Historically, B2B marketing efforts have centered on the organization’s product or service. That’s understandable, given that entry to the game requires you to have a relevant, differentiated product that people want; meets an industry need; or creates a need first, then meets it (think Apple, which consistently introduced category-inventing products we never knew we wanted, and now can’t live without).

But long-term success requires more than great products or services, even if they are the best in the field. The world has become infinitely more complex today. Maintaining a competitive advantage via the product or service alone is increasingly challenging. With the rise of the connected consumer, B2C has figured out that the experience is where it’s at. B2B leaders are now awakening to this new reality, as well. In fact, a recent Accenture study found that 71 percent of B2B execs agree that their customers want a consumer-like experience, focused on their unique needs and expectations.
 
71% of B2B execs agree that their customers want a consumer-like experience.


How do your customers experience your brand?

I contend that the experience IS your brand (and use the word interchangeably in this article). It’s the experience that clients remember and share, not your marketing. Your brand exists in the sensations, feelings, thoughts, and behavioral responses that customers have during and after interaction with your product or service, and the people behind it. All of these individual exposures or touchpoints taken together make up the experience. They are the “raw material of the brand” as described by Marty Neumeier, author of “The Dictionary of Brand.”

Put simply, the experience—your brand—is everything you say and do. Pretty big stuff.

So what exactly are the qualities that differentiate great experiences from the not-so-great, or downright awful? Following are five qualities we believe are essential to sustainable, world-class customer experiences:
 

1. Authenticity: The brand does what it says

A 2014 survey by Cohn & Wolfe found that 87 percent of global consumers say it is important for brands to “act with integrity at all times,” while only 72 percent viewed innovation as essential.

Clearly character matters.

Companies the likes of McDonald’s and Samsung have recently addressed controversies openly and are willing to face up to them. And both are reaping the benefits from their transparency.
 


Great brands are built on organizational truths. They have a very clear idea about who they are and what they stand for, and match that in tone and character in all of their touchpoints. In fact, it comes naturally to them, because that foundation of authenticity exists. That’s not to say it’s easy—it is incredibly hard to build a great experience and equally hard to maintain it. But there is clarity in brand-related decision making when it comes from the soul. Being “on brand” is intrinsically felt and understood by those in the organization, as is the equally misaligned feeling of being “off brand.”

Be careful relying upon a brand overhaul or new marketing campaign to move the needle if your story is in disarray. It may work for the short term, but customers will expect you to live up to your new claims or value proposition. If you can’t, they'll pick up the scent quickly. Today’s savvy customers can smell a fraud a mile away. A new skin on a flawed promise will only disappoint customers once they discover the truth that nothing has really changed.

Do you know your story? Is it true to who you are, articulated well and shared by all? If not, you need to start here. Determine your vision and your purpose for being. Then make sure that your rhetoric from that point forward is authentically you.
 
Be original. Be compelling. And above all, be honest. If reality doesn’t match desire, openly work to fix it.
 

2. Refinement: The experience is impeccably crafted

Every interaction with your brand is an opportunity to distinguish yourself from your competitors and strengthen your relationship with customers and prospects. Every package, email, uniform, banner ad, delivery, invoice, environment, voice message, and tweet carries an impression about you and how you’ll handle my business. Whether you’ve thought about it or not, your level of attention to these details is a “design” choice. You’ve either intentionally crafted them to ensure a specific experience, or you’ve let default systems, clueless individuals, or worse—chance—design them for you.
 
Design is not merely cosmetics. It extends well beyond product creation and marketing. Good experience design generates value and has added billions of dollars of worth to those corporations that understand and value its power. Think Nike, Starbucks, Target, and Zappos. These organizations, and many others you can probably fire off, are obsessed with the design of their products, including the experience that accompanies the shopping, purchasing, and ultimate consumption of them.
 

Starbucks

This same level of attention to the experience is comparatively new to the B2B world, which has typically viewed brand through a much narrower lens. It’s often mistakenly seen as the logo, or trade campaign—something managed by the marketing team, not the C-suite. They’ve missed the strategic power that a well-crafted brand experience can hold when weaved into all areas of the business.

As CEO, you must be your firm's leading brand evangelist. You must ensure that every department leader and employee above you (in servant leadership thinking) understands, believes in, and thoughtfully delivers on the promise at their level.
 

3. Consistency: The brand delivers time and time again

Establishing an ownable brand position takes time. It requires a consistent experience across all of your marketing assets, from website, to advertising, to environment, and beyond—a significant challenge with more platforms in today’s marketplace to manage than ever before.
 
Iconic brands that have stood the test of time have done so by remaining true to their unique DNA. Coca-Cola has weathered the ups and downs of history, including its own, but has never veered from emotionally connecting their brand to “happiness.”
 
