Why Self Image Matters in B2B Sales

By Brent Adamson, Karl Schmidt and Anna Bird, Harvard Business Journal.

B2C marketers have long known that the key to a customers’ hearts and minds is to make the connection between the brand and customers’ sense of self. Powerful brands (think Apple and Nike) reinforce customers’ positive self-image. B2B marketers, on the other hand, have shied away from the idea, instead approaching selling as a rational, numbers-driven process where the best value proposition wins. Consequently, until recently they’ve paid little attention to the psychological needs of individual stakeholders in a purchasing organization. But that’s changing as suppliers have come to appreciate that companies don’t buy things, people do.

Our research shows that understanding the personal motivations – particularly around identity — of key people in a buyer organization are every bit as important to a sale as convincing them of the superiority of your solution.

This becomes even more important as the number of people involved in buying decisions has grown. Today, between five and six decision-makers typically have to agree on a purchase before it can happen. If a seller doesn’t have an advocate in the organization to help drive the consensus, a so-called “mobilizer” who is personally motivated to champion the deal, the sale can stall (see “Making the Consensus Sale” Harvard Business Review, March 2015).

To find out what might motivate a customer to take on this mobilizer role, CEB surveyed over 4,000 individual customer stakeholders involved in a B2B purchase. By evaluating over 70 different supplier attributes for their impact on customers’ perceptions of value, we found that customers perceive three distinct types of value provided by suppliers. We labeled these company value, professional value, and identity value.

Company value captures all ways in which your offering is perceived to help customers win at the company level — things like allowing the firm to achieve operational goals or increase customer loyalty.

Professional value is all about the ways an offering might improve the individual productivity of employees, for example by making an employee’s job easier or increasing her workflow or productivity.

And finally identity value describes the ways an offering might impact how employees perceive themselves by, for example, boosting their pride, helping them win respect, or strengthening their sense of community. This third category is distinct from the other two. It is less about “how the firm does” or “what I do” than “who I am.”

When we analyzed the relationship between which type of value customers perceived in a supplier (company, performance, or identity value) and their likelihood of advocating internally for the supplier, this is what we found: Offerings with a lot of company value (those that benefit the firm overall) don’t reliably inspire stakeholders in the company to advocate on a supplier’s behalf, becoming mobilizers who will help build the consensus needed to secure a purchase. Offerings that provide professional value (helping an employee do his or her job better), while encouraging mobilizers somewhat, don’t have a particularly powerful effect. But offerings that provide identity value, positively reinforcing a customer’s self image, had a powerful effect on turning these customers into mobilizers.

In short, the most effective way to create internal advocates or mobilizers for your offering is to make sure that – in addition to explaining the company and professional value it provides – you reinforce the ways it will deliver identity value — making them proud and respected, and strengthening their sense of community within the organization.

One of the best B2B campaigns of this is industrial supplier Grainger’s “Get it, got it, good” promotion —exemplified by their “Downtime is a Real Downer” video. Grainger identified production facility managers as their target — the individuals in the organization they hoped to turn into mobilizers who would help build consensus. The campaign connected the benefits of pride in work and having a sense of being king of one’s domain directly to the purchase and use of the Grainger solution. Grainger’s value proposition directly impacts the way the target mobilizer sees himself, building his confidence and willingness to act. Using Grainger’s offering doesn’t just make him feel better about Grainger, it makes him feel better about himself.

Communicating the spectrum of types of value your offering provides – from the company level to the individual level – is important, of course. Each value type has a role in helping to drive the needed purchase consensus. But if you fail to inspire individual customer stakeholders with the promise of identity value – qualities of your offering that enhance their sense of self – they may not step forward to advocate for you. And without them, it will be an uphill battle getting the consensus you need for a purchase.