A time for reflections back and projections forward
As we move out of the heights of the pandemic storm, there is no better time to reflect on the classic topic of B2B vs. B2C marketing – particularly as my observations may be instructive to B2B marketers newer on the job. In my blogs I’ll document how I see the current, evolved state of B2B vs. B2C marketing as follows:
- Classic differences between B2B and B2C marketing. I number a few, but not many, and these will inevitably endure.
- Classic similarities between B2B and B2C marketing. These have put the spotlight on branding and communications as both B2B and B2C have drawn ever stronger in their commitments to excellence in the application of these disciplines; t’was not always so.
- Classic grey areas between B2B and B2C still exist, but in my view stem from marketers’ individual interpretations of their audiences and offerings, not from specific, systemic or consistent distinctions.
At the same time, I want to call out something new I’ve begun to observe – something surprising, with little yet written on it (so far as I can discern). Probing the ever-developing world of B2B itself, I’ve seen perhaps more significant point-counterpoints emerging: two B2B marketing tracks – brand-based vs. CRM based. Is this the new story, the new “vs.” going forward?
I conclude with:
- Observations and parsings of these new trends that seem to be developing along diverging paths.
- Implications and recommendations for how to approach the potential bifurcation.
As always, I invite practitioners to chime in and add, upgrade, or correct, as they see fit. So knowledge advances.
Background and context
I began my career on Madison Avenue at Young & Rubicam in 1985 doing strategic planning for B2C clients like Disney, Colgate Palmolive and Kraft General Foods. I transferred to Young & Rubicam, Geneva in 1991 – the only office in the entire global network dedicated to B2B. And so, for 30+ years now, I have had the privilege of observing, and even driving, successive stages of progress and developments in both B2B and B2C.. Above all, I have witnessed an increasing sophistication in B2B marketing over this time, the discipline drawing ever closer to B2C marketing approaches and philosophies, and in ways, surpassing and exceeding some B2C marketers. (Think Apple, Xerox, Intel, IBM.) This was not always so.
B2B’s stunning evolution over time
I have watched as B2B businesses moved from being sales-driven to being service-driven to being relationship-driven. Cost per unit and functionality gave way to customer-focus and added-value, which gave way to people-focus, customer trust growing from marketers’ genuine insights into their business ”pain-points.” I was delighted to see B2B marketers – and their management – embracing their brands and brand personalities, weaving brand stories into their brand promises, articulating higher-order benefits, values, market impact and vision. Now more than ever, with the ability to get even closer to customers with CRM, and legitimately carve our “segments of one,” the B2B marketing discipline is entering newer, ever more interesting places and spaces. The quest for customer intimacy and centricity becomes more reachable with each passing year.
: B2B vs. B2C
Classically, and inevitably,
B2B and B2C differ
on the kinds of products and services each delivers to their respective target audiences – customers vs. consumers – and on the complexity of the selling process. These distinctions will not change soon, if ever.
1. Products or services
B2B products and services are sold to other businesses. They are usually (highly) technical and are almost always ‘ingredients’ of some sort: a chip, a fibre, a communications system for a global corporation, a med-tech device used across different hospitals, etc. They are typically ‘big ticket items’ aimed at a small group of purchasers/decision makers but require a long purchase cycle (‘a marathon’ between months – a year) and involve a long chain of command (sign-offs by management, the board, finance, procurement).
By comparison, B2C products and services are marketed as complete entities, directly to us – discreet, individual end-users – although as a group we easily number thousands into millions. Items/price points, of course, vary but our decision-times can be quite short (‘a 100- yard dash’ – often immediate, but sometimes, such as with a car or a home, taking months or even years). Our decisions-to-buy are usually individual, rarely extending beyond family (although complicated or higher ticket items can generate consultations with a chain of our own networks).
2. Audiences: consumers vs. customers
We are all consumers. We buy a dizzying array of products and services for ourselves and our families, to serve our individual needs right the way up Maslow’s Pyramid: from quotidian “basics” to other goods/services delivering efficiency, convenience, excitement, pleasure, status, and individuality. We all get this.
