Driving differentiation in a complex market – Aperture in action

When you spend your life working in B2B insight and strategy, you quickly realise that the problems that many clients face fall into a relatively small number of buckets.

For example, the number of products that fail on launch highlights a common gap for go-to-market strategies that are grounded in the actual wants and needs of customers. Boards hacking away at marketing budgets highlight a requirement for better analysis of communications effectiveness. The fact that few businesses are enjoying successful customer reference programmes speaks to the basis of the ‘ask’, and perhaps even the relationships themselves, being worthy of reappraisal.

Even in such grim company, brand differentiation stands out as being a significant problem for many B2B firms. Some of the reasons for this may be obvious. Value propositions are often complex, which makes it hard to identify which factors are influencing purchase intent. In the absence of true insight, factors such as price and convenience are often (incorrectly) held to be drivers of consideration, limiting marketers’ fields of vision. Even thinking in a brand-centric way feels like a distant consideration in many businesses, so product-driven are their cultures.

But brand differentiation does matter. Human beings are emotional creatures, regardless of context – and brands allow businesses to extend beyond the rational. Many B2B businesses are complex, but the human brain tends to cleave to simple associations – brands offer a way to create and manage the right ones. At the most fundamental level, brand differentiation matters because if your business looks and feels from the outside like any other it is easy for customers to treat it like any other, and competitive advantage can be lost before the sales team has even had a look-in.

In our experience, the secret to creating brand differentiation lies in looking beyond what your audience claims to drive their decision to buy, into what they really think and feel (which is what really drives it). In many cases, differentiation can actually be driven directly from a deep and accurate psychological insight into the non-conscious forces driving your market.

We thought it might be interesting to share an example of this in action.

 The context

Wind back ten years and, like cabs, Payments was a quiet market. Big and important, but rarely interesting to anyone except the specialists (and those relying on the specialists to do their jobs properly).

Jump to today, and the likes of Stripe and Adyen have ‘done an Uber’ – seemingly appearing from nowhere to attract massive investment, create new markets and get famous in the process. In turn, this has spurred the establishment players to action. Suddenly, what was a quiet market looks very crowded indeed.

But what do you do to get ahead if you’re not already famous? If you’re growing fast but aren’t yet in the premier league?

If you’re trying to accelerate further by extending both your product offering and brand into areas that it has never reached?

If you’re battling for investment alongside bigger, better known and seemingly more scalable competition?

The answer is that you need your brand to stay ahead of your business and paint a picture of a future where you triumph. But how?

Here’s the problem.

Crowded markets usually don’t have much room for manoeuvre: the ‘obvious’ positions are usually occupied by the biggest brands. Taking a stance that is compelling, relevant and distinct can feel like a big challenge.

On top of this, our client was facing two tricky issues:

 

  1. Its service offering is way more complex than many of the competition
  2. Its heritage was in categories where the fraud risk was perceived to be significant, a fact which (counter-intuitively) positioned it is a high-risk business with little relevance outside of these worlds.

 

In this context, it was clear to the client that simply asking customers what they thought about the brand would be unlikely to yield much accurate or useful insight.

So we got the call.

What did we do?

We undertook a process of research in three core markets (the USA, UK and Germany), engaging with both customers and prospects in new and existing verticals.

Aperture’s Chartered Psychologists probed customer perceptions, needs, motivations and barriers at both category and brand levels. In other words, they looked beyond what the target audience says into what it really thinks and feels about payments as a whole and our client specifically.

We then compared this with the business’s own views on itself and the payment category, and our bespoke analysis of the competition.

 What did we discover?

We discovered that customers’ core psychological need of payment service providers is not being addressed by any of the competition in their branding or communications.

We discovered that there are two distinct types of customers, each with psychologically distinctive wants and needs.

We discovered that technology, far from being a reassuring reason to believe, could in certain contexts be a huge Achilles heel in customer perception.

And we discovered that elements of our client’s service offering, far from being a weakness (which is how they perceived them), could actually be reframed as a source of brand strength.

What did we do?

Taking our insights, we developed a unique, compelling and globally resonant brand position that set our client apart from the rest of the competition.

We renamed the entire product portfolio to ensure high consistency and appeal to both existing and new customers.

We engaged a design team to bring this new position fully to life in a new visual identity.

We rewrote their investor story from beginning to end, in a way that reframed them from ‘also ran’ to ‘black horse’.

And we did all of this in just six weeks.

What happened next?

Beyond the standing ovation that the team received at the debrief, the new positioning and strategy was signed off without change.

It is currently being rolled out worldwide.

 

Is brand differentiation an issue in your business? We’d be delighted to hear from you if so. Please get in touch.

Richard Fogg

Richard Fogg

Richard Fogg is CEO of Aperture, a consulting and advisory firm for B2B organisations seeking to transform sales and marketing performance. The firm offers two things. The first is disruptive insights into buyers and markets. The second is practical advice about how to turn those insights into action.
Richard Fogg