Sarah Gooding Kobus, the deputy general manager of WE Communications works in Johannesburg, South Africa and describes the business environment as a"minefield".
Working on B2B tech brands is especially challenging because rolling blackouts from electricity providers, for instance, are common with significant impact on businesses and their ability to be productive.
"There was a period a couple of months ago where every single day, offices would go down for four hours at a time," she says. "Morale was really low among employees because they’re not able to be as productive as they’d like. This instability is largely down to our tumultuous political environment."
As well as this, the other major factor affecting B2B brands and the way they are perceived, is the high profile media coverage of corporate corruption, such as in the Bell Pottinger scandal. This spate of corruption scandals saw many leading international corporate brands in hot water. Consequently, as well as blackouts, riots and protests against corporations are also commonplace.
"South African consumer trust in the B2B space has been really hurt and damaged," says Gooding. "In spite, or arguably perhaps directly as a result of this, out of all the countries surveyed in the Brands in Motion global study, South Africa has by far the highest ethical expectations of a brand and its behaviour, from the factory floor all the way up to executive leadership."
You’d think with such a challenging environment there would be much gloom and doom among South African B2B marketers, wouldn’t you? Well, no. Actually, marketers like Gooding believe that, in fact, government instability and consumer craving for ethical behaviour could be a huge opportunity for brands, especially for those operating in the B2B space, and not just in South Africa, but worldwide. The instability is actually a gateway to innovation.
The strength of brands
The Brands in Motion global study shows that consumers believe brands are capable of providing this stability, which is an element of ‘motion’. They also expect them to take a stand and fill this trust gap and, to do this, executive behaviour matters.
As Gooding adds: "There are many opportunities available for marketers in this time of turbulence, which apply to markets ranging from the UK, to SA , the US and beyond. When government impacts societal insecurities, there is a massive opportunity for brands to step in and innovate, providing communities with stability. But with trust low in both corporates and governments, the need to be ethical and transparent becomes even more important."
But, the Brands in Motion global study also shows that this opportunity for brands to provide stability where governments are failing, is largely untapped and B2B brands globally are perhaps lagging in stepping up to take this higher moral, trusted ground.
The study shows that tech B2B decision-makers see business technology brands as less relevant to their work. They also say that they don’t intend to purchase solutions (down 18% in the US, 13% in the UK and 18% in China), no longer love these brands (down 16% in the US, 24% in the UK and 19% in China), and that they’re less innovative than they were a year ago (down 13% in the US, 10% in the UK and 12% in China). And the most worrying response? An almost 20% increase of US and UK respondents who say they "have no need" for tech B2B companies.
Clearly if B2B tech brands want to remain successful in business, then they are beholden to behave with mindful purpose and the highest possible ethics– and do so fast. The challenge is for them to be seen as a trusted ally rather than a distrusted adversary. Gooding believes there are a few fundamentals which, if committed to, are able to shift perceptions, even in the toughest of markets like South Africa.
Why do you exist?
Having a clear purpose is one of them. But not only that, brands must get better at clearly articulating their values and purpose. "It’s no longer sufficient for brands and corporations to focus on maximising profit at the expense of social good," says Gooding. "The public is increasingly looking to brands, companies, and organisations to respond to sociopolitical and environmental issues and essentially drive social change. Even in the face of turbulent and unstable times, brands need to continue to take a bold stance and consider their purpose a long-term strategy for success."
Amanda Jobbins, VP demand generation and marketing EMEA and APAC, Oracle, agrees. Its customer research shows that buyers increasingly want to align themselves with companies and organisations that share similar purpose and values to them.
"Trust and purpose within the context of B2B are critically important as organisations are making significant investment decisions for their own businesses and, in turn, their customers are relying on them for service quality," she says. "Brand is a shortcut for all consumers (B2B and B2C) to make important decisions quickly. A great brand embodies a set of values that the customer relates to and a set of qualities that the solution or product are known to deliver on."
Similarly, Ravleen Beeston, managing director, UK sales, Microsoft Advertising, agrees underlining that purpose cannot be an afterthought, or a PR stunt; it must be at the heart of how you operate: "There are few things as important as deciding what is it that we stand for as a company – as those principles will guide you in the decisions you make."
Beyond the buzz
But in South Africa, as in many other markets around the world, where consumers continue to raise their expectations for brands, brand purpose is an imperative, not an option. The challenge is "purpose" has become a business buzzword with brands jumping on its bandwagon. Given this, consumers are becoming more cynical when they hear brands talk about values and purpose and how they are aligned with social and moral causes. To overcome this cynicism, brands need to go beyond the buzz and explain exactly what this purpose means, not just for consumers or customers, but for their own employees too.