B2B target audiences in the office – customers rather than consumers. They are always professionals or specialists working in (mostly) STEM fields — IT/tech, engineering, chemistry, finance, medicine, etc. B2B marketers/customers are never ends in themselves, but rather are always a “gateway” — they buy, specify, sell on to a complex value chain or make purchase decisions on behalf of their organisations — passing a product along a value chain, offering systems to large global companies, providing a chip in an industrial assembly. B2B marketers are gatekeepers for hundreds to thousands of people; the end user is often a distance away in time and place.
3. Complexity of the selling process
B2B is marked overall by complexity — products are complicated, technical, and difficult to learn or understand, often requiring bespoke training and production of lots of technical content. Targets may be relatively few but buying groups can number 6-10 people (Gartner), who each depend on many others’ inputs before decisions are made. This, of course, complicates the selling process, which can stall at any time, adds to longer decision times, and simply makes it harder and more expensive to convert a B2B customer.
The B2B marketer’s task is further complicated by the dense value chains they necessarily work with and sell into — vendor partners, resellers, affiliate companies, or selling to other businesses through multiple channels. Not least, the selling process is emotionally complicated — there is a “lot of skin in the game;” purchases have to go right; a lot of money is at stake behind these “high ticket items.” Thousands of people along the value chain will be affected by your purchase-decisions; careers are on the line. No wonder sign-offs are elaborate.
Note to marketers entering the field: You have to be comfortable with complexity, and fully embrace it — or hive to the B2C side from the start.
Note to agencies: agencies that can simplify this complexity for their B2B marketing clients come highly valued. It’s not “selling popsicles in Peoria,” as a colleague of mine used to say.
4. B2C selling process: Not easy, just different
It would be folly to think the B2C process, by comparison, is simplicity itself, a walk on the beach. The B2C marketer’s task is to reach — one-by-one — ever greater numbers, generate repeat and loyalty purchases among them, convert potentials and generate exquisite social and traditional media campaigns. They must do so with multiple, integrated messages across multiple consumer segments, mindsets, and profiles that continuously fuel awareness, interest, desire, and action. And B2C marketers must do so discreetly, emotionally, respectfully, and at just the right times. It’s not a question of one being easier than the other, just different. Not convinced? Just try “selling popsicles in Peoria” sometime.
1. Classic similarities: B2B and B2C
B2B and B2C marketing have grown in parallel over many years, B2B especially advancing in sophistication and appreciation for the benefits and values that top-notch marketing, branding and communications can deliver. No surprise, the key areas of classic similarities between B2B and B2C marketing, in my view, now derive from their adhering to the same principles and “best practices” of these disciplines.
No, not every B2B company is a stellar example of marcoms excellence; nor is every B2C company. Yet high bars have been set within each domain and there is no longer any excuse for marketing mediocrity in either B2B or B2C. Tracking and trending with one another over time, B2B and B2C now are in many ways marketing equals. This trajectory is only likely to continue and grow.
a. Customer-centricity and intimacy are their common starting points
For both B2B and B2C marketing, customer-centricity and intimacy, or consumer-centricity and intimacy, are the Holy Grail. Placing the customer at the center of all marketing efforts, long a standard practice of the best of both B2B and B2C, serves to organize, drive and integrate everything a company does- from communications to sales to research and development. The greater the understanding of the customer, arguably the greater a company’s differentiation vs. competition; the more reliable the concomitant loyalty, reference, and preference the company attains among target audiences; and the more robust the price premiums it maintains and grows.
Two methods for achieving customer-centricity
Achieving customer centricity and intimacy is never easy. Both B2B and B2C employ (usually one of) two methods: branding or CRM.
