Do B2B brands need brand codes?

Martin Hopkins and Moensie Rossier
By Martin Hopkins and Moensie Rossier | 18 April 2024

Everyone’s talking about brand codes. But very little is being said about B2B brands. Martin Hopkins and Moensie Rossier ask why.

From McDonald’s golden arches to the iconic Nike Swoosh, there’s been a lot of talk about brand codes, the assets that help your brand become more famous and unique.

Mark Ritson says we should use them and then use them more until we’re vomiting. Yet last year, a JKR and Ipsos report claimed 85 per cent of brand assets are not “truly distinctive”, aka, practically worthless.

One thing everyone agrees on is that distinctive brand codes help make your brand more recognisable, memorable, valuable and successful.

But when it comes to brand codes, most of the brands discussed are consumer brands – think consumer goods, fast food, alcohol, fashion, and retail categories.

Surely B2B brands can have brand codes too.

Why has B2B been slow to capitalise on brand codes?

Traditionally B2B brands are less visible than B2C brands. They don’t often run big brand campaigns and marketing tends to be to specific target customers, not mass market.

B2B brands usually work on quarterly earning cycles, so it can be hard to justify long-term brand investment.

It’s commonly assumed that B2B purchasing decisions are driven more by factors like functionality, reliability, and trust rather than emotional factors.

Plus, B2B brands are generally more conservative in nature and tend to conform to sector conventions.

Taking this all into account, it feels much more difficult for B2B companies to justify the investment to transform their brand assets into distinctive brand codes.

But times have changed.

Operating in more competitive marketplaces, B2B brands don’t fly under the radar anymore. These days, many B2B brands have consumers as the “end customers.” They have more visibility with community engagement putting them in the public gaze.

As such, there’s a greater requirement for accountability and transparency.

Touchpoints are no longer restricted to the annual report, events or just building signage.

LinkedIn is a prime example of a channel where many B2B brands are posting daily content.

Which B2B brands are leading the brand code charge?

Unilever stopped being a quiet group brand and came from behind the pack to signal a new era where well-being and sustainability are at the heart of the company. It started with a vitality mission with elements of vitality incorporated into its logo. This evolved to “making sustainable living commonplace”, supported by increasingly tangible pillars.

Signalling a shift from accountants to thought leaders, Accenture, Deloitte, McKinsey and PwC all established distinct brand codes to help them stand out and apart – think PwC’s boxes, Accenture’s arrow, Deloitte’s green Dot and McKinsey’s blue and spirograph. While some consultants have been standing out for the wrong reasons, at least we know who’s who.

Some of the most exciting start-ups continue to be B2B brands. And some of them are big proponents of brand codes. Canva has dedicated a section of its website to educating users on codes and even offers a brand kit tool to manage your brand’s identity. It also practices what it preaches with its unmistakable logotype and colours.

Encouraged by the likes of Canva and Salesforce, professional services brands are raising their game. Helping companies build competitive advantage through artificial intelligence in the healthcare space, Harrison AI welcomes you to a world where imagination overcomes impossible. A lacklustre brand with wishy-washy codes would not be up to telling that story. Nor would it be up to the task of fighting for the best talent.

Brand codes and the battle to attract and retain talent

Today’s workforce is choosing between high-profile consumer brands and high-impact B2B brands. Already at a disadvantage when it comes to awareness outside a narrow sector, B2B brands have to work harder to attract talent.

Entice Tesla employees to an innovative water company. Bring graduates who aspire to be at the pointy end of finance to a start-up none of their peers have heard of. And hold on to them.

This is where brand codes come into their own. They’re also powerful culture codes. Take Valiant Finance, for example. It’s a scaleup company that serves the needs of small businesses in need of a loan. A mix of technology platform and human beings, embedded in the negative space of its logo is a lion cub, sheltered by its mother. This reflects the care Valiant’s people take to understand their business customers and the brand embodies its own culture, pride and camaraderie. Their people call themselves the Pride. That’s three strong codes, just there – design, personality and language. 

Putting this into action

Just like the most successful consumer brands, B2B brands need to identify and foster their strongest codes.

Research can identify the ones that are most unique and meaningful to your audiences. This will help you stand out and not be attributed to another brand. The Ehrenberg-Bass Institute’s Distinctive Asset Grid helps visualise and prioritise assets you’ve identified, according to fame and uniqueness, so you can identify what to avoid, what to test, what to use or lose and what to invest in.  

Symbols, shapes, and colour are the most obvious codes, but many other brand assets can be established, such as typefaces (the Economist), company founders (Ogilvy), taglines (BHP’s Think Big), physical assets like packaging or products (The CHEP blue palette), your vehicle fleet (Linfox) or brand characters (the Salesforce Trailhead Crew).

The rules are the same for establishing brand codes in B2B.

The consistent and relentless repetition across all of a brand’s touchpoints, assets, physical spaces, products, services, interactions and comms with staff, stakeholders, customers and communities.

They may not be as universally well-known as consumer codes, but B2B brand codes can, in their own way, be legendary.

Martin Hopkins is a Creative Director and Moensie Rossier is a Strategy Director & Principal at branding agency Principals.

comments powered by Disqus