When I jumped into B2B science marketing, the concept I had the hardest time wrapping my head around was “brand.” Like many scientists, my attention initially was drawn to rational arguments about features. As I grew more experienced, I realized that brand was an essential concept in marketing. But the idea wasn’t gelling, and I didn’t see how to use brand in science marketing.
Part of the reason I struggled to understand brand was because many resources are sloppy in how they treat the topic. A brand is your logo, your narrative, your values, and your tone of voice, all wrapped into one. It is everything about your company, but also this separate thing that must be controlled, positioned, and promoted.
As a scientist, I like words with precise meanings, so I want to explain what brand is and why it is relevant in science marketing. This post shares what I have learned on the topic, attempting to explain it in a way that will make sense to a scientist.
What is Brand?
Brand is the reputation and popularity of an organization or product. How many people know it exists? What products is it associated with? What is it known for? This is true in all areas of marketing, including science marketing.
The term brand came from cattle ranching. Cows from different owners would graze together in fields, which might lead to confusion about who owned which cow. A name or symbol would be burned “branded” into the cow’s hide using a red-hot iron to act as a label of who owned the animal. Over time, buyers learned that cows with certain brands tended to be higher quality, which meant they could be sold at a higher price.
While brands started as a labelling tool, it has grown into something much more complex. Brand marketing is about creating and projecting a perception about your organization. This can have a real business impact over time.
The concept of brand may seem vague, it also has a massive influence on marketing. Brand is like popularity in high school. How many people know you? Do you have a reputation for being cool, geeky, athletic, or a prankster? Who or what are you associated with? “Popularity” is simultaneously completely fake and extremely powerful.
Like popularity, brand is built on a combination of hard facts and beliefs that may not be true. If you are a star football player, you will probably be known as a jock, but that reputation may stick even if you stop playing. Volvo developed a reputation for safety because they were substantially safer than the North American cars of the mid-20th century. Today, Volvo is still known as being safe, but they do not rank as highly as many competitors on safety tests.
There are three aspects of brand: awareness, association, and sentiment.
How many people know about your company or product? Simply put, customers will not seek your product or buy from you if they don’t know you exist.
There are two ways to measure brand awareness: aided and unaided. Aided (also called ‘brand recognition) means you recognize the brand when prompted (“Do you recognize this brand?”). Unaided (also known as recall) means you don’t need a prompt (“Name a brand from this category”). Unaided recall is the higher level of awareness.
While “awareness” may seem like a low bar, it has a surprisingly strong effect. Let’s imagine I was considering buying a new pipette. I have never purchased a pipette, and while I have used them a lot, I don’t know what features I should be looking for.
However, I have heard of Eppendorf and know they are an established pipette maker. If choosing between two similar pipettes, I would opt for the Eppendorf one. I might rationalize that because Eppendorf is a well-known brand with a long history, it is reliable and more likely to honor a warranty. But how do I know that? There may be plenty of other pipette brands with long histories, not that this even tells me anything about the quality. Sheer awareness was the actual tiebreaker.
This is just one of many reasons why awareness has such a powerful effect.
Do consumers know what your brand sells? What products do they associate with you? It may seem wild that consumers would recognize your brand but not know what you sell, but it is common. Ordinary consumers (read: consumers who don’t work in marketing) pay very little attention to the ads they see or the company that makes the products they use.
There is a billboard on the highway near where I live that has the logo for “Brandt” on it. That is it. I have driven by this billboard dozens of times, and I still don’t know what Brandt sells. Of course, there will be some people who do know what Brandt is, and this billboard may have some effect on them, but it is ineffective if you don’t have an existing association.
Explaining that “Your consumers need to know what you sell” may sound extremely obvious, but clearly, the people at Brandt don’t know this.
Associations are become more complicated for companies that are selling more than one product. This is a significant challenge in the B2B science category, which is dominated by massive conglomerates that sell many products. It is challenging to know who sells what without diving into their catalog.
(This is part of the reason you see separate brands owned by the same company, but that topic is beyond the scope of this blog)
What do consumers think about your products? Are your products high quality, easy to use, fashionable, or reliable? Every category has a different set of criteria that matter.