For over 20 years, the
has begun with classic, qualitative market research among customers and consumers, to ‘get under their skin,’ ‘unlock what makes them tick,’ and identify their ‘pain points; by use and category. Insights derived from deep analyses of their responses help B2B and B2C marketers tap into customer emotions, allowing them to better articulate the problems they can solve for their customers and better design the products and services that can alleviate their “pain points.” (I have
about how self-determination theory can help identify even deeper, intrinsic emotions in both consumers and customers)
For at least 15 years, CRM has aimed to derive, among many other things, exactly the same customer insights and intimacy, but through entirely different means: technology and data analyses. It matters little that CRM design is different for B2B and B2C companies – company-based, more complex tools, more in-depth core features vs. individual-based, simpler tools, lead-tracking and other basic functionalities. The objectives remain the same for both: to get ever closer to the customer so as to be able to contact them directly and speak intimately to them, as if to “segments of one.” (As an aside, we might ask, is CRM design an early example of B2B’s sophistication coming to outpace B2C’s? There is no finish line.)
Neither method is fail-safe
We should note, neither method is 100% fail-safe for either B2B or B2C. Branding’s approach can be criticized for being too subjective, too dependent on the questions asked and too limited by the analyses rendered. The current marketing press is riddled with CRM criticisms – for lack of overall strategy; siloed, non-comparable and irrelevant data; so much data that harvesting trumps and analyses suffer. (As neither is 100% effective for either B2B or B2C,
I have argued both methods should be applied and results cross-referenced
). Still, we have to believe the 80/20 rule applies for both branding and CRM, in both B2B and B2C, and this represents good progress.
b. Proper marketing planning, creation and implementation identifies the leaders
For both B2B and B2C, as we have noted, there are no excuses. Marketing principles apply in every company, B2B or B2C. Tried and true approaches, methods and tools await the passionate marketer in B2B and B2C to study, internalize and begin applying them to their business and marketing situation. No matter that particulars in plans will inevitably differ, B2B vs. B2C, the steps are the same:
- Set marketing strategy against overall business objectives: no rogue strategies!
- Develop a proper plan to answer in full: Who? What? When? How? Where? Why?
- Create one single-minded positioning (why?) and multiple, target-specific messages (what?) for all audiences: primary, secondary, influencers, media, investors; one-size positioning must fit all, one-size messaging must not.
- Brief agency/ies: repeat, if necessary, to ensure there is only “one hymn sheet.”
- Initiate creation of materials, traditional and digital, bearing in mind Binet-Field’s recommended balance of 60/40 for B2C and 50/50 for B2B, brand vs. social and online,
- Identify ROI measures beyond just likes or visits: think e.g., volume of website traffic, reach and impressions on social media.
- Repeat the next cycle.
Are all marketing plans, B2B or B2C, robustly, consistently, universally completed? Probably not. Are strategic, actionable, vital, and dynamic marketing plans the goal? They are in the best companies, B2B and B2C; case closed. Yes, completing a terrific, differentiation-creating, on-budget marketing plan is very hard work. There are a lot of steps and dimensions underpinning these basic stages, whose challenges, and complexities, we acknowledge, might actually make your brain hurt. But do recall Bertrand Russell’s famous quote: “Most people would rather die than think… and so they do.” Why ever let this apply to you or your business? Karla Wenthworth, Propolis’ Marketing Operations Hive Expert, discussed the similarities to CRM planning on
c. More on positioning (why?) and messaging (what?)
I cannot emphasise enough the significance for both B2B and B2C of identifying your
, your offering’s why, and
, your offering’s what. Both are critical for all communications, from selling to pitching to retaining loyalists. Both signal a company’s differentiation, demonstrate intimacy with customers and markets, and mark the beginning of trust-building. While audiences and content differ enormously, both B2B and B2C have
needs for single-minded, differentiating positionings and for highly nuanced, target-specific messaging. In my experience, it is not always the case that this is fully embraced by B2B marketers.
Positioning vs. messaging
Positioning is applicable to all audiences; think “Just do it,” B2C’s most iconic example. In B2B (and B2C,) recall IBM’s “Think” and Apple’s thumb-in-the-eye rejection, “Think different”. From “Intel Inside” to Salesforce’s “We bring companies and customers together,” the most successful B2B companies know the value of a distinct, marketplace positioning. messaging, however, must be nuanced and tailored for each audience; one size does not fit all. In my experience, this is widely recognised in B2C, whose marketers typically target multiple, but integrated and never conflicting, messages to the range of their consumer segments, e.g., by age, mindset profiles, life-stage, psychographics, regional differences, purchase power.
