Spencer Wixom

Rory Sutherland’s new book Alchemy is a fantastic read for anyone interested in the intersection of behavioral psychology and marketing. I highly recommend it.  

This post is focused on one quote mid-way through the book. It’s from Sutherland’s friend Joel Rathelson (I think I have that name right), also of Ogilvy, who lays out his theory of brand preference. Anyone in B2B marketing needs to consider this idea.  Rathelson said, “we don’t choose brand A over brand B because A is better, but because we are more certain that it is good.” 

The contrast here is subtle, but deeply important. In making purchase decisions, our instinct as humans is not to evaluate comparative features of various products and decide by calculating expected utility.  We may consciously assume we do this, or claim to have done it in hindsight, but plenty of notable examples of consumer behavior prove otherwise. 


Look at a famous one.  Pepsi launched its Pepsi Challenge campaign in the 1980s.  The public taste tests (taking a blind sip of two cups of cola and picking the one you prefer), was a direct play to brand A / brand B comparison. And it got the desired result. Many more people picked Pepsi. The campaign was extremely popular and a notable PR move. But, in the end, it didn’t sell more Pepsi.  People didn’t switch, even after admitting they liked the taste of Pepsi better. Why? Because, in their minds, they had greater certainty that Coke (the brand they had drunk for some time and were comfortable with) was “good”. 

Let’s apply this to B2B sales and marketing. Do complex customer buying groups carefully compare the features/economics/benefits of option A and B to make logical/utility-based decisions? The answer is No. These are individuals, using the same instincts at work that they use as consumers. How do we know this?

Because near 40% of these buying groups end in no decision. If complex B2B buying was simply a matter of choosing the better option, one option would always win. But in many cases, no one wins because the buying group lacks certainty that any of the options will be sufficiently “good”. 

Understanding this nuance creates a messaging opportunity for suppliers willing to do some hard work. 

Presenting your differentiators to better position yourself vis-à-vis competitors is the easier, but less effective path. Presenting your differentiators to build customer confidence in your solution is harder, but better aligned to the decision customers will ultimately make.  Let’s consider three important signals in a message that can build this certainty. 


Confidence in a solution comes when it is sold and will be implemented with empathy and concern for particular factors in the customer’s business. This involves an understanding of all elements of the SWOT analysis and an ability to demonstrate this understanding in conversation and solution tailoring. 


Members of a buying group want to be certain of “good” because anything less could be disastrous for career mobility. These individuals will hesitate from any decision that requires too much personal risk. The key is to build confidence that personal disaster won’t happen. 


B2B purchases are inherently uncertain. Buying the new McDonalds burger is a pretty certain, “good” bet. They’ve made billions of them, and they all taste pretty good. But what about a new enterprise software package? Will it integrate properly? Will it be utilized? Will we actually see the efficiency benefits it promises? What can we be certain of pre-purchase? Answer: that the people selling it to you are smart, honest and good. This is why Sales Experience represents over 50% of customer loyalty. A powerful message delivered effectively by sales people builds certainty pre-purchase.

Commercial insight is a signal that you care. That you’ve thoroughly researched your customer, found unknown or underappreciated pain points, tailored them, and have charted a path to jointly solve them. 


Ask this key question as you evaluate each part of your commercial strategy, “how does this (campaign, sales tactic, message) contribute to greater customer certainty that we are good?”. If you’re unsure it contributes, don’t do it. This is particularly true of campaigns or talk tracks that directly bash your competition. Doing so plays against the buying instinct of your customer.

Tearing down the other guy doesn’t build any certainty in you being good – it likely does the opposite. It shows you have nothing better to present than how you compare. But what if the customer is uncertain about both of you? It may gain PR buzz, but it won’t close business. Instead, help your customers be more certain you are a “good” choice and they’ll be more apt to make a decision – most likely in your favor.

Spencer Wixom

Spencer Wixom

Spencer is Senior Vice President of Marketing at Challenger, and has helped transform sales and marketing teams in some of the biggest and best companies in the world.