While every marketer wants their customers to think all their products are A+ on every possible metric, that isn’t realistic. Imagine if you were trying to sell a car by convincing buyers it was the best at everything. It is the safest, the fastest, gets the best mileage, and has the most storage space. It is perfect for families of one, three, six, or eighteen. Would that be effective? Probably not – your message would be confusing, contradictory, and likely dishonest. Brands that prioritize one or two traits will outcompete you.
Most consumers don’t have strong opinions about many brands they use. When we think of brands, we tend to think about cars or high fashion – categories where people tend to have strong opinions. But what about light bulbs? Lawn furniture? Carrots? This is part of why advertising is effective – people’s views about most brands are flexible.
Some marketers get wrapped up in the concept of a brand story, conjuring up a world where consumers develop complex relationships with the companies in their lives. While that may happen on occasion, it is exceptionally rare. This is why focus and simplicity are essential. Who is your product for? Why is it better than the competition? Narrative is a tool for sharing a message in advertising, but that doesn’t mean your buyers are memorizing the entire history of your brand.
Brand Versus Branding in B2B Science Marketing
Brand is related to branding, though the two are not the same. Branding is the creative assets that are connected to your company. A classic B2C example would be Coke’s logo: this is a distinct brand asset that almost everyone would associate with the company.
Distinct brand assets help to reinforce the associations and awareness of a given brand. We encounter thousands of brands in our lives, but we gradually forget about them over time. Branding assets like logos, mascots, and jingles refresh your memory, strengthening your awareness and associations.
At the same time, branding is different from the brand. Branding can change overnight, but brand cannot. If Coke changed its logo, most people would not think differently about the company. The awareness, association, and sentiment would not shift dramatically. However, one of the best ways to grow a brand is to use consistent brand assets and build on them year after year.
Does branding have a place in B2B science marketing? Absolutely. One of the best is the red-capped bottles from Sigma-Aldrich. At first, these are generic containers, but the company’s social media team has done a fantastic job turning them into a symbol of lab life. Between chocolate giveaways and googly eyes, these containers now have a special meaning and resonance for those who are in the know.
Does Brand Matter in B2B Science Marketing?
If you come from a scientific background, you may feel skeptical reading this. Everything here seems unempirical and subjective. Aren’t researchers and scientists going to look at facts and data before making a purchase decision?
Yes, technical buyers do make careful evaluations when making high-stakes purchase decisions. Not just scientists either – there are plenty of engineers and finance folk who aren’t afraid of spreadsheets and data. However, that doesn’t mean brand isn’t important. It can influence the buying process in many ways, even if we are being as rational as possible.
Let’s consider an example.
Scenario: Centrifugal Branding
You work in a professional laboratory, and you have just been selected to lead the purchase of a new centrifuge. This is not a benchtop centrifuge, but one of those big ones the size of a washing machine (and ten times as expensive). Your current model has been causing problems for a while, so you want to find a different vendor. You’ve used centrifuges regularly for years but have never bought one. Here are the steps for your purchase.
Step 1: Search
You start the same way you start every research project: asking Professor Google. Your first question is “buy ultracentrifuge,” and notice that Fisher Scientific sells them. You’ve never used one of their centrifuges, but you have used plenty of their other products, and you know they are a big brand in the field.
You click the link and start to look at what they have to offer, noting which models will or won’t meet your needs. When assembling your long list, you include at least one of their products.
Step 2: Evaluation
You’ve pulled together a short list of possible models and started to dive deeper into the specifics. You book demos with a couple of the companies. The team from Fisher put on a very professional presentation, and they answered all your questions. They leave a good impression, but you are also concerned that the final price is higher than you had hoped.
Step 3: Decision
While you have spent the last couple of weeks thinking about nothing but centrifuges, you still can’t decide which to buy. You’ve identified two finalists, but you can’t decide which is the best value. There is a cheaper one being sold by a start-up company, but you are worried that they won’t be able to service your machine if it breaks. Then there is the Fisher centrifuge, which is more expensive, but it has a couple of extra features, and you trust their team.
You think through the problem for a couple of days, but you suddenly realize that buying the centrifuge from the start-up is a considerable risk. Not a risk for the lab, but a risk for you! If this thing breaks down and you can’t get it repaired, people will blame you for picking the centrifuge from that company no one had ever heard of. It will cost more, but that isn’t your money at the end of the day.
You decide to purchase the Fisher model.
