How to be a famous B2B brand

Research from LinkedIn’s B2B Institute shows the value of aiming beyond awareness

November 26, 2019

How to be a famous B2B brand

If you’re famous you get all kinds of perks.  Everyone knows that.

And the same is true of brands.  And yet, you don’t meet a lot of marketers who list “fame” as a goal. Instead, most marketers pour their energy into building and tracking “brand awareness,” to make sure people are aware of their brand’s existence.

There’s just one problem: awareness is a very, very low bar to set for a brand. It’s the definition of table stakes. It’s true a brand can’t be a marketing asset if nobody’s heard of it. But, people don’t buy every brand they’ve ever heard of. They don’t regard them as equally worthy, attractive or relevant; they may not even come to mind when they’re considering buying something.

Awareness isn’t an objective – it’s a starting point

In our recent B2B Institute study with advertising effectiveness researchers Les Binet and Peter Field, we used the IPA Effectiveness Data Bank to study the difference between brand fame and brand awareness as strategies for B2B brands. We wanted to see if fame and awareness behave in the same way as for B2C campaigns.

Binet and Field’s study proves B2B marketers, in particular, need to aim higher where their brands are concerned.  When looking at the impact of different B2B strategies and how they influence the bottom line they found marketing strategies that focused on driving brand awareness, as opposed to activating leads, delivered more than double the significant business effects as those that didn’t focus on brand at all. Campaigns which focused on achieving brand fame as a strategy were 3x as likely again to drive large business effects, such as increases in sales, revenues and profits.

Both brand fame and brand awareness are measures of mental availability: the ease with which your brand comes to mind at a relevant moment, such as when someone is ready to buy. However, they sit at opposite ends of the mental availability spectrum.

The crucial difference between brand fame and brand awareness

If someone is aware of your brand they may think of it when they are considering a purchase from your category. However, the more important measure for brands is ‘salience’. Brands that have a greater degree of ‘salience’ come into a consumer’s mind more strongly in specific buying situations. Memories of them come to mind more quickly, influencing the buyer’s choice.

To illustrate this imagine you’re heading abroad on a business trip that’s going to involve visiting several cities and out-of-town locations. You need to rent a car – and have lots of options to choose from. If you sat down and made a list of all the car hire brands that you could think of, it would probably be quite long – but this isn’t a pub quiz. What matters is the two or three brands that you think of first, as they will dominate your consideration set. You aren’t more aware of these brands than you are of the others – you can name all of them, remember. But those brands have greater salience; you feel more strongly about them; and your brain instinctively considers them more relevant to the choice you’re about to make. Decades of research into the psychology around brands show people choose whatever comes to mind most easily, in order to conserve mental energy. It’s known as the “availability heuristic.”

Being the ‘no-brainer’ answer

As salience increases, your brand’s mental availability increases with it – and so does its influence in a buying situation. Brands that become famous take salience to a whole new level. They are so embedded in people’s minds they are the only conclusion most consumers can jump to. People think of them in the same instant that they think about buying from a category. They are, literally, the “no-brainer” answer to the question: what should I buy?

This is the territory occupied by Andrex toilet tolls, Hellmann’s mayonnaise, Gillette razors, Nike running shoes or Guinness stout. The point isn’t that lots of people are aware of these brands (even though they are). They are so famous that most human brains feel no need to attempt to think beyond them when they think of a category. And that should be any brand’s ambition.

Are B2B brands shy of fame?

All of the examples I listed are from consumer categories. Sadly, it is far easier to think of examples of famous B2C brands than it is to come up with famous B2B ones – because a higher proportion of consumer marketers have traditionally invested in making their brands famous.

We often assume B2B purchases are considered over a longer timeframe, and in a more consciously rational state of mind than an instinctive B2C purchase. If we’re buying for business, the logic goes, a brand might leap to mind – but we’ll then force ourselves to think beyond that brand, and sense-check our choice against rational considerations.