And beyond establishing a brand position is maintaining it. With today’s empowered customer, there is very little wiggle room when it comes to the brand experience. They'll tolerate gaffes only to a certain point, and again, only if you are staying true and authentic to your core. To remain loyal, audiences must have confidence you will deliver each and every time. And that you’ll make good on the rare occasion you do screw up.
 
“70% of US workers are not fully engaged”
—Gallup
Therefore, the ultimate key to consistency lies in the human factor. You must have an engaged workforce. A 2013 Gallup survey found that a whopping 70 percent of US workers are not fully engaged. It’s not difficult to ponder where this lack of focus and poor morale could lead—poor product craftsmanship, missed or incomplete shipments, customer service staff with perceived “attitudes,” or worse. Take a look at this infographic from Officevibe listing the 13 personality traits of a disengaged employee. Recognize anyone from your team? What will you do about it?
 
13 Personality Traits Of A Disengaged Employee

Today’s world-class companies have fiercely loyal customers. And it’s because they have employees that are fiercely loyal to the cause of delivering a great experience, day in and day out.

Winning companies simply do not allow customer trust to be broken. Or if it is, they quickly rebuild it through contrition, transparency, and the hard work needed to fix whatever went wrong.  
 

4. Fluidity: The brand stays relevant

At the other extreme from brand consistency is the need for the experience to be responsive. We use the term “fluid brand” to describe these two seemingly opposing forces. In actuality, they are mutually dependent upon each other.
 
The point of consistency is not about adhering to rigid graphic standards that define and limit how the brand is expressed, or repeating the same marketing tactics or campaigns year after year. It’s about consistent delivery of the brand promise. To do that, it must stay plugged in to changing customer needs, technology trends, and cultural evolutions. And then it has to be free to find the most relevant way to speak to each audience.
 
The brand essence remains consistent, but how it is expressed adapts and evolves to changing needs and new opportunities.
 
After turning a mundane product (coffee) into an interesting and exciting premium product, Starbucks evolved into what it termed “premium-blend culture,” offering new sales items with “discriminating good taste.” They began selling music, movies, and books. Then they moved into events by sponsoring daylong salons, spoken word performances, one-act plays, and discussion groups on books and movies. If they hadn’t had a crystal-clear idea about who they were and how these new offerings enhanced their singular experience, they might have chosen the wrong line extensions—or perhaps never moved beyond coffee at all. Instead, they continue to remain relevant and exciting (fluid) to their key audiences while staying true (consistent) to their core.
 
Balancing the tethers of consistency with the possibilities of fluidity requires tremendous creativity and strategic rigor. You must stay on your toes, continually listening to customers to gauge their needs and balancing them with what you have to offer. And then finding the most apt way to communicate with them.
 
The Fluid Brand “puts a brand’s message out there, traveling many different pathways, and dressed in many different costumes, all specifically tailored to certain groups of interested consumers.” 
—MEDIA Magazine
 

5. Discernment: The experience is appropriate to the moment

Brands are like people. They have personality. They “behave.” And just like people, you are either drawn toward them or driven away.

The same brand qualities outlined above apply to our relationships with people. We gravitate to people who are authentic and thoughtful. People who are interesting. People we can trust again and again. People we relate to.
 
We also value appropriateness and a good sense of timing. We seek out the friend that knows how to say the right thing or put things into perspective in difficult times. The person who anticipates our state of mind or mood and acts appropriately. Who knows when to push and when to refrain.
 
Great brands work hard to understand their audiences’ motivations and needs at each point in the customer journey, and deliver a “just-in-time” experience at that point. They are careful not to oversell in the awareness and consideration phases when prospects are seeking knowledge. They validate the purchase decision and offer reassurance and support afterward. And they continue to stay engaged and responsive long afterward to drive customer loyalty and, ultimately, advocacy.
 
Customer Journey

The key is anticipating the actions, emotions, questions, and barriers prospects will have at each phase, and alleviating those concerns in an appropriate way. To do this, map out the customer experience journey and list the touchpoints associated with each step. Then ask the following questions:
 
  • What customer actions are associated with this step?
  • What emotions are customers experiencing?
  • What motivations are driving them?
  • What questions will the customer need answered in order to move forward in the journey?
  • What will prevent them from moving forward?
 
The answers to these questions will guide the strategies and tactics you’ll need to first create a great experience, and ensure it is sustainable for the long term.
 

Are you ready to deliver a great brand experience?

Building a truly great brand takes commitment. But if you work toward these five qualities— Authenticity, Refinement, Consistency, Fluidity, and Discernment—you’ll be well on your way.

And you’ll be well prepared for long-term success in the age of the connected B2B customer.