December 10, 2020

7 B2B Branding Lessons for 2021 from 7 B2B Brands

by Melissa Caffrey

To rebrand or not to rebrand? That is the question. No, seriously. It’s a question that many B2B companies faced this year, and answers have varied across the board.

For some, it was unavoidable—they’d already put in almost a year of branding work. For others, it was necessary—regardless of what was going on in the world, or perhaps because of it, these brands knew it was high time to modernize, to tease out the soul of their brand and prove their importance to customers. For others still, the amount of work required for a comprehensive brand audit was simply too much, so they had to find an alternative to address the gap.

Of the many things we’ve learned from 2020, it’s that companies with clearly defined branding were able to pivot quickly and effectively. A strong sense of purpose is the bedrock for a robust brand strategy. As Altum CMO Kevin Fliess shared when discussing brand purpose and messaging: “It aligns your campaigns. It makes it clear about who your target segment is. It helps align the sales organization around who we’re going after and what we stand for. But you have to have that foundational messaging in place. It’s central to everything else that follows, including demand gen.”

Below, we explore 7 different 2020 B2B rebrands from 7 CMOs we’ve interviewed this year, with lessons learned and great insights for brands looking to up their game in 2021. 

1. A Steadfast Purpose Can Guide B2B Brands Through Adversity

After a year of careful planning and research, how do you know if you’ve found your brand’s true brand purpose? When it stands up against an unexpected challenge. It’s exactly what happened to Altair when the events of 2020 sent everyone home…just before a big brand relaunch they had been planning for months.

Messano CMO Amy Messano shared on the Renegade Thinkers Unite podcast that when everything unfolded, the brand paused the rebrand, carefully deliberating on whether or not to continue ahead, pivot, or cancel it entirely. The answer was in the company’s new brand purpose: “Only Forward.” And only forward they went, launching their brand virtually and giving hope to Altarians in an unpredictable moment.

As Amy shared: “When we rolled it out, it was overwhelmingly positive from employees and customers and, because of the juncture, it became a rallying cry, not so much as a mantra.”

Listen to Episode 192: Decoding Your Company’s True Brand Purpose with Altair’s Amy Messano

2. A Rebrand is More Than a Campaign, It’s a New Direction

As National Instrument’s first-ever CMO, Carla Piñeyro Sublett warned her C-Level counterparts that rebranding the 40-year-old, 1,000 employee, global company might completely challenge their entire business strategy. And then it did—which is a great sign that this rebrand was not just a coat of paint, but something far more substantive that would alter the business for the better.

Thus, National Instruments became NI, with a new logo, new brand colors, and, most importantly, a new mantra as ambitious as the rebrand itself: “Engineer Ambitiously.”

As Carla explains, NI made this promise real in real-time when COVID struck: “We have customers that we’ve been helping reimagine manufacturing lines, pivoting from one industry to making ventilators as an example, in a matter of days. We’ve been helping address this crisis, so it’s not only inspiring to our employees, it’s actually literally what we’re doing.” If you’re in the manufacturing business and looking to improve your processes, you may want to consider outsourcing some of your materials from other businesses. For instance, an electronic contract manufacturing company can provide you with electronic parts needed for your products.

Listen to Episode 193: How National Instruments Became NI with NI’s Carla Piñeyro Sublett

3. Evolve with Customer Needs (and Deliver High-Level Value)

For Coyote Logistics CMO Christina Bottis, brands absolutely need to understand customer needs first in order to establish an effective marketing and selling strategy that fulfills baseline needs and then higher-level, decision-swaying needs. In this regard, a brand’s work is never done—customer needs evolve over time, so brands need to evolve with them.

Their biggest takeaway was that the brand’s original value proposition had become orthodox. From small Chicago startup to global enterprise, Christina shares their new positioning: “Now that we know what they want and what’s important to them, we are better suited now more than ever to serve at a higher level, but we have to be able to deliver on it.”