If we’re paying for that car hire on the company credit card, we might think first of Avis and Hertz, but we’ll then dutifully consider all other options we can think of, assessing their suitability against the more salient or famous brands. We’ll take time comparing costs, looking at the vehicle options, reading small print, taking in user reviews. All because we’re now a B2B buyer.

The proof that fame matters for B2B marketers

If that sounds like a bit of wishful thinking, it’s because it is – and Binet and Field’s research proves as much. They studied B2B marketing campaigns that made rational claims about a company’s products and solutions against those who set out to make their brands famous. Brand fame strategies had an impact on profits, sales and revenues that was 12x higher than making rational claims.

This shows having a famous brand is a massive competitive advantage in B2B marketing. But of course, it’s one thing to want to be famous; it’s quite another to achieve it. How do brand fame strategies actually work? How do you go about becoming a famous B2B brand?

The first thing to recognise is brand fame isn’t just a result of having lots and lots of brand awareness. You can reach awareness of close to 100% in terms of people being aware of your brand, but if only 5% of those people think of you first when considering a purchase, you’re nowhere near being famous. Fame is a different objective to awareness. It builds on it but often needs a different approach in order to achieve it.

Fame requires broad awareness

Famous brands are embedded in wider culture. Today’s buyers know about them, but so do tomorrow’s potential buyers, and the friends that they chat with about work at 6pm on a Friday at a weekly get together. It’s part of their common frame of reference, and this reinforcement and implicit shared understanding multiplies the famous brand’s advantages. Think Heinz being a byword for tomato sauce – or Xerox a byword for photocopiers. You never think of alternatives because nobody else thinks about or refers to alternatives.

To enter culture, you need a deliberately broad approach to targeting – and a media plan that can give you a share of voice beyond anybody else in your category. You can’t get the world talking about you any other way. However, entering the wider culture also requires a different creative approach – based on stand-out and emotion.

How famous brands get famous

Famous brands get famous by being boldly original. They break category norms and do so in a way that generates an emotional response at scale. They don’t play by the same rules as everybody else; they don’t faithfully focus on the same selling points as their rivals. They find a way to market themselves that’s completely original, surprising, makes lots of people feel something different – and is guaranteed to get them talking about them.

Brand fame strategies used to involve massively expensive media opportunities. Some of the most famous B2B brands of all built that fame around Super Bowl advertising: Xerox, FedEx and my personal favourite EDS, now Hewlett Packard Enterprises. Its Herding Cats ad from the year 2000 is one of the most famous super bowl spots of all time – and as different as a B2B ad could ever be.

Today though, the budgets required to achieve brand fame can be more accessible. Adobe’s Click Baby Click ad, another campaign that delivered on brand fame, had a cunning media launch build around Advertising Week in New York. It targeted marketers but did so in a way that felt like a cultural event. The immense cultural impact of Volvo Trucks’ Epic Split ad didn’t come about by chance. Client and agency had developed a deliberate strategy to make their brand the most famous brand in their category – and they designed every element of the creative and media plan around that ambition. When B2B brands adopt a broader approach to defining their audience on LinkedIn they achieve something very similar: the sense that everyone in your professional life is experiencing and talking about the same brand.

Brand fame isn’t easy to achieve, or everybody would be doing it. However, it’s possible to achieve with a deliberate strategy that recognises the importance of being the most mentally available brand from your category. It takes time, often years, creative consistency, investment and a degree of marketing courage. However, it can provide you with a competitive advantage that endures over long periods of time. When it comes to brands, fame doesn’t have to be fleeting and not everybody gets 15 minutes of it. It’s rare, unique and powerful. And it’s well worth striving for.

‘Five Principles of Growth in B2B Marketing: Empirical Observations on Advertising Effectiveness’ by Les Binet and Peter Field is available to download at  The B2B Institute, is a think tank funded by LinkedIn that works with leading experts in academia and industry to better understand B2B Marketing, and business to business decision making.