A counter-intuitive approach to demand gen: Stop selling. Build brand.

by | Jun 13, 2020

If a marketer were to tell me this is a good time to build brand, my first thought would be this:

Bullsh*t. Let’s fill sales pipe instead.

But what if building a stronger brand could fill our pipe with better opportunities?

And what if brand building is more cost effective than our current lead-gen methods?

This article offers a high-level view of how to fill your pipe by building your brand instead of generating leads that don’t close.

Brand-led demand gen offers key advantages

This demand-gen approach is so new it has no name. I call it brand-led demand gen.

Its proponents say it’s much more efficient and effective than conventional lead gen.

And it may be a better fit for some small SaaS companies than account-based marketing (ABM).

What SaaS companies, sellers, marketers, and customers like about it

Companies see results sooner, and their customer acquisition cost (CAC) is lower.

Marketers and SDRs like it because it gets them off the “lead-gen hamster wheel.”

Sellers like it because they get better leads that close faster.

The relationship between sellers and marketers improves.

Customer like it because their buying experience is better.

How it works, at a very high level

Here’s the essence of it:

You build your brand by establishing trust and educating potential buyers.

You recognize that brand building and lead generation are separate marketing processes.

Your marketers may do both, but they don’t conflate the two.

Why many sales leaders are skeptical of branding

Executives in sales-led companies often think brand building is a waste of money.

Why? 

Because it’s hard to measure its effectiveness.

And sometimes they misunderstand what it is.

Open any business magazine or watch an important sports event on TV.

Most of the business-to-business ads you see are corporate or image ads.

That means they don’t sell a specific product or service. 

They focus instead on building awareness of the advertiser and creating a positive impression. 

So much corporate bragging

Pharma companies show a minority person talking about how her research saves lives.

Energy companies talk about their investment in renewables. 

Financial service companies show how solid and trustworthy they are.

Consulting services try to show how diverse they are.

Tech companies show how innovative they are.

Corporations spend billions a year on such advertising.

What’s your reaction as a seller in a small or mid-sized SaaS company?

That kind of branding may be great if you’re IBM or SAP, with mountains of cash to burn.

But what we need here is revenue. This quarter.

A seller’s misperceptions of branding

I’m heading into the corner office as my chief revenue officer (CRO) winds up a meeting with our marketing leader.

The marketer scoops up her Pantone color swatches and design comps for the new company logo.

She nods and smiles as we cross paths.

I smile back. Then I slip a shiv in her back.

“I liked our old logo,” I say to the CRO.

When we out there busting our humps to grow revenue, it’s good to see marketing has another new logo in the works.

Can’t they just send us better leads?

Sound familiar?

I don’t think I’ve stabbed a marketer in the back with this kind of snark.

But I’ve probably said things like this to their face.

What has branding ever done for sellers?

In 20 years of B2B enterprise selling, I couldn’t point a single thing of value that marketing had ever done for me.

I saw branding as a refuge for marketers who want to avoid accountability for anything measurable.

I believed that all good marketing contributes directly to revenue generation.

I advocated direct-response marketing, where you could measure the effectiveness of every initiative.

Branding was for money wasters. 

What branding is

Branding is much more than design–logos, corporate identity graphics, and website.

If you search online, you’ll find dozens of definitions of brands and branding.

They may confuse you as much as they do me.

The definitions I like best are from Kristin Zhivago, a business friend and Driven subscriber.

Here’s what she says (paraphrased):

Your branding is the promises you make.

Your brand results from the promises you keep.

So brand and branding aren’t just about design.

They’re about setting and meeting expectations.

And branding isn’t just an exercise for the marketing department.

Your entire company does branding all the time, whether or not they know it.

Everyone in your company either builds or harms your brand through their day-to-day behavior. 

And every piece of content you publish can either strengthen or weaken your brand.

When you publish useless, self-serving content, people assume you work for a useless, self-serving company. 

The hard work of building your own sales pipe

In most of my selling years, it was slow, hard work to develop all my own new business.

I did all my own prospecting. I also did my own marketing because I couldn’t count on help from a marketing team.

I worked mostly for small companies that had little name recognition and tiny marketing budgets.

It felt like I had to chisel every sale out of granite.

I never received a single lead from a marketing department.

So I resented marketing. 

I thought all marketing should be direct-response, where you can measure the results of every investment.

My epiphany about the power of brand

Then I landed a job with a company that spent more on branding than anywhere else I’d worked.

Those were the 6 most productive and lucrative years of my time in sales.

I did little prospecting, yet I was always busy with opportunities.

We often entered sales cycles as the preferred vendor.

In retrospect, I see it happened for 3 reasons:

  • Our timing was excellent. We had the right solution at the right time. 
  • We had strong strategic partnerships that brought us great business.
  • We had a mostly positive, high-profile brand in the narrow niche we served. 

Working for a company with a well-known, respected brand made my selling much easier.

That company didn’t do what I now call brand-led demand gen.

They did a lot of corporate image advertising and promotion.

