors and partners have always been critical to success. These channels are such an important route to market in the tech sector because:

  • They allow rapid scale. For start-ups that want to grow quickly, channel partners are a great way to drive sales without having to build an internal sales function or an expansive internal marketing team.
  • They can extend reach into new markets. Finding partners with expertise and connections in different regions can open those geographies without the expense and complexity of entering them yourself.
  • The interconnected nature of the tech sector. Many products interact and integrate with each other or offer complementary services, collaboration between vendors is therefore desirable for users to help them navigate their stack

So, it is understandable that channel marketing, which sits at the heart of these relationships, has always been an important part of the B2B tech marketing mix.

However, the way in which B2B buyers engage vendors has changed fundamentally over the last 10 years. And, in response, the way that B2B organisations market themselves has also undergone something of an evolution. Except for channel marketing, that is.

Channel marketing is largely the same as it ever was. Partners are still rewarded and remunerated in conventional ways, often via rebates. The vendor’s willingness to open its wallet is often biggest factor in how much support they’ll get from the channel.

Measurement and success can often remain opaque. Each channel partner uses their own platforms. Many don't provide analytics or any type of reporting on how they're marketing, so it's difficult to understand the effectiveness of their campaigns.

Furthermore, channel partners tend to create their own messaging, collateral and target customers for a vendor’s products.

It is this lack of control and consistency that I would like to address in this post.

B2B marketing has changed. Brand investment is now essential.

We know that the buying behaviours of customers across most B2B tech sectors have been subject to change for a long time. Buyers are undertaking more of the sales journey themselves, engaging sellers later in the process and therefore leaving less opportunity for traditional marketing and sales tactics to be effective.

At the same time, the rapid development in the way products and services are delivered has advanced from hardware to the cloud to the edge. This is encouraging vendors move away from a focus on margin and volume toward providing enhanced services, expertise, insights and experiences to secure new customers.

This represents a shift in the very fundamentals of B2B tech marketing. Distinction, consistency, relevance and authenticity are the most important factors in how vendors go to market. These are products of a comprehensive brand strategy, and they are only brought to life by strong brand-led marketing.

Through a strong brand narrative, vendors can tell the story of how and why they’re uniquely placed to deliver on the needs of their customers with consistency, distinction, relevance and authenticity. And this is where traditional channel marketing is weakest.

Channel marketing can dilute brand impact

Channel marketing, by its very nature, makes it harder for vendors to drive differentiation and control brand perception. Having a cluster of channel partners all going to market with different messages, different interpretations of product benefits and different ways of segmenting customers makes it difficult to maintain brand consistency.

The consequence of an organisation having poor brand consistency is that it gets harder to differentiate as prospects move through the sales funnel. And this is where many b2b tech vendors that rely heavily on channel marketing find themselves. It often goes something like this:

At the top of the funnel, brand awareness isn’t as broad or deep as it should be.

Mid funnel qualification is low which means too much time is spent addressing misconceptions when prospects should be converting.

At the bottom of the funnel, when it comes to final decision-making, vendors have no brand to drive distinction and find themselves competing too often on cost and convenience.

A step in the right direction: A brand playbook that acts as a marketing blueprint for channel partners

A strong brand, created by a comprehensive brand strategy, influences a buyer’s decision making at every stage of the sales journey. Strong brand associations elevate a vendor in the mind of their addressable market.

Brand-led marketing focuses on telling immersive, multi-channel stories about an organisation’s culture, values, operating principles and people. When combined with detailed messaging that is nuanced for different customer segments, these create the differentiation and distinction that vendors need. Aggregating these assets into a single, centralised repository for ongoing reference gives consistency to the entire marketing mix.

I prefer to use a brand playbook as this centralised repository rather than a brand strategy. Brand strategy documents tend to be too technical for this job; they bring together the disparate components of value proposition, products and customer insights and it’s not always easy to translate that into brand storytelling.

A brand playbook is a more creative and more flexible tool. It contains customer personas, messaging, thought leadership principles and a series of narratives about the organisation and its people.

This makes it perfect for channel partners to use to guide how they position a vendors’ products, whilst giving them the flexibility to stay true to their own marketing narratives. It is both marketing stimulus and marketing script.

Channel marketing still plays a crucial role for many vendors, but the increasing importance of brand investment means it needs to evolve. Arming channel partners with a bespoke brand playbook is a particularly good place to start that evolution.

Header image courtesy of Petri Damstén on Flickr

Picture of Dan Miles

Written by Dan Miles

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