Innovation and brand-building: tips for B2B marketers

March 12, 2010

Innovation is perhaps the most overused word in B2B marketing. Whether it’s information technology, medical devices, industrial equipment or professional services, we find brand-builders returning over and over again to innovation as the core promise that will set their company or product apart from the rest of the pack. But does being perceived as an innovator truly drive brand preference and ultimately purchase decisions? In this article, we focus on what we’ve discovered about the meaning and relevance of innovation to B2B buyers and how marketers can infuse these learnings into their brand-building efforts.

Does innovation drive purchase decisions?
Is innovation a necessary and sufficient platform for brand positioning? “If customers believe we have a leading-edge offering,” the dialogue goes, “they’ll be predisposed to choose us over the competition.” As we look across a wide spectrum of B2B results from our client work, we’ve found that a claim around "being innovative" is rarely, if ever, the most important purchase driver in B2B situations. Generally speaking, claims around innovation are often met with skepticism. While it is true customers want to buy products with the newest, latest and greatest technology built in, they worry that new innovations are risky, overly complex and can produce negative unintended consequences. Promoting Innovation as the sole differentiator is a flimsy premise on which to choose one brand over another.

Innovation archetypes
How should marketers interpret these general findings? We’re convinced that innovation, properly qualified and positioned, can be a powerful platform on which to build a B2B brand. Looking behind the data, we’ve identified three archetypical ways to cast innovation in a way that helps drive customer choice and avoid the "better mousetrap" trap.

The bleeding-edge innovator:
This type of innovation message appeals to buyers (like the CIA or a quantitatively oriented hedge fund, for example) who have virtually unlimited budgets and a mandate to stay at the leading edge at all costs. Being not only the first to market, but also staying at the edge, can be a powerful differentiator in selected market segments.

Incremental innovation:
In long-cycle industrial businesses, where product innovation may happen only once a decade, one strategy is to create a unique service proposition. GE Aviation took this approach with the creation of OnPoint Solutions, introduced in 2005. This innovative approach to service successfully countered GE's rival Rolls Royce and their one-size-fits-all service approach (known as TotalCare).

Customer-centric innovation:
Tactics such as simplifying the customer experience, creating Web-enabled self-service platforms or introducing new product features that are in direct response to customer feedback are three flavors of this type of innovation.

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