Where some B2B companies err
But there is the same need in B2B, and perhaps even more so in the world of complicated B2B sells where marketing and sales must also be fully aligned; sometimes, however, this is not fully understood. There is a “stickiness” in B2B, a penchant to believe the product is everything and sells itself, and so, e.g., I have observed how innovative tech offerings are frequently promoted for their tech alone, in the full glory of all their shiny features and whizz-bang attributes. Such a technical sell of a technical product is correct for the IT/tech department, who will use and implement the product. But beyond immediate users, B2B companies routinely have multiple targets – the management team and board, who are decision makers; investors, procurement, finance, the press. These audiences are rarely IT/tech specialists, and so tend to “glaze over” when the “tech sell” gets “too thick.”
The value of nuanced B2B messages
This is where the best B2B marketers understand the significance of nuanced, highly articulated messages to different audiences and interest groups: what are the benefits and values of the offering to these non-technical audiences and influencers? What does the technology mean to them in their daily roles? What are their “pain points” that the technology offering solves? Are marketing and sales aligned on what “pain points” the tech is solving? Benefit-based messages might range from enhanced corporate reputations (railway safety systems) to employee efficiencies (communications networks) to shareholder value (more successful company) to competitive differentiation (supply efficiencies, good company to work for.) Not understanding the value of modulating and tailoring individual messages to non-user audiences is too often an avoidable showstopper.
3. Classic grey areas
Some classic grey areas between B2B and B2C still exist, but in my view, result from company-specific approaches and philosophies as well as marketers’ individual interpretations of their audiences and offerings; they do not source from specific, systemic, or consistent distinctions between B2B and B2C.
a. How much is brand really embraced in B2B?
While brand has been a staple of B2C marketing for more than 50 years, after all these marcoms advances and time, it seems that there are still some B2B brand “hold-outs.” Whether it be entire companies or fractions, B2B doesn’t embrace their brand, marcoms or even CRM efforts as vigorously and routinely as her B2C counterpart. Far from seeing the value that these bring to enhancing and driving the selling process, these factions prefer instead a direct business approach to established customer bases. Questioning the value of marketing investments and demanding specific ROI, they openly petition management support for budget allocations behind a more direct business approach.
Proof of this?
I have no idea what numerical proof could back this up, and this argument is in no way a universal characterisation of B2B. Far from it.
From finance to IT and pharmaceuticals, B2B websites are testament to what we have dubbed the “sea of sameness” – product attributes dominate, whilst benefits and values are rarely seen. It’s as if the product or service (still) sells itself; but it’s hard, if not impossible, to differentiate one offering from another. Certainly, except for pricing, it’s impossible to generate preference for one vs/ another.
Similar trolls of B2C websites across categories reveal they have long abandoned a pure features-sell: Ivory Soap, for example, might still be “99 44/100th percent pure,” but the brand knows no one really cares. Can we draw correlations between some B2B companies’ attribute-driven communications and their lingering preferences for products vs. a brand-based culture and benefit-based marcoms? See
my review of VPN companies
for further detail.
b. How really rational is B2B?
It’s a narrative as old as time: B2B needs logic, rational and precise content. B2C is all about emotion, entertainment and engagement. As for which one is more rational vs. emotional, here’s the skinny. B2B marketing does require a good deal of logic, explanation, and training, so a good deal of B2B communications is necessarily highly technical. B2C marketing, by comparison, can rely on a good understanding of the benefits and values of its product lines, and so can more liberally explore its emotional benefits to consumers and their families. But it is far too simplistic to see these extremes as the norm of either B2B or B2C. Both B2B and B2C require comparable doses of rational and emotional arguments, logic, empathy and understanding.