In fact, as Gooding says, in the face of economic and political uncertainty, it will be a sense of purpose that will propel a brand forward. An internal approach to unpack purpose from within and ultimately get buy-in from your employees should be your "first line of defense". "Brands need to invest more time upfront on converting internal stakeholders, through employee engagement programmes that can identify patterns and shift behaviours and perceptions, before hoping for any successes with external campaigns. If employees are authentic about their purpose and are clear on their role in the bigger picture – this will most certainly lead to a greater adoption of brand campaigns."
If brands don’t invest the time and money in this, there is a danger that the external campaign bombs because employees don’t believe in it. That’s why, increasingly, Gooding and her team are working alongside behaviour change consultants on communications briefs to ensure there is employee participation and there are necessary shifts internally before any external campaigns are launched.
Change begins at home
"Going ahead with external campaigns without this internal support could result in a significant waste of time and money for brands," says Gooding. "Staff are your biggest ambassadors – so look after them and communicate to them. This may seem obvious but often they are the forgotten piece of the communication pie. There is no point going above the line before you have listened, assessed, and actioned the opinion internally."
But "even more terrifying", says Gooding, than a lack of employee buy-in is where politics and the corporate world collide. A potential hotbed for a brand’s reputation that calls for crisis intervention.
Learning from extremes
While the situation is extreme in South Africa, there are many learnings which are equally applicable to any brand operating in today’s mercurial market. The first is that, as well as employee engagement, brands must also increasingly invest in government relations within their companies. "Just as companies prioritise their relationships and communications outreach to customers and partners, they need to ensure there are strong ties and solid communication strategies in place when it comes to government relations and public affairs," says Gooding.
Another important learning is that in today’s quick changing political and business environment, brands must react in realtime and ditch long, bureaucratic sign-off processes. With the influx of social media and citizen journalism making everyone a potential influencer at the touch of a button, a brand cannot waste time on cumbersome responses. Brands need to communicate with clarity, say it fast, say it now and be transparent.
"In this past year, we have been involved in various client crisis interventions. These experiences have changed my view of crisis communications," says Gooding. "Five years ago you could go in to a client and say ‘here’s our issues management plan and this is how we’re going to roll it out’, armed with reactive statements in the event of needing to press play.
But when you are making decisions on the hour, putting a statement out at the beginning of the day doesn’t cut it.
"The client’s reaction has to be more personalised," says Gooding. "There needs to be real-time reaction to what’s happening. It is critical to identify who are the most impactful influencers at that moment then ensure a regular flow of information to them. This might be via one-on-one interviews, gatherings or even tools such as WhatsApp voice notes to provide regular updates to those key people."
While a different business market, China shares key challenges with South Africa and the rest of the world. China’s biggest challenge in the B2B sector is also trust – for very different reasons. It is home to some of tech’s fastest rising stars over the last two years as a result of the shared economy gaining traction, with functionality like mobile payments now accepted as the norm.
"Because of the Chinese government’s support of the tech innovation sector, consumers have very high expectations of technology," says Sophia Hsu, account director, regional tech practice, WE Red Bridge, China. "Where we see trust most damaged is when some of the tech companies promise a lot and they cannot necessarily deliver. Consumers want the tech to be cutting edge but they’re also cautious about use of technology, especially when it comes to security. Our big learning has been around how we can communicate trust."
Just like in South Africa, the most powerful way Sophia believes this can be done in China is through "uncovering" and "declaring a brand’s purpose" by "engaging authentically with our audience". "We need to communicate clearly and loudly the why and how of what we’re doing in the B2B tech sector".
The Brands in Motion global research has been crucial in identifying the ‘tone’ that works best with a Chinese audience. The B2B tech sector in 2017 was identified to be "very high on emotional and rational" scores but since then there has been a shift. "Last year the positioning moved to ‘agitator’, which means high on emotion and low on rational," says Sophia.
Humans mean business
This rise in the importance of "emotional" decision making underlines the increasing importance in this sector for brands to position themselves as less business-to-business and more business-to-human. That means when trying to tell the ‘story’ of a B2B brand and get engagement, brands are far better placed to focus on the human angle – what the technology has allowed others to do – rather than the technology itself, like minor updates.
Like how Gooding’s South African team has to deliver a much more personalised communications strategy when working with brands under siege, China B2B tech market customers want more emotion in the way they’re talked to as well.
Microsoft has responded to this insight wisely, changing the way it approaches its business because of it. As Beeston says:
"At Microsoft our mission used to be very technology driven, a PC on every desk in every home and office. Now our mission is far more human: to empower every person and organisation on the planet to achieve more. This is more than just a statement, this is the inspiration and reason many people continue to work for Microsoft, because they believe in something bigger than themselves. And for our customers, they see Microsoft in a new light, they can empathise in that mission and they want to come along with us on that journey."