How Brand Works in B2B Science Marketing
This story showcases how brand awareness influences purchase decisions. In the initial search, the brand played a role in selecting Fisher for the shortlist. During the evaluation, the sales team reinforced the image of a dependable company. During the final decision, the buyer encountered the “Nobody gets fired for buying IBM” dilemma and opted to pay more for the safer option.
Where did branding have the most significant effect? You may think it was the last step, but I think it was right at the beginning. Fisher was a brand the buyer recognized, so they started their search there. This can have an anchoring effect – Fisher’s model is the default that everyone else’s models are compared against it. Research has shown that people tend to pick the first brand they think of when buying.
To be clear, Fisher could have been the “right” choice. Yes, Fisher “won” partly because of brand, but that doesn’t mean the product is worse than the alternative. As long as the buyer is not being deceived, there is nothing dishonest about leveraging the power of brand.
We also shouldn’t overstate the power of brand in this context. What if the Fisher machine lacked an essential feature? Would this buyer have bought the Fisher centrifuge if there were negative reviews online? Would they have paid two times or five times the price compared to the competitor? No, the product and pricing still needed to be competitive.
The buyer still followed a rational process and was not wooed by brand name alone, but awareness helped push the winner forward at every stage in the process.
Why is Brand So Confusing?
As I mentioned at the top, brand is a topic that many aspiring marketers – especially those with a scientific background – struggle with. When I first started there were moments that the concept would begin to crystallize, but then it would slip away. Why was this happening?
This was probably because of sloppy marketing educational content, which comes from sloppy thinking. I’d encounter some video or social media post that discussed brand in a way that confused or contradicted what I already understood. Since I didn’t know any better, I would assume I was wrong and try to update my beliefs, but this would be upended a couple weeks later. It took me a long time to realize that I had to actively not listen to ideas shared by certain influential marketers.
Take this example, which I recently saw on LinkedIn.
The “not” side of this list is fairly unobjectionable, but let’s focus on what a brand is. What does it mean to say a brand is “a feeling collected from every interaction,” and “a short-cut to decision making”? Whose decision making are we short-cutting, ours or the customers? What does all this mean in practice? It also assumes your customer is investing an awful lot into this brand universe, which is true for very few brands.
I know this is a silly LinkedIn infographic, and it is unfair to be so critical of something that is meant to be more inspirational than informative. However, I think this is representative of the lazy thinking around brand, and marketing more generally. How can marketers hope to be taken seriously when our core “asset” is an “experience” “created in the mind of the audience”?
If you are early in your career, remember that many marketers are full of shit. Even those that are successful may not understand why some ideas work and others don’t. Even if they do offer certain insights, that doesn’t mean it is applicable to your circumstances. Take everyone (even me) with a grain of salt.
Building Your Science Brand
With all that said, how do you build a science brand? How do you get all this awareness?
The simple answer is spending a lot of money to do a lot of marketing. Buy ads, create content, host events, and why not sponsor a hockey team while you’re at it. This answer is only half tongue-in-cheek. Investing enough in your marketing is critical, but how will you make enough money to buy the ads to build your brand if you don’t have a brand in the first place?
If you can’t buy quantity, then you need quality. If you create ads that are twice as memorable or attention-grabbing, you effectively double the amount of awareness you bought without spending any extra money. Science blogs that generate traffic are better than those that don’t. Ebooks and white papers that get more conversions are worth more than content that people aren’t interested in. I know “market better” is not ground-breaking advice, but it’s true!
This is about execution, but that is downstream from strategy: what themes are you addressing, and which audiences are you prioritizing? This is challenging in the sciences, where it is tough to get straight answers from real customers. You need to spend time getting to know your customers and then uncover insights that can be shared in a creatively compelling way.
Consistency is also critical. Consumers will only develop a relationship with your brand if they recognize who you are. Using a consistent and distinct set of brand assets in your ads and content will help buyers remember you. This may sound like a stupidly simple point, but there are plenty of brands that mess this up.
Mastering brand in science marketing is a real challenge. Most B2B companies play it safe, using a generic colors, logos, and other creative assets. Science brands are especially guilty of this, using undifferentiated pictures of doctors in lab coats, spirals of DNA, and microscopes in all their content and ads. How can you build a science brand that breaks out of this dynamic cost-effectively?
Unfortunately, we won’t be able to answer all those questions here, but hopefully, this has given you a solid footing in the basics of the topic. If you want to learn more about brand or other topics related to science writing and marketing, be sure to subscribe to the newsletter!