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Oracle is instantly recognizable by its bold red logo. Salesforce has Astro Nomical, its “warm and welcoming” mascot. Intel has that catchy chime. These are all examples of “brand assets,” and they’re increasingly important to B2B marketing success.
At LinkedIn’s B2B Institute, we commissioned one of the biggest studies ever on B2B branding. We partnered with Distinctive BAT, a company that measures and tracks distinctive brand assets, and analyzed more than 300 brand assets from 59 brands across six of the biggest categories in B2B: infrastructure as a service (IaaS), business intelligence (BI), customer relationship management (CRM), cybersecurity, business banking and business insurance.
What we found was startling. Most B2B companies do not have any distinctive brand assets, which is the foundation of effective brand management. We estimate that brand mismanagement is costing B2B firms billions of dollars in potential sales every year.
Why are brand assets so critical? As Jenni Romaniuk—professor, international director at the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute and a leading expert on branding—defines it, brand assets are “non-brand name elements that uniquely trigger the brand name for the vast majority of category buyers.” That’s a big deal for B2B buyers.
Brand assets increase performance in two ways. First, they make buyers more likely to notice—and recall—your marketing efforts, which improves marketing effectiveness and efficiency. Second, they make it easier for buyers to find your brand, online and offline, in a buying situation. They increase mental availability (easy to mind) and physical availability (easy to find), which helps companies grow volumes, prices and margins faster than competitors.
This is why the smartest investors like Warren Buffett buy companies with strong brand assets, which we call “brand moats”—a company’s ability to maintain competitive marketing advantage. In other words, it’s relatively easy for competitors to copy the product features of Coke, Apple and Geico, but you can’t copy their logos, characters and taglines without getting sued. Brand assets are legally protected trademarks, which means that branding may be the deepest moat of all.
But how deep is the brand moat in B2B? It’s practically a puddle.
In our research with Distinctive BAT, we surveyed B2B category buyers to calculate the relative recognition and attribution of over 300 B2B brand assets. Recognition is the percentage of buyers who recognize the asset; attribution is the percentage of buyers who then attribute the recognized asset to the correct brand. The best B2C example is likely the Geico Gecko: According to the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute, 87% of consumers recognize the gecko asset, and 98% know that asset belongs to Geico. That’s about as strong as a brand asset can get.
But in B2B, no assets achieve Geico Gecko-level scores. The graphs below show performance for the four biggest B2B tech categories. Each of the dots represent a different B2B brand asset. Dots toward the top score highly on recognition, while dots toward the right score highly on attribution. The most valuable assets are located in the upper right-hand quadrant—those “hero” assets score highly on both recognition and attribution, which is the goal.
You’ll notice that in all categories, the upper right quadrant is essentially empty. More than 75% of the assets are clustered to the far left. Many category buyers claim to recognize the assets on the left, but almost all these assets score in the single digits when it comes to attribution.
Not all categories are quite as bad as B2B tech. Take a look at the business insurance category, for example. There’s still not many hero assets, but on average, the scores are much higher.
And no one does B2B branding better than the banks. Unlike many B2B tech firms, which are new companies competing in new categories, many B2B banks are old brands competing in old categories. And in branding, age is an advantage. Wells Fargo was founded in 1852, which means its brand assets benefit from 171 years of compounding equity. Financial services marketers are often criticized for being slow to change, but when it comes to brand building, slow-and-steady is a feature, not a bug.
Building a portfolio of brand assets
These banks’ success proves that building brand assets is possible for B2B marketers. Our robust analysis of over 300 brand assets doesn’t just show how big the branding opportunity is in B2B—it also shows marketers how to seize that opportunity. Get started with these five branding best practices.
Choose the right assets
Not all assets are created equal. Characters and logos tend to score highly on both recognition and attribution. In IaaS, for example, the best scoring asset is Amazon’s smile logo. Some 93% of cloud buyers recognize the smile, 67% attribute it to Amazon and only 3% attribute it to an Amazon competitor. In CRM, Salesforce’s lovable character, Astro, increases attribution by 40%. And even these world-famous assets still have room to grow.
Don’t choose the wrong assets
Colors and taglines offer the worst odds. Colors especially tend to score poorly on recognition and attribution. In business intelligence software, IBM is blue—but so is Microsoft Azure and SAS. Almost every tech and finance brand is blue. Blue is the color of the “sea of sameness,” which makes it a weak basis for distinctiveness.
That said, color can increase the attribution scores of a logo. A grayscale version of Microsoft’s logo performs 42% worse than the multi-colored version. But if you rely on color alone to carry the weight of your branding, you’re bound to be disappointed. Most assets are stronger when paired together.
Never abandon strong assets
The strength of a brand asset is closely correlated with how long it’s been in market. Like financial equity, brand equity compounds over time. The Amazon smile, for example, has remained unchanged since 2000, which is one reason why it outperforms Microsoft’s logo, introduced in 2012.
Elon Musk committed one of history’s greatest acts of “brandalism” by abandoning the Twitter logo, which had 90% recognition and 85% attribution. But Elon has lots of company—most B2B marketers can’t resist the temptation to refresh or rebrand their assets for no good reason.
It takes years of consistent investment to build a strong brand asset. Squandering that hard-earned equity is almost always a mistake.
Be concrete but discrete
If there’s an obvious, concrete link between the asset and the brand name, the asset will work better. For example, Liberty Mutual’s logo is the Statue of Liberty, and “emu” sounds like “LiMu” just like “gecko” sounds like Geico. That said, you don’t want to be so concrete that you blend in with competitors. Google Cloud’s logo is shaped like … a cloud. So is the logo for Salesforce and Cloudflare.
You should be concrete vis-à-vis your name, but discreet vis-à-vis your competition. Try to avoid abstract shapes or patterns—if buyers can’t easily describe the asset, the data suggests it will probably score much lower on recognition and attribution.
Nepo brands work harder
Sub-brands are suboptimal. The famous Microsoft logo has 71% attribution, but the Azure “A” has only 14% attribution, and the Dynamics “D” has only 7% attribution. This is in part because Microsoft is also a B2C brand. And sure enough, across categories, B2B brands that also have B2C businesses tend to score higher than pure play B2B brands. Our colleague, Derek Yueh, likens these brands to the “nepo baby” phenomenon. Just like the children of famous actors are more likely to become famous, the children of famous B2C brands are more likely to become famous, too.
Bottom line: Pure play B2B brands will need an even more disciplined approach to brand asset management to compete with both B2B and B2C competitors.
Brand assets are powerful financial instruments, but building them requires smart, systematic asset management. Sophisticated B2B marketers will recognize an opportunity to invest in a brand moat that fends off the competition and increases returns for years.
Our advice: If you want to become a B2B marketing GOAT, build a brand moat.