As for B2B, don’t be fooled, it’s people who buy products and services. Professions are on the line – “big ticket items” come with lots of “skin in the game”, the process is highly charged with emotions because things “have to go right.” Working with a well-established brand brings a good deal of comfort level to big, costly decisions. “You never go wrong hiring IBM” still applies. As for B2C, it is people whose choice of products and services run the gamut from necessities to electives: from household basics to nutritional supplements to video games to travel offerings, and so require equal parts rational justifications and emotional pathways. This is especially true if offerings involve children or issues of health, finance, and legal compliance. The point: people are rational and emotional in all they do, and this insight needs to be factored into marketing, communications, and sales at all times.
c. How really distinct are B2B media channels from B2C’s?
Given that B2C vs. B2B audiences differ (mass vs. niche), aren’t media channels necessarily a huge area of difference? Although on the surface this is a legitimate question, in the long run the answer is no.
B2B is documented to use social media less than B2C. It’s unlikely to find B2B TV campaigns, TikTok influencers. B2C similarly is unlikely to need sophisticated “push-pull” campaigns up and down value chains or content videos to explain the technicalities of how MineCraft works.
Whilst B2B content is (still) likely to skew more rational and technical vs B2C’s lighter and more entertaining varieties, it remains a choice of media and content depending on client needs. Daren Coleman has spoken about humour on
, see also David McGuire’s
. Media is about following your customer, not about intrinsic differences in the media themselves. As CRM more and more targets individual users, cross-overs and common techniques to communicate and connect are more and more on the horizon. (For example, if your audiences are on Facebook,
consider connecting with them on Facebook to generate leads and follow up on Twitter to better strike up product-specific or brand conversations.
) CRMs facilitate direct conversations with your customers, be it B2B or B2C, and will continue to narrow differences.
In the previous blogs, I covered the background to B2B’s evolution over time, the classic differences, similarities and grey areas between B2B and B2C. This blog explores a new vs. on the B2B horizon: brand-based vs. CRM-based.
1. Observations: Are differences within B2B becoming more critical than those between B2B and B2C?
Something new is afoot, and there is not much written on it yet.
, I suggested that brand and CRM/martech should become BFFs.
Why? Both speak the same language of customer intimacy, both seek the same customer centricity, and both look to create the same customer journeys and experiences. Whilst preparing this paper, however, my journey took me into an exploration into some of the fundamental differences between brand- and CRM-driven organisations (and the corporate cultures they thrive in).
Characteristics: B2B brand-based corporate cultures
Branding has grown to be a total organisational system, a belief system that unites audiences internally and externally, with the power of the brand’s courage and convictions. The CEO typically assumes the role of chief ambassador, custodian and influencer and seeks to be a partner along the value chain, taking responsibility for end-user experiences. (Echosens is a prime example).
B2B companies with brand-based cultures seek to drive empowerment of their customers and look to create communities among them to foster inclusivity, co-operation, collaboration and co-creation of products and services. (
and their community of “Root Canal Rock Stars” is a “stellar” example.) Brand personality is a huge differentiator for these companies, a compelling, magnetic attraction to their B2B product or service. Brand communications seek to be strategic and visionary, supporting the company’s agenda-setting leadership in the category. (
provides an excellent example).
Characteristics: B2B CRM-based corporate cultures
CRM-based companies are also on a quest for customer centricity and intimacy, and early analyses of their cultures shows their approaches are very different (see
‘s research on the success of CRM systems).. CRM-led companies also seek to draw ever closer to their customers, with the goal being to achieve and communicate with unique “segments of one.” They aim to deliver their customers seamless, bespoke, data-driven needs, even anticipating these needs through data. However, CRM-led companies do not seek to promote the empowerment of their customers due to concerns that buyer’s will take control of their own buying journeys. Rather, they want to retain control of their customers through more and more precise data points. The CRM culture and service-culture is, thus, very different from brand-based cultures, impacting the role of the CEO, communities, and co-creation. Who needs these additional, time-consuming, resource-heavy responsibilities and tasks if you already know exactly what your individual customers want, one-on-one? These differences are huge with the potential to affect entire organisations, not just marketing.
