Demystifying the B2B Path to Purchase

Ask any neophyte marketer in a blue chip (i.e. CPG) company about the path to purchase, they’ll almost, robotically, playback a framework like the following:

Awareness -> Consideration -> Trial -> Repeat -> Loyalty

You’re taught that to grow your brand, you need to figure out how to drive awareness of your brand amongst your target consumer. If you do this with a message that appeals to as many folks in that segment as possible, you’ll start to get consumers to go down this path to purchase. If done really well, you’d pass what former P&G CEO AG Lafley would call the “First Moment of Truth” and get her to try your product. If you passed what Lafley called the “Second Moment of Truth” and delighted your consumer when she used it, you’d get her to repeat. If this was done multiple times, you’d reach the marketer’s nirvana — brand loyalty.

In my time as a CPG brand marketer, this framework was always the starting point on how I could grow my business. It didn’t matter if I was running a portfolio of food brands or expanding an oral care brand into a new country, I’d always go back to this framework as a starting point. It was simple, easy to apply.

When I made the switch to B2B marketing a few years back, I went back to my old bag of tricks, like the path to purchase. The thing that I quickly realized was that CPG brands would apply this against a single consumer target. Yeah, there were influencers, but we really paid lip-service to them at the end of the day. We were taught to be single-minded against a clear target — anything less was viewed as “not being choiceful”.

B2B markets are a lot different. There are a lot of targets and real influencers that can alter the path to purchase. However, upon learning more about how the ultimate decision makers in these businesses went about purchasing goods and services from their vendors, it became patently clear that the good ol’ CPG framework still applied, but needed to be adapted a bit. In particular, you need to realize that:

  • The length of time between awareness and trial is significantly longer: In a CPG category, like beer, you see an ad for Bud Light. You go to the store when you’re in the market for a six pack. You look at the shelf and ultimately purchase Bud Light. The time it takes from when you see (or recall an ad) to purchase could be a matter of hours, a matter of days (at worst). In many B2B categories, the time it takes to go through the path to purchase can go from 6 weeks to 6 years (depending on the category). In that time, there are many opportunities for your target customer to de-select your brand. How do you ensure that your brand is top of mind throughout that journey?
  • The number of people who have a real influence over what’s ultimately purchased is significant: Going back to the beer example, your friends or significant other might influence what beer you purchase, but chances are, if you’re like me, you’ll pick what you like to drink. B2B markets are vastly different. Take a home builder as an example. In many instances, what materials that get purchased are heavily influenced by different departments (finance, purchasing, operations), sub-contractors, distributors, architects, and / or designers. This means that your messaging needs to be tweaked to appeal to these different audiences, while still driving an overall benefit that your brand provides, which addresses an unmet need or a barrier to adoption.
  • The risk associated with nurturing the customer through a B2B path to purchase is really high, which means you’ll need a total company effort to mitigate that risk: In the Bud Light example, if I purchased a 6 pack of that, went home and got mocked by my friends for bringing it, it wouldn’t really matter. It only cost me a few bucks. In the B2B world, the cost of screwing up is worth tens of thousands unto millions of dollars. Because of this risk, B2B companies will be more conservative — reluctant to change. Their existing suppliers, whether good / bad / or ugly, are known — it’s the “devil” that you already know. To break this cycle, you have to bring your entire organization and its capabilities to the table and show how that entire eco-system can help your target customer. Put it another way, in CPG, you market a brand. In B2B, you market an entire company.

Seems daunting, right?

The great news is the tried and true principles of marketing still apply to B2B. The process of defining WHO you market to and WHAT you’re promising her haven’t changed. You still need to define a target customer, understand their unmet needs / trial barriers, and develop a proposition that delivers against them.

HOW you deliver your proposition to the target customer is way more complex, as noted previously. The great news is there are many tools that can make this easy to implement. Marketing Automation, CRM systems, and digital media can help you efficiently deliver a message to entire B2B target customer eco-system, complete with all of the tracking and measurement systems that enable you to show how you’re generating and nurturing your target customer into bona fide business opportunities. When augmented with a really great idea that’s translated into creative the appeals both rationally and emotionally, you can begin the journey of switching your target customer from your competition to your brand.

Yes, it’s complex, but it’s totally manageable with the right tools, partners, and capabilities.