Businesspeople are people too

The case for emotion in B2B branding


The goal of branding is sometimes explained as an attempt to create an emotional connection between brand and customer. It’s easy to demonstrate the effectiveness of this emotional side of branding with examples like Disney, Starbucks, and Harley-Davidson (brands that you may associate with happiness, indulgence, and rebellion, respectively). Brand managers working with business-to-business (B2B) brands, however, often chafe at the idea that their company or product — maybe an accounting firm or an esoteric scientific research tool — should be connecting with its customers at an emotional level.

Their argument takes one of two related tacks:

  1. That their company or offering is too serious to be belittled by something as silly and irrational as emotion, or
  2. That customers in their industry make decisions based on facts, not opinion.

This aversion to tapping into emotion most likely stems from a misconception that emotional branding is only for consumer brands. “My company is not about happiness, indulgence, or rebellion,” they argue, “it’s about quality, speed-to-market, and innovation.” The flaw in this argument is failing to see that associations such as that between 3M and innovation, for example, are often just as irrationally formed as those between Coke and joy, or Nike and victory.

Nike works hard to consistently associate its brand with the concept of ‘victory.’

These connections work for B2B brands, too, because businesspeople — yes, even CFOs, engineers, and procurement personnel — are people too. When they drive to work in BMWs, Starbucks coffee in hand, sit down at their desks and hook up their iPhones to Bose speakers, they do not — cannot, and in some respects should not — instantly turn off their consumer-brains, which make decisions partly based on biases and assumptions. Branding experts arm companies with emotional messaging not to prevent rational decision-making, but because they understand that virtually no decisions are purely rational.

B2B brands like Cisco, Siemens, and IBM — all top global brands, as evaluated by Interbrand—have positioned themselves to capitalize on this reality. Cisco’s identity is tied to the concept of connectivity. Not justthe connection created when one of their routers carries information across the internet, but the high-minded benefits of that connection, which they dubbed “the human network.” One look at Cisco’s ads and marketing materials reveals their attempt to strike an emotional chord, with lines like “bringing ideas together, passions together, and people together.” Similarly, Siemens has built their brand around the idea of confident expertise, and IBM strives to be associated with intelligence.

For decades, the IBM brand has stood for ‘intelligence.’

Of course, these types of emotional messages should be supported by more quantifiable attributes like product performance or strong customer service (although it’s worth noting that these attributes are not all that easy to measure, either). This quantifiable support may be more necessary for the average B2B brand than the average business-to-consumer (B2C) brand. Consumers, for example, do not commonly expect perfumes or colognes to back up their claims of seductiveness with double-blind research studies. But it’s a mistake to assume that it’s those quantifiable attributes alone that build a company or product’s reputation. Like it or not, heuristics — rules of thumb we sometimes subconsciously use to simplify complex situations — have a real impact on our decision-making process. And they’re at work whether we’re deciding if we like someone we’ve just met, picking out a new car, or choosing a vendor to deliver the best value on our company’s supply of widgets. Considering the emotional side of branding is not just imperative for B2C brands or B2B brands — it’s a business imperative, because it’s a human inevitability that emotions are involved in decision-making.

Branding experts love to talk about helping brands “cut through the clutter” — the hundreds to thousands of brand messages we’re exposed to per day. But the truth is that customers are doing half the work by using their own biases, heuristics, and emotions to filter which messages they’re receptive to. Smart brand consultants and top brands — in every industry — are thinking about emotional branding and finding ways to meet customers halfway.


Heirloom is a brand strategy firm helping entrepreneurs and business leaders build enduring brands. Posts by Heirloom principal and founder, Rob Meyerson.

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