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Existing studies offer limited explanations regarding the determinants of business-to-business (B2B) brand sensitivity: the degree to which brand stimuli are actively considered during buyer deliberations. This research addresses this gap by comparing the relative influence of organizational buyers' functional versus imagery beliefs on brand outcomes in B2B professional service settings. Specifically, it compares the influence of buyers' perceived operational competence and prestige sensitivity on brand preference and brand sensitivity. Further, it evaluates the effect of brand sensitivity on brand importance and customer engagement, two particularly relevant outcomes in the B2B professional services setting. A qualitative pilot study was conducted to gain insight into the salient drivers of brand preference and brand sensitivity. Then, a survey of 324 CEOs and ownermanagers of small and medium-sized firms was carried out to test the hypothesized model. The results confirm the importance of imagery beliefs in organizational buying decisions, but not at the expense of operational competence, a more fundamental functional belief.
This study addresses the dearth of B2B service branding research by exploring the salient factors that influence brand sensitivity in the professional service firm context. It examines the relative influence of functional (operational competence) versus imagery (prestige sensitivity) beliefs on brand attitudes, intentions, and behaviors in business exchanges involving professional service firms and small and mediumsized enterprises clients.
The findings revealed positive and significant effects of both operational competence and prestige sensitivity on brand preference. Specifically, the results showed that functional beliefs relating to operational competence have a stronger impact on brand preference when compared to imagery beliefs (i.e., prestige sensitivity). This finding is consistent with prior research which has found that the credibility of professional service firms in terms of expertise and trustworthiness is critical in enhancing clients' perceived value as well as determining other attitudinal and behavioral outcomes (Arslanagic-Kalajdzic & Zabkar, 2017). In addition, the results are consistent with Brown et al. (2011) who revealed that despite B2B buying behavior relying more on objective criteria, brand-based judgments still matter when making ‘risky’ business decisions. Subsequently, this study found that brand preference positively influences brand sensitivity which in turn drives customer engagement (i.e., knowledge and influence) and brand importance.