Emotional B2B brand building for rational CEOs


There’s nothing more rational than the Business-To-Business sector.

B2B companies apply reason to solve real-world problems. Their customers evaluate their offerings rationally. B2B CEOs scientifically apply engineering and economic principles to create perfectly rational organisations. All it takes for B2B success is to simply follow the science and the numbers. Except it’s not like that at all – behind every business are people, and people are influenced by emotion.

As brand builders we find many B2B leaders underestimate the power of the humanities in supporting business growth.

This is rational. What, for example, would a business that makes industrial bearings do with art, storytelling and culture? 

But a rational examination of the benefits of B2B branding reveals what can be gained by engaging audiences in a way that touches our emotional side.


Research reveals hidden potential in B2B branding 

A worldwide survey in 2021 quizzed leaders at 330 large B2B companies in seven industries + in-depth interviews with 25 executives. The survey focused on the impact of brand investment on marketing:

  • 97% said brand marketing plays an important role in creating awareness and consideration
  • 95% said brand marketing can help a company differentiate itself from competitors
  • Under 25% invest less than 20% of their marketing budget to branding
  • Nearly 50% invest less than 30% of their overall marketing budget to branding
  • The companies with strong brands show a 74% higher return on their brand marketing investment, and hold a 46% larger market share, than weaker brands in their category

Source: BCG

B2B leaders embrace brand building

Look at the websites of B2B sector leaders. You rarely find brand neglect there. Is that why they lead? Or is effective branding just something that leaders do?

It’s an interesting question, but really it doesn’t matter. What does matter is to make effective decisions on your brand building initiatives. 

How can you know if and when branding is an appropriate tool to build your business? And if so, how can you approach it?


“B2B communications is really H2H (human to human) and requires a deep understanding of audiences”

Six tips for rational B2B brand building

  1. KPIs

    What KPIs can branding move in your business?

    Some KPIs are universal, such as the effect branding has on responses from new potential customers and recruits. Or where your website ranks in search results and levels of visitor engagement.

    Other KPIs may be more obscure. Such as those related to the effect your brand is having on your distributors and their customers. Or the average number of meetings it takes to close a sale.

    Identifying the KPIs that effective branding can positively affect will help you unearth value. 

  2. Be the best choice for your audience

    Sooner or later a potential customer, investor or employee will be faced with a choice – your business or a competitor’s?

    All things being equal, the human mind takes emotion-influenced shortcuts to rationalise which way to jump. There are a terrifying number of these well-documented cognitive biases.

    We are biased, for example, toward what made a positive first impression on us (halo effect). We are biased positively towards anything we have previously encountered that we didn’t perceive as a threat (mere exposure effect). We are even unconsciously biased by assigning greater credibility to ideas presented as rhymes or alliteration (rhyme-as-reason effect).

    Consider how often could you have been on the losing end of a decision because your competitor tipped the scales with better storytelling and design?

  3. Impetus for change and opportunity

    In the world of B2B, procrastination and branding go hand-in-hand. Awareness of when branding can have a positive effect equips you to prepare to benefit from it.

    For example, branding disciplines can almost always add value in times of pivotal change. Because change will always meet resistance, it needs to be communicated effectively.

    Then there are the ad-hoc opportunities that arise. A solid communications strategy based on a strong brand foundation allows a fast response. More about opportunity here.


  1. Timing

    To catch opportunities or to coincide with events, brand building projects typically must be launched by an unmovable deadline. It’s therefore important to understand the time factor.

    Those unfamiliar with brand building processes are often surprised at how long it takes to effectively develop a new brand, revitalise an existing brand or produce a brand-related campaign.  Effective   branding takes time because nothing should be left to chance. It involves research, experimentation and iteration.

    Caveat: delaying branding decisions has a knock-on effect that almost always negatively impacts outcomes. More about timing here.  

  2. Investment

    Many positive effects of brand building are tough to measure. Stakeholder understanding, team morale, investor enthusiasm and first impressions.

    We believe that overall, a brand building project should target 10X returns. That means the amount you invest in branding should be one tenth of your target financial upside.

    Consider how much value you can build over time when assessing a brand building project. More about investment here.

  3. Brand building applies reason to harness emotion

    One reason B2B leaders shy away from brand building is that it's a high profile activity with a subjective dimension that risks criticism.

    An experienced team with sufficient resources will take much of the risk out of your project with proven processes and objectivity.

    The founder may have made awful design choices when a hugely successful business was launched. The founders’ colleagues – and even less-experienced designers – may be uncomfortable explaining this. The brand professionals will find an effective way forward.

    To derisk your brand building, ensure your collaborators have a strong methodology. More about derisking here.

What experience has taught us 

These tips and observations come from guiding many B2B brand building projects:    

  • B2B communications is really H2H (human to human) and requires a deep understanding of audiences
  • Look beyond customers and team for less-obvious influential audiences, including journalists and producers, educators and academics, suppliers and potential partners, investors, industry consolidators, franchisees
  • Prioritise how your business can help, then explain who your team are and what your values are
  • What you want to say about your business is probably different (and a lot longer) than what people need to hear
  • Your B2B customers will be interested in how you can support their customers
  • Most people aren’t that interested in your production processes (that’s why meat marketers never show the slaughterhouse)
  • On the other hand, what may seem uninteresting to you may be fascinating or engaging to others (this includes production processes) so if you do show them, present them in a way that wows, or at least in a way that reassures
  • Showcase how you are genuinely a responsible business, as ESG is no longer an option because talented people, investors and the best business partners support it, and you want to recruit the best talent
  • Many B2B websites are organised by business divisions... consider instead presenting your business by customer segments so that they can quickly find value
  • Find and present the societal meaning in what your team does and spotlight it because it will engage talent and make people think
  • In many B2B niches the bar is low when it comes to making an impact with brand, and because the bar is low the impact you can make will be relatively bigger
  • Typical B2B websites are like car parks – vast grim difficult-to-navigate spaces where the only thought is to get out as fast as possible. Think outside the car park, you can do better
  • Look outside your sector for brand building benchmarks in your quest to differentiate your business from competitors 

Having internalised all that, if you find yourself getting frustrated about your B2B brand building, you are entitled to get emotional – but only in a rational way.

Key takeaway: It’s rational to apply emotion to B2B branding

Stepworks has enjoyed collaborating with many B2B leaders facing pivotal change. Our brand strategy, messaging frameworks, design and digital services add up to a valuable B2B brand building asset. We’re happy to share our views about your branding initiatives.

Stepworks has enjoyed collaborating with many B2B leaders facing pivotal change. Our brand strategy, messaging frameworks, design and digital services add up to a valuable B2B brand building asset. We’re happy to share our views about your branding initiatives.