3 Lessons in Creating a Winning B2B Brand Voice
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The speed and convenience of many experiences in B2C industries is upping the expectations in the B2B space. Customers today want better, faster experiences, and B2B brands reap big benefits when they put time and effort into the kinds of customer experience strategies that B2C brands are executing 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 percent more likely.
For so long, B2B brands have seemed like the serious older brothers of consumer brands. Those “serious” B2B brands must differentiate themselves from competitors. One powerful tool for doing just that is developing a distinct brand voice that does double duty -- a brand’s voice must make the brand stand out, but also forge an emotional connection with its audiences.
And it’s in this “emotional connection” department, whether via direct communication with customers through email or social media communication, where B2B brands can take a lesson from their fast-and-loose B2C brothers. That’s not to say that B2B brands should flat-out imitate B2C voices, but there are certainly lessons to glean.
Keep it casual.
The first and most obvious lesson is to speak to people in layman’s terms. 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 Simple, the online bank. Overall, its branding is a study in success, thanks in no small part to UX that actually lives up to the brand promise. But the company's voice, in particular, is unique. Its whimsy and quirk is unmatched in the financial services sector, but what’s most impressive about the writing -- and indeed, why it’s so compelling -- is that it is balanced by transparency, straightforwardness and reassurance, proving that even in high-stakes industries, brands can afford to loosen their ties without losing credibility.
Take this email notification, for example:
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 it really stuck the landing by providing clear, useful communications.
Injecting humor into communications 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. Everyone appreciates 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.
But humor is admittedly risky 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 laughs 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.
A final lesson B2B brands can glean from B2C is an appreciation for the cultural moment. With supercomputers in almost every pocket, 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 -- an entry point B2C brands are clamoring to exploit and B2B brands are trying to understand.
B2C brands fret ad nauseum 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.
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 failed miserably 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 hesitant when it comes to utilizing today’s most popular memes.
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 a son’s house party.
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.