Plenty of hoopla at trade shows. 

But even that helped more than I knew.

There’s good news for sellers today.

Brand-led demand gen offers a focused, economical way for even small companies to fill sales pipe by building their brand.

How brand-led demand gen works

Here’s the bare-bones process for brand-led demand gen:

1. You identify your ideal target customers.

You develop an Ideal Customer Profile (ICP).

2. You interview customers and prospects who fit your ICP.

Your interviews uncover what they value, how they buy products like yours, and which media channels they prefer.

3. You understand the difference between 2 kinds of content.

One form of content is for education and awareness.

The other satisfies buying intent. It’s for people who are ready to buy.

You produce both kinds of content, but you keep them separate and distinct.

4. You publish awareness and education content every day.

You favor serial content in the form of podcasts and videos.

You publish solid case studies that focus on your customers as heroes of the story. They de-emphasize your products and your company.

You publish fewer downloadable white papers and ebooks. You stop publishing “lead magnets.”

You create education and awareness content for 3 reasons:

  • To educate your target audiences about how to solve problems they’re likely to face.
  • To lead them to even more useful content you’ve produced.
  • To help them think well of your company so they’ll come to you when they’re ready to buy.
This content isn’t about your products or your company

You focus on customer problems related to your company’s expertise.

Problems you can help solve. 

But your content does not overtly promote your company or its products or services.

Your content helps people even if they have no intention of buying your product.

You answer their questions at their pace, in formats they prefer.

You offer this kind of content because you want people in your target audiences to consume it fully.

And to share it widely.

This content doesn’t try to sell

In creating your content, you give no thought to generating leads or creating the opportunity for a sales conversation.

It’s so hard to fight the urge.  

You don’t provide calls to action that urge people to talk to a seller.

Instead, you refer them to related content that may be helpful.

You’re satisfied to advance your sale in small increments.

4. You don’t make people to fill out forms to see your content.

All your awareness and education content is “ungated.”

That means you don’t make people fill out a form to view it. 

When you don’t require an email address and qualifying details, more people consume it your content.

5. You publish long-form videos to YouTube for SEO.

And you post short-form content to social channels such as LinkedIn and Facebook.

6. You promote both long- and short-form content through organic and paid social channels.

You focus on only one or two social channels until you’ve mastered them.

In your content promotion, you direct people to your longer-form content on YouTube or your website.

7. You set different marketing performance metrics.

You stop counting MQLs and SQLs. Instead, you see who views your social posts and who comments on them.

If these people are in your target audiences and have the right titles, you know you’re on the right track.

You note how long they engage with your video or audio content.

As a leading indicator, you measure marketing contribution to sales pipe.

Your ultimate goal is to measure and increase marketing contribution to revenue.

Your want to get it up between 50% and 65%. Maybe you can get it even higher. 

The higher, the better.

As long as these metrics continue improving for people with the right titles in companies that fit your ICP, you stay the course.

8. You don’t badger people who have consumed your content.

You don’t use marketing automation systems or lead nurturing.

You don’t need them because your fans already consume your content.

Your SDRs don’t phone or email people after they attend a webinar or download an ebook.

9. You trust that people who like your content to contact you when they’re ready to buy.

You don’t keep asking them for appointments. 

You don’t scare them off with your pushiness or neediness. 

10. You send only highly qualified leads to sales.

You tighten your criteria for sharing leads with sales.

You share leads only if they work for companies that fit your ICP. 

Sellers follow up on more leads because they trust their quality.

If marketing contributes 50% to 65% of sales pipe, can you sellers stop their outbound prospecting? 

No. They still have to do outbound to fill the rest of their pipe.

But their outbound will be easier when you have a stronger brand. 

And for the leads they get from marketing, their sales cycles will be shorter.

Takeaways

This is a good time to explore alternative approaches to demand generation.

Events and trade shows have been canceled or postponed.

If you’ve relied on them in the past, you have money available in your budget.

Today many target prospects can’t buy because their companies have postponed software purchases.

But they’re open to being educated on ways to solve their problems.

It’s a good time to produce useful content that educates without a pushy sales agenda.

Brand-led demand gen may be worth trying now.

So many questions

This high-level article probably raises a dozen or more questions.

Here are a few that may have crossed your mind:

  • How might your company transition to brand-led demand gen?
  • Who’s doing it successfully today?
  • How much is this likely to cost?
  • Does this mean you don’t need SDRs?
  • What skills do you need on your marketing team?
  • How do you run paid social? Which social channels should you use?
  • How can you produce so much content that’s useful to your audiences?

I’ll answer these questions and more in future posts here. 

Sources

Roadmap to Revenue: How to Sell the Way Your Customers Want to Buy. Kristin Zhivago. 2011.

“The State of Demand Gen.” Chris Walker. Gaetano Di Nardi.

[This is a podcast, with Walker and DiNardi serving as hosts.

The whole series is great.

I’ve listened to all episodes, and I’ve heard several many times.

You’ll find it on iTunes, Spotify, and other podcast distribution services.]

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