An Unapologetic Defense of Brand Marketing for B2B Growth

In the early Gainsight days, I would ask my team a simple question, which in repetition had become more rhetorical than anything: what is marketing’s one job? The answer that I was looking for was of course generating opportunities for our sales team, but looking back in hindsight, I’m not so sure that the question was fair.

Regardless of the integrity of the question, there’s no doubt that an observer outside of our industry could very easily arrive at the same answer. Where would the research lead? Well, to familiar terms such as demand generation, growth hacking, account based marketing (ABM), etc. The observer would conclude, solely based on Twitter and LinkedIn airtime, that investments in the above would be deemed good or appropriate for the modern marketer.

One term that would likely garner a different response would be brand marketing, or corporate marketing, or marketing communications — at least in the B2B sense (B2C figured this out a long time ago). There’s been an unfortunate rumor spread for the past several years that brand marketing is not nearly as strategic as demand generation for startups.

Here’s the usual argument:

  • We’re focused on growth now — we’ll figure out brand later.
  • I can’t prove the ROI of brand marketing.
  • I’ve got an agency / intern / junior content writer on that.
  • Feel free to add your favorites in the comments section.

I’m not sure who started this lie, but I have found the opposite to be true about brand marketing and its effect on our growth at Gainsight. The truth is, if you asked anybody affiliated with Gainsight where much of our success has come from, they would rattle off a number of items that would categorically all fall under brand marketing: thought leadership, category creation, our community, etc. These investments, most notably under our Pulse brand of programs, have led to more than just revenue or logo growth, but even to follow on rounds of funding and employee recruitment and retention.

So why has brand marketing become the bastardized program of the modern B2B startup marketing mix?
Well, I learned in Sunday School that the only way to respond to a lie is with some truth, so unapologetically, here are three truths about brand marketing that no one will tell you.

Brand Marketing is Core to the B2H (Business-to-Human) Era.

The reality is that thinking in terms of B2B or B2C is incredibly limiting to marketers. There have been a convergence of trends over the last decade – see the Age of the Customer or Social Selling or The Informed Buyer – that have shined a light on the people behind the logos. It may come as a shock to some, but our customers, the same executives who sign the seven figure ELA contracts, are people. They have emotions and passions, likes and dislikes, families and friends. Put simply, B2B buyers are just as human as B2C adopters. It’s about time we’ve treated them as such.

At the risk of introducing a new buzzword, a better way to think about the new world of marketing is Business-to-Human, or B2H. In this new world, a well-executed brand marketing strategy can make all the difference between you and your competition.

Gainsight is an incredible place to work – the people, product and mission are so wonderfully inspiring. It’s my job as a marketer to humanize our brand and tell the world that story. The net effect is often that customers choose Gainsight for more than just the value the product can create, but having wanted to be part of our story. People like to work with good people. Our CEO Nick Mehta often reminds me that, somewhat surprisingly, one of the first things a prospective customer will tell him is the following – I loved you in Carpool Karaoke.

Brand Marketing Closes Deals. There’s Your Metric.

Thinking about brand apart from demand gen, growth or revenue is also misleading. In fact, the whole notion of attribution is flawed – enterprise sales in the B2H era is far too complex to rely on a ‘lead source’ in CRM or MA. Even the most diligent and data oriented operations folks would agree that deals originate and progress through a perfect storm of programs and assets – some from demand gen, but many from brand.

To carry the example over from the previous truth, watching a Carpool Karaoke brand video may have led to a website visitor, which then led to reading a blog post, and finally filling out a Contact Sales form. If the visitor was ‘unknown’ to MA prior to that form fill, can you really attribute the lead source to Website / Contact Sales?

A better way to talk to your CFO or VP Sales about brand marketing is to speak in terms of pipeline creation and pipeline acceleration. The paragraph above illustrates how brand marketing can lead to pipeline creation, but note that typically the online marketing workflow will require that the prospect convert through a demand gen form or process.

Pipeline acceleration is where it gets really interesting – although harder to track, brand marketing programs can have just as profound of an impact on closing deals as product marketing. We have printed t-shirts exclaiming our love for the client and worn them to sales meetings, created tailored experiences for prospects at our industry conference, and even filmed a music video to win over a key prospect in a competitive sales cycle – would love to release that last one publicly one day 🙂

I’m a big believer that campaigns like the above had a BIG impact on helping get deals closed. They don’t replace the need to have a great product and well-orchestrated sales process, but they do play a key role often absent from attribution reporting. Consider taking this to the next level by compensating your ‘head of brand’ on revenue.

If Your Category Becomes Inevitable, It’s Now All About Brand.

As your startup runs its course, one of two things may happen – you’ll either go out of business or the solution that you’ve been marketing and selling all those years eventually becomes inevitable. Imagine starting a company today without a CRM system, accounting software, or even (God forbid) a Customer Success solution!

When your market category reaches that point of inevitability, the arms race is somewhat over and marketing now becomes all about brand. Pepsi or Coke? The majority of your growth in this new world will come from your existing customers and marketing’s role shifts from growing pipeline to increasing market share. Don’t get me wrong, there will always be new verticals or laggard markets where the growth tactics remain fairly oriented around traditional demand gen, but not nearly as much as brand marketing.

The day is coming when the traditional B2B startup world will get this — that brand marketing is equally as critical to growth as demand gen. Until then, we’ll let the haters hate, and use the tactics to help fuel our competitive advantage. Let this article serve as an opportunity for you to do the same!

Anthony Kennada

Anthony Kennada is Chief Marketing Officer at Gainsight, building and leading the Customer Success Management industry. He is passionate about creating new market categories, scaling thought leadership programs, and (obviously) customer-centric marketing. Prior companies include Box, LiveOffice and Symantec.

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