Creativity and storytelling were previously seen as a luxury afforded to B2C brands but B2B marketers are waking up to the effectiveness opportunity investment can bring.
Businesspeople do not park their emotions and personality in a cardboard box when they come to work and buy products and services.
In fact, the way people interact with B2B brands is incredibly similar to how they engage with B2C brands. This means creativity, storytelling and long-term brand building are just as important as a product’s features and price.
The cardboard box reference comes from marketing consultant Peter Field who, along with Les Binet, head of effectiveness at adam&eveDDB, was commissioned by LinkedIn to assess the importance of brand building in the B2B sector. Binet and Field are well known for their work in the B2C space and their 2013 book ‘The Long and The Short of It’.
“There are huge similarities between B2B and B2C when it comes to brand but many B2B marketers need to revise their approach,” says Field. “Brand advertising really does work in B2B to drive buyer choices and revenues.
“Brands need a creative storytelling element because it is not enough to rely solely on rational product messaging. There has to be clear differentiation and a narrative that taps into business buyers’ emotions. Humanity must not be lost in a tech-obsessed world.”
The Binet and Field research was unveiled recently in New York and reveals that brand building in B2B should, on average, account for 46% of marketing spend and lead generation 54%. Many B2B brands spend considerably less than this proportion on brand building but the research concludes that investment should rise as a business matures and grows.
This follows research from Marketing Week and The Marketing Practice that showed that B2B brands that identified as outperforming their competition over the last two years were twice as likely to allocate 60% or more of their budget to achieving long-term marketing goals.
The research also cites case studies from the IPA’s awards databank including BT and VW Commercial Vehicles. BT demonstrates a clear story around helping business customers in an emotional way by bringing people together, while VW Commercial Vehicles talks about being there for small business owners who can find running their business a lonely experience.
“Quite a few businesses have B2B and B2C divisions,” says Field. “These ‘hybrid’ companies seem to have applied their B2C learning to B2B with good effect.”
Another company to tick the hybrid box is insurer Direct Line. Head of transformation Claire Sadler says the Binet and Field research confirms what she has always felt, that reach and tapping into emotion through creativity and storytelling are as important to B2B brands as they have always been in the B2C arena.
“B2B advertising is often rational rather than emotional but in insurance the risk to a business owner can be greater than to someone personally,” says Sadler. “We are all human beings and we do not become a different person when we go to work.”
Technology has made buying business services easier but it has also meant that in many cases human interaction has been lost. “The salesman use to be the face of the insurance brand. Today, insurers have to tell their brand story through other touchpoints, including their website and B2B advertising,” she adds.
For purely B2B companies, long-term brand thinking can be a challenge because of the pressure to deliver short-term sales. But Field believes there is no better tool for driving growth than brand building, and marketers’ acquisition strategy must target a broad audience to generate long-term support. He says too much B2B marketing is narrow and focusing on targeting existing customers.
The findings of the research have gone down well with B2B marketers, who accept that storytelling and brand building are essential if a business is to grow and remain competitive.
The chair of The DMA’s B2B Council, Richard Robinson, is also chief commercial officer at data technology startup DPL. He says building long-term brand awareness is more integral to B2B companies than most marketers realise because growing sales depends on successfully building relationships and customer loyalty.
He believes B2B customers are often more emotionally engaged than B2C shoppers because the purchasing costs can be higher and there can be a serious financial impact if the wrong buying decision is taken.
“B2B companies will reach more customers and encourage them to keep coming back if they build brand awareness as well as trust,” he says. “B2B brands are beginning to spend a larger proportion of their marketing budgets and resources on building relationships. You can barely enter a B2B marketing event today that doesn’t cover account-based marketing and/or storytelling.”
Robinson says a long-term approach is important because the B2B buying process is counted in months or even years. “How many B2C marketers have to engage with a dozen or more decision makers, all with different needs and requirements, across multiple months, using different channels to consume information just to sell one product?” he questions.
One area that does need to change is that B2B marketers need to become more confident about sharing their stories and differentiating themselves.
Tim Matthews is CMO at cyber security vendor Exabeam and author of the book The Professional Marketer. He has built many B2B marketing teams over the years, including leading nine worldwide product launches at security products brand Symantec.
“People buy from people so it is crucial any B2B brand can find a narrative,” he says. “If there is an origin story around the founder then future buyers will connect with that and the brand.”
Exabeam itself was founded by Nir Polak after he received a security alert regarding one of his credit cards. “Stories will hook clients in because the marketing becomes more about the people behind the business rather than being too product focused,” claims Matthews.
He says the Exabeam product is about security but the marketing messaging focuses on the human element. “When there is a problem the IT team have to work overtime and weekends, which means they are not spending so much time with their family and friends.”
Colin Lewis, CMO at travel retailing platform OpenJaw Technologies, says that historically B2B marketing was seen as the ugly child internally. These were the guys who organised the client golf days and product photo shoots.
“The internet has changed this because it is clearly visible how leads are being generated,” he says. “Big B2B brands such as IBM, Microsoft or Intel have always needed a proper and evolving brand story because they operate in such a dynamic market, but for other companies the challenge can be getting the sales function to buy into the importance of long-term brand building.”
Lewis is proud of OpenJaw Technologies’ own brand story: “We were set up by three entrepreneurs and are now a 400-strong company with high-profile clients such as British Airways and Cathay Pacific. Telling your story and not just talking about product boosts your credibility and can change the perception buyers might have of your business.
“This is also important when we talk about improving the employer brand and attracting talent.”
Communications agency FleishmanHillard Fishburn has carried out its own research into how brand affects B2B marketing and sales. Its study reveals that 32% of people rank brand reputation as a key attribute they look for in a supplier. Value for money came out top (57%). Buyers also want to work with brands that have built up a reputation as industry experts and storytelling thought leaders.
Claudia Bate, head of technology at FleishmanHillard Fishburn, says the C-suite is beginning to pay closer attention to how branding can help businesses stand out in a crowded market where the buying process if long and complex.
“Modern B2B marketing needs to appeal to both hearts and minds,” she says. “The decision-makers that matter do not leave their emotions and personalities at the door when they go to work. Creative storytelling, quality content and a distinctive brand identity are hugely important tools for breaking through the noise to drive real business value.”