man with briefcase lying down on a football field
While blowing $5 million dollars on a Super Bowl ad might have appeal — the scale, the attention, the audience — your money is better invested in understanding your customers. PHOTO: Martin Reisch

With the dramatic fracturing of the advertising market, it’s no wonder a 30-second Super Bowl ad sells for more than $5 million. Or that they’re virtually sold out, despite that eye-popping price. There are simply few other opportunities to reach such a target-rich audience at a similar scale. 

But is that dramatic price tag worth it? Probably not. At least not for B2B brands looking to connect with other companies, rather than directly with consumers. But the reason has nothing to do with the event itself, and everything to do with the way brand works in a B2B buying environment. 

A Strong Brand Is Table Stakes

To be sure, if a company is looking to significantly rebrand or launch a new brand altogether, expensive but expansive outlets like the Super Bowl provide an attractive opportunity to do so. But for most well-established B2B brands, big investments in further brand building are unlikely to drive noticeable benefit to the bottom line. 

In fact, Gartner research indicates that a strong brand serves as nothing more than table stakes for qualifying for customer consideration in the first place. A strong brand is crucially important, of course, but it’s not the direct path to premium pricing most marketers hope it to be. That’s because, in the B2B world, virtually every top competitor has a strong brand already, at least within its own vertical. Think FedEx versus UPS, or GE versus Siemens. Sure, no one ever got fired for buying from IBM.  But is anyone really going to get fired for buying from Amazon, Microsoft or Google either? Certainly not based on brand. 

We often refer to this brand reality as the “1 of 3 Problem,” inspired by the chief commercial officer of a global industrial fragrances company who once told me, “We’re the number one brand in our industry. And as a result, we’re included among the top three suppliers our customers consider in virtually every single deal. But we still wind up competing on nothing but price anyway.” 

That’s the reality of brand in today’s B2B buying landscape.  Once a company has achieved a minimum threshold to make it into the consideration set, the path to premium pricing lies down a different road altogether. 

Don't Tell Your Brand's Story, Tell Your Customer's Story

What is that path? 

Perhaps ironically, Gartner research consistently indicates the best path to differentiation comes not from building a better story about your company, but about the customer’s company. Specifically, a story that identifies ways the customer can improve performance, reduce costs, maximize profit or minimize risk in ways they’ve failed to fully appreciate on its own.  

We often refer to this approach as “Customer Improvement,” or “Commercial Insight,” comprising three steps for connecting with customers well-beyond a flashy advertisements and celebrity endorsements:

A New Kind of Customer Understanding

If suppliers aspire to change the way a customer thinks about their own business, the first thing they have to understand is how that customer thinks about their business. To do that, we recommend suppliers map a customer’s “mental model,” laying out the primary business objective a customer seeks to achieve and the key challenges they believe they must address to get there.

Upend the Status Quo

To help customers identify previously unidentified or underappreciated opportunities for improvement, the best suppliers then credibly disrupt that mental model in a surprising manner that merits a customer’s change in behavior.

Lead to Unique Strengths

Finally, having persuaded customers to change their behavior, a supplier must ensure that the best option to realize that behavior change is only achievable through the supplier’s unique strengths. The discussion of those strengths, however, must follow from the insight, not be the insight. The insight itself is actually supplier agnostic, not supplier centric. 

Done well, this kind of commercial insight can lead a customer to value a suppliers’ differentiated capabilities exponentially more than any return from a $5 million investment in a 30-second television spot — even one on the Super Bowl.