And Never the Twain Shall Meet: What You Say Is Important vs. What Customers Say Is Important

Abraham Lincoln once said that when preparing for a speech he would spend two-thirds of his time thinking about what the audience wanted to hear, and then one-third thinking about what he wanted to say. Based on recent research announced in this article in McKinsey Quarterly, B2B companies should pay more attention to that advice.

A brand sends a message to customers and prospective customers what they can expect if they do business with a company: its perceived capabilities and competencies, unique selling points and value proposition all wrapped into one.  The brand message is not completely within the company’s control, especially in this age of social media, but it’s critical that the company do the best job possible in getting out in front with a compelling message. That’s why big B2B companies put an enormous amount of effort and money into building their brands—but according to the research they’re doing a terrible job of it.

Researchers examined publicly available documents from Fortune 500 and DAX 30 companies and identified thirteen themes. They then measured how the largest 90 global B2B companies linked their brand messages to these themes. Here are the top four, gauged by the percentage of the companies that aligned their messages with them:

  1. Role-models corporate social responsibility in its work (86%)
  2. Promotes and practices sustainability in its products or services (84%)
  3. Has global reach (79%)
  4. Shapes the direction of the market (72%)

The researchers also surveyed more than 700 global executives to find out how important each of the thirteen themes were to how they evaluated suppliers.

Guess how many of those top four matched the customers’ top four? ZERO

Here are the top four themes that customers pay attention to:

  1. Cares about honest, open dialogue with its customers and society
  2. Acts responsibly across its supply chain
  3. Has a high level of specialist expertise
  4. Fits in well with my values and beliefs

Their most important theme was not even mentioned by any of the top 90 companies in the survey!

What I know about PR and Marketing might fit into about half a blog post, so I can’t speculate too much on why the big companies have such a large mismatch between what they want to say and what their customers want to hear, but a clue emerges in the footnotes of the article, which is worth quoting verbatim:

” Face-to-face and phone contact with sales representatives ranked highest among B2B customers considering, evaluating, and purchasing products, as well as in product-loyalty decisions. This was true across all industries and regions in our sample.”

Is it maybe just slightly possible that those companies should actually talk to their own salespeople more, to find out what customers care about? (Or maybe talk to customers themselves—but let’s not get carried away here…)

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September 6, 2010
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