The Brand Promise of B2B Media

by Dan Blank on August 12, 2009

Our lives are integrated with those of brands, be it Coke, Dell, CNN, Google, Dankso, American Idol, or what have you. In some ways, we can feel our lives are invaded by brands; in other ways, they are welcome partners in our silly little worlds (see: LEGO.) Today, I want to explore the concept of brand promise, what it means for a B2B media brand, and why I feel B2B media has so much potential for growth.

Here is one way to define brand promise:

The commitment you make to your customers and the value you create in their world.

Another way to look at it: are you adding or taking away? Is what you’re adding something that puts smiles on people’s faces, or are you just another me-too brand offering me-too products that clutter the lives of those in your industry? Your brand is not a feature set of the product (matte finish, on-screen menu, etc), but the benefits to your customers (20% faster, increases sales by 10%, reduces HR expenses, etc.)

Scott Karp puts it this way:

"News folks: Instead of focusing on "new revenue streams" (business-centric), focus first on "new value propositions" (customer-centric) How can you have a new revenue stream without a new value proposition? Unless you’re trying to resell old value."

Music is a passion of mine, and I often think about the brand promise of bands, and the sacrifices & decisions they make to live up to these promises. Before I dig into B2B media, consider these two examples from the music world:

  • U2: Lesson’s on Building a Brand

    For 33 years, the band has made some uncommon decisions and operated truly as a single unit, which means years of compromise and sacrifices that are hidden from view from fans & listeners. While most other brands have a much shorter half-life, U2 not only stayed together, but consistently evolved and released a combination of artistic and popular music. Here are some traits & decisions that support their legacy:

    • Stay Together.
      Through years of evolution, stardom, turmoil, side projects and experiences, they have remained devoutly partnered with each other. They still recall their lowest moment as a gig in Australia that their bassist missed due to alcohol dependency. The thought that one of them could be falling, sent a shockwave through the band. He gave up alcohol after that show.
    • Share.
      If I am not mistaken, all song credits are shared equally among the four band members, and they even include their longtime manager as an equal partner – splitting credit & finances five ways (Note: I couldn’t find confirmation of this online, and my U2 books are packed away at the moment, so I’m going from memory on that one.)

      When a band is not fighting for credit – not fighting for royalties amongst themselves – that frees them up to focus on their art, and doing what’s right for fans, not what gives an individual member more power.

    • Evolve.
      You can largely break U2’s career down into three distinct stages:
      • 1976-1990: Earnest music in an age of excess.
      • 1991-2000: Experimental excess & self-exploration.
      • 2001-present: Melding earnest music, experimental production & catchy riffs.

      However you define it, the band has clearly pushed boundaries and taken risks – year after year – that other bands would have, at best, left for side projects or B-sides.

      For some, this was a huge turn-off, making the band into a joke. For others, it showed artistic integrity and respect for a fan-base that can be sophisticated and multi-faceted. The moment a band becomes afraid to offend fans is the moment they become an expected cliche.

      Overall, there is a clear ethos within the group that U2 is a band of the moment. They don’t play sentimental shows trying to recapture a past glory – they push to remain relevant and move their art to new places. Unlike many concert tours of older bands, they are more concerned with affecting the present, not reliving the past.

    • Deliver More Than is Asked.
      Their live concerts are nothing short of groundbreaking in scale and spectacle. The productions are incredibly expensive, cutting into their potential revenues, and largely unnecessary for a band of this caliber. Beginning with their Zoo TV tour in the early 1990’s and continuing to their most recent 360 tour, the band reinvents the stage and how to interact with a crowd measured by the tens of thousands. Check out their latest stage – which is one of the biggest structures ever used in a concert tour.

  • Spice Girls: Lesson’s on How NOT to Build a Brand

    The Spice Girls had incredible success – selling 60 million albums and becoming a cultural phenomenon. You can’t think about the 1990’s without their name popping up. And yet, they no longer exist. At the height of their career, they crashed and burned. For all the fame that a member such as Victoria Beckham has received in the years since, it is not because she served fans and extended her art. She falls closer to the Paris Hilton category: a celebrity who demands attention, not an artist such as Madonna, who may demand attention, but explores her art and supports her fans. Here are some reason’s why the Spice Girls brand is no longer around:

    • Serving the Needs of the Business First, and Fans Second.
      The group’s creation was orchestrated from a business opportunity, bringing together striving individuals that never felt a lasting committment to anything bigger than themselves. And while you can’t argue with the notoriety and profit that ensued, even the business value was brief and messy.

    • Putting the Individual Before the Group.
      Each individual wanted their own power, recognition and success. They were not willing to compromise or be a part of something larger than themselves.

      As more products were thrust upon fans, there was a sense that money was more important than the creative process. In the end, each product delivers a lower rate of return from the fan perspective.

    • Creating a False Brand Promise.
      As the group evolved, decisions seemed to be made on the basis of what was good for the group, not what was good for the fans. It is easy to come up with phrases like "Girl Power" and preach the value of staying true to your friends forever, but it was hard to actually live up to those ideals for more than a brief moment.

      I remember a news report that showed upset girls when the band broke up – the girls felt duped having believed in the message of a group that couldn’t live up to it.

      As individual members started their solo careers, it became clear to many fans that their appreciation and loyalty was being taken advantage of – that their trust had fragmented.

      This is why a second chance is so hard to come by; burned once, fans aren’t open to it again when they realize their passion is for someone else’s benefit.