With all of their hard work, the third-party logistics (3PL) company arrived at the perfectly pithy, purpose-packed tagline “Drive your business forward,” executing a business strategy that delivers high-value to its customers on an ongoing basis. Having to partner up with a reliable cargo van load board company can help an online business to be on top of their deliveries.

Listen to Episode 190: The Logistics of Purpose-Driven Marketing with Coyote Logistics’ Christina Bottis

4. Creatively Balance a Brand’s Past and Future

For 45-year-old Information Builders, it was time to, as CMO Carol McNerney put it, “leapfrog into the 21st century.” They wanted to shift perceptions of Information Builders as a data and analytics company, not just a BI and analytics firm. Even more importantly, the high-tech brand wanted to focus on how it embeds intelligence into said data and analytics, helping customers get to better decision making.

Thus, ibi was born. The new name just made sense—it’s what customers were calling the company anyway, and the logo recollected the ones and zeros of data, effectively communicating the new brand’s focus. There was one big twist with this rebrand, though. ibi’s old brand logo was embedded into its new one, echoing the brand’s new “embedded” messaging.

This “bridge brand” allowed ibi to maintain its old brand equity while celebrating an exciting new future that employees and customers alike could get on board with.

Listen to Episode 205: Rebranding Without Losing Your Past with ibi’s Carol McNerney.

5. Ask What Drink Your Brand Would Order

When CMO Paz MacDonald asked herself in 2019 what Software AG would order if it walked into a bar, the answer was “a still water, hold the ice.” With 50 years in the business and a great reputation (but poor brand awareness), that answer just wouldn’t do, so it was time to shake things up. After embarking on a comprehensive brand audit, establishing a “living connections” message, and launching a completely new website, Paz is happy to say: “We walk into a bar now; we’re going to order a sensible, but a nice, cocktail.”

The ultimate test for the new brand came about when 2020’s challenges came to light, and Software AG passed with flying colors. The living connections message was, if anything, more relevant than ever for the brand, and after launch, they saw an increase of 67K LinkedIn followers in 21 months, a 400% boost in mobile user engagement, and more marketing qualified leads.

Listen to Episode 208: Building a Marketing-Driven Organization with Software AG’s Paz Macdonald.

6. Brand Differentiation Multiplies B2B Demand Generation Efforts

When CMO Kevin Sellers came to Ping Identity, his mandate wasn’t to drive demand—it was to build a robust brand awareness strategy to differentiate the identity security brand. In his words: “It’s not just about being more known. It’s about making that funnel much bigger and ensuring that your demand activities are more effective as a result.”

After identifying Ping Identity’s brand story, they started to roll out the new message with employee feedback (that’s a lesson within a lesson here—employees need to participate in the branding process). After that came an initial content campaign, and then they took it up a level by partnering with Terry Crews to get the word out.

Ping Identity was doing something that no one else in their space was doing, and since October 2020, people have begun to notice. It’s a bit too early to tell if the campaign will result in closed deals, but with high engagements, website traffic up 1,000%, and a 90% retention rate on video content, all the signs are pointing that way. “Awareness investments are like the R&D arm of marketing. They tend to pay off, but over a longer period of time,” notes Kevin.

Listen to Episode 218: Awareness Matters: How One B2B CMO Cut Through with Ping Identity’s Kevin Sellers

7. When in Doubt, Launch a Sub-brand

There had been talk about renaming and rebranding K2 Software in service of a shift to a more app-centric approach and mission critical focus. “You want to talk about making a quick decision when COVID hit?” CMO Carlos Carvajal shared. “That shifted pretty quickly, but a good middle ground—and I have used this successfully at previous companies—is to launch a new solution brand, so a sub-brand.”

That solution brand became K2 Nexus, a cloud-based suite of solutions for intelligent process automation. Along with the new sub-brand came solution-focused messaging. K2’s new top line focused on simplifying transformative automation, and customers and prospects alike both responded extremely well, resulting in a wealth of new customer testimonial videos, a highly qualified pipeline, and more closed deals.

Listen to Episode 211: B2B Partnerships That Matter with Q2’s Carlos Carvajal (previously of K2)