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What Salesforce chief exec Marc Benioff taught me about B2B brand building

November
2021

This article was originally featured on The Drum.

Qualified chief customer officer Dan Darcy served as Benioff’s right-hand man for years. Here are the three key principles he learned from his invaluable time at Salesforce.

Today’s B2B marketers are challenged to build brands in an increasingly omnichannel world. According to a McKinsey report in recent months, B2B buyers now prefer a customer journey that’s nearly equal parts traditional conversations, video calls and digital self-service. In other words, your brand reputation depends on excelling at all of them, as the entire experience will have a defining impact on whether a buyer trusts your company over a rival.

Brand matters more than you might think in B2B – which, per an eMarketer report, will be a $30bn annual industry by 2023 – because the bets are so much bigger than in B2C. This sector’s price tags usually have more than a few zeros trailing the dollar sign, and decision-makers’ jobs are at stake. Trust, therefore, shouldn’t just be a feel-good concept but a by-design doctrine with underlying principles that guide B2B brands.

I had the opportunity to learn about how important trust is to brand-building from Salesforce chief executive Benioff for 13 years. I worked for Marc in various capacities, including as his right-hand man helping build the Dreamforce conference brand. During that time, I also absorbed many enduring lessons from Marc, including these three key principles that I know from experience will help B2B brands establish and grow trust.

1. Make trust and transparency top priority
Everything starts with trust and transparency, and performance is part of what builds brand trust. I watched Marc lay the groundwork for that approach in 2008 when he created the subscription model for software, which took the long-term commitment pressure off the buyer and put the onus on the brand to perform, to live up to the value that was promised. If the promise is fulfilled, then customers renew annually, quarterly or monthly.

When I was cutting my teeth in marketing before joining Salesforce, it was commonly known in the industry that salespeople would say nearly anything to close a deal. On the contrary, Marc wanted his brand to be all about transparency, instructing his teams to shun shady maneuvers and for everyone to be clear about what Salesforce had to offer at the time and how it worked. He was also determined that his brand offered a customer experience that leaned into transparency for service, buying process and product features.

2. Remember the customer is the hero
Further, the subscription model was a radical idea in the 2000s, but Marc proved to be ahead of his time as nearly every industry in our professional and personal lives has some type of subscription associated with it. Whether it’s Salesforce, Slack, Netflix or The New York Times, subscription customers believe those products help them succeed in work or life.

All marketers should make customers the heroes of the brand story by spotlighting their success and experience. They should make customers – and the products they are using – the stars of ads, like Marc’s team has done by highlighting Salesforce customers such as Asana, Speck and ZeroCater. B2C brands Dove, Spotify and Bumble in recent years have also made their customers the stars of ads, while Apple’s latest iPhone campaign has the product’s new privacy feature taking center stage. Customers and products are powerful elements to a brand’s story and portray a company that isn’t merely focused on quick sales, but rather a longer-term relationship with their customer.

3. Use live demos whenever you can
B2B marketers should build trust by not only pitching a buyer on what the future holds for their product – they also need to demonstrate the idea is real by using live demos whenever possible. Enterprise software marketers too often ‘fake it’ with a slick product video that looks awesome, or they make vague claims about ‘AI-enhanced’ features. Yet, a big question looms: is it real? Such doubt erodes trust. Marc has accomplished the opposite by regularly getting on stage, demoing a new product and showing to the audience exactly what they’ll be able to do when they start using it.

Trust for B2B brands is indeed about the long game. IBM built its brand on multiple generations of trust-building, and now it’s consistently involved in data partnerships with major organizations such as the US Open tennis championship that just wrapped up in early September. Amazon Web Services, NVIDIA and Stripe are modern kin to Salesforce for B2B brands that have earned the business world’s trust by marketing their products around what they can do for the customer. Hard-won trust is why Marc can proclaim that the cloud is replacing software and position AI as “a new human right.” Not only do these statements generate a ton of positive buzz, but they can also fundamentally shift the direction of the technology industry.

The above three principles – give trust and transparency top priority, make customers the heroes, and use live demos whenever you can – have helped me as a marketer from the time I learned them from Marc up until this day. And with Salesforce valued at $230bn (and counting), they are beyond proven.

Dan Darcy is chief customer officer at Qualified.


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