I realize that music preference differs from person to person, so you can replace the above examples with any number of comparisons: Rolling Stones vs Stone Roses; Bruce Springsteen vs Nirvana; Metallica vs Guns & Roses; or practically any band vs Smashing Pumpkins.

Which group followed trends, grabbed money, lost focus of the fans in the midst of infighting, allowed complexity to overtake simplicity, and who let ego get the better of them? Who had promise that was left unrealized, their legacy a brilliant but brief moment – a mere spark instead of a flame.

Why should you care about this? Because these comparisons offer astounding lessons for any brand looking to build not just a profitable business, but also an enduring legacy that gives them a key role in shaping industries for decades, not merely years. Messing up the brand promise causes businesses to constantly have to reboot their efforts in a circle of hype and hope.

B2B Media, the Brand Promise, and Sustainable Online Business Models

The expectations for B2B media have changed: instead of providing information, they are asked to provide solutions. To meet these challenges, brands are expanding their product, services & networks – offering training, events, webcasts, articles, blogs, videos, data products and interesting ways to partner with their industry.

Some of the brands I work closely with have been serving their industries for more than a century:

Consider the authority built over this time frame. Consider how the brand promise translates to the needs of their industries today. In many ways, nothing has changed – the purpose of a brand like Library Journal or JCK or Publishers Weekly remains unchanged. Yet, the tools at their disposal are greater now than every before. The double-edged sword is that these same tools are available to a wider range of competitors, and to the audience themselves.

Here are some ways how a B2B media brand can leverage their brand promise on the web:

  • Brands Must Connect their Audience.
    B2B media brands have built trust within their industries for decades, connecting people with each other, bridging the gap between problems and solutions, and helping to shape the future.

    But digital media and tools have empowered new competitors. This means that a B2B media brand must evolve how they serve their industry and the revenue models attached to these services. The audience has more options nowadays: more ways to get information, connect to each other and find solutions.

    It is for this reason that I consider things like webcasts or LinkedIn and opportunity; not because they are hot new things, but because they offer powerful ways to do what B2B media brands have done for decades. If these brands don’t get in front of the parade, someone else will.

  • Trust Must Continue to be Earned.
    One thing some major media brands are learning is that audience’s loyalty must continually be earned, as new competitors try to claim greater market share. Sites like Huffington Post & Gawker are competitors for segments of the New York Times’ audience, and the Times can’t rest on its laurels.

  • The Brand Promise Must be Expressed in Benefits, not Features.
    People are drowning in information overload – their days filled with more and more streams of data that are encroaching on their lives. It is no longer enough to merely "inform" an audience – to be truly competitive, you have to be able to directly solve needs.

    For a B2B media brand, this could take the form of training sessions (eg: webcasts), networking opportunities (eg: in-person events or online social networks), connecting buyers & sellers (eg: lead-generation), and other product offerings.

  • It’s Not Enough to be Merely Interesting, You Must be Compelling.
    A quote from a recent New York Times article about the end of a fashion designer’s business has been floating around in my head for the past week:

    “I didn’t realize then how important it was to relentlessly put my name and face out there,” he said. “I came from a place where your work was supposed to speak for itself.”

    I can’t help but feel many that journalists and media organizations are waking up to the same reality – that quality work will not be supported by a business that is failing and an audience that has more options than ever.

    By "compelling," I don’t mean flippant or scandalous or trading high quality for low; I mean you need to be able to speak to the needs of people who can’t sleep at night because of a vexing business problem. If you provide solutions for these needs, you have stood head and shoulders above your competition.

  • The Brand Promise Must be Easy to Taste.
    This is where Chris Anderson’s argument for the freemium model becomes interesting; that the "coverage" of an industry – the news – should remain free, but valuable solutions, should be expensive.

    As media brands evolve their product suite, there is a unified way to consider products such as webcasts and events in terms of their relationships to news and information. Paid along with free, each working to extend their reach and provide more value.

  • The Brand Promise Must be Flexible to a Wide Range of Needs & Behaviors.
    Not everyone likes a print publication, not everyone likes a blog, RSS feed, video, webcast, event or data product. This is why content providers must be able to extend a single piece of content, or a single solution, to a wide range of potential products.

    Consider how a feature article becomes a forum, becomes a white paper, becomes a customized solution, becomes a training session, becomes a consulting opportunity, becomes a lead generation partnership, becomes a webinar, and the like.

  • The Brand Promise Must be Unique.
    I don’t fully understand news organizations’ fear of content aggregators. If a company is offering just one more stock version of a news story, then yes, fear the aggregators. That brand offered nothing truly unique to begin with, so the only thing an aggregator can do is expose that.

    My wife is an artist, and posts her work online. We have had many discussions about how ideas can be stolen easily, and we share examples of this happening in the art world. But my conclusion is this: my wife offers so much more than a single idea that can be stolen. Her art is expansive and ever-changing, and the community she is a part of is about so much more than pretty paintings.

    If any brand doesn’t have a multi-faceted line of unique solutions and a deep relationship with their audience, then yes, they should be afraid.

  • http://www.samdiener.com/ Sam Diener

    Dan,

    Thanks for taking the time to write this interesting article!

    Regards,

  • dougshore

    Dan,

    Given your involvement with JCK, how do you view Reed's management of that brand after elimination of senior staffers earlier this year and the recently announced transfer of management of JCK to its trade-show division (http://www.foliomag.com/2009/reed-exhibitions-m

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