How different are they?
How different are brand-based vs. CRM-based corporate cultures? Do some companies manage to bridge both kinds of cultures? Are different priorities for marketers based on brand vs. CRM dominant-cultures? I would love readers to jump in and correct me or upgrade my thinking.
Despite starting a blog on B2B vs. B2C, I am ending with the idea that this is not the most fruitful, useful or dynamic comparison anymore.
There is a split, as I see it, a fork in the road, within the realm of B2B itself that is deriving from those businesses that choose branding as the chief unifier vs. those who choose CRM/ABM as the chief unifier. To add to this are questions of the
Metaverse and AI
– what impact will these also have? Are one-to-one dialogues the sole King going forwards? Will products and messages be so tailored, nuanced,
, that nothing else matters? Will there even be marketing beyond push mails?
2. Implications and recommendations:
Marketers, consider looking to
to mine your customers’ professional motivations — control, relatedness, achievement. What can you already do to better target and communicate with your professional audiences? This is a topic we will be exploring more in coming posts.
- Marketers, look to cross-reference brand insights and CRM data — gaps in one should fill in the other. It’s not necessarily one or the other.
- Eventually, marketers, look to triangulate — CRM, brand and AI. This stands to change everything.
I invite you to take a stroll with me down memory lane
For over 30 years now, I have been observing, advising, and supporting the discipline of B2B marketing. As I mentioned before, the first five years of my career (1985-1990) began on Madison Avenue doing strategic planning for Young & Rubicam (abbreviation: Y&R) and their B2C clients before transferring to their only exclusive B2B office in the entire global network. In Geneva I observed the B2B vs. B2C differences first-hand. And there were many.
What I discovered about B2B marcomms in 1991: A “clean slate”
Although our Geneva clients numbered some of the world’s most prestigious B2B companies (such as DuPont and HP) it is fair to say, the disciplines of marketing, communications and branding were only marginally in evidence. Neither among our clients nor within the Y&R office. This gave me the further, fantastic, unlimited opportunity to put the disciplines in place, and to grow and promote their practice and excellence among clients and within Y&R – which I proceeded to do for the rest of my career. I continue to do the very same today with my partner in our private strategic brand consultancy, TorchFish, the need for such services having never abated or diminished, although their fulfillment today is much different.
My early initiatives: A creative brief and the Values Ladder
In 1991, the B2B communications we produced were mainly print ads for technical books, corporate and product brochures, spec sheets for the salesmen’s kits, materials for trade fairs and booths for events. With B2B marketing at the time being essentially a “clean slate,” I took the decision to begin by developing a creative brief — a first-ever for the office and for our clients. It provided a new experience for the creatives to apply this kind of thinking to their work. And it worked! They began to see the values of integration and synergies across a range of communications and vehicles.
I also began to promote my favourite (still) messaging tool, the Values Ladder, to help drive brand promises beyond features and attributes to include benefits and values.
My marketing clients and agency colleagues were quick to jump on board, although frankly, we all faced a lot of pushback from client management and sales. Both are still traditionally trained in hard sciences and engineering and are just more comfortable with tangible products. Additionally, for most of these clients, all of this branding talk sounded expensive, soft, unnecessary, and “fluff.” I can still remember some of their stinging remarks: “Branding is for Coke and for TV;” “Our product sells itself, just give me another salesman;” “A brand is a logo, we already have one;” “We already know our customers, why ever should I care about this?”
However difficult, pushback was a sort of crucible
And yet, it was their pushback, their questioning, and resistance that made our efforts stronger, more rigorous, and fully integrated. (What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.) We introduced the significance of competitive advantage and premium pricing through differentiation — that could only be achieved and sustained through marketing and branding, not through copyable products. We spoke of getting closer to customers — through research, insights and understanding of their needs and “pain-points,” not just in one-one-one sales visits.
We demonstrated businesses already had “brand personalities” in the minds of their customers, whether our clients were aware of this or not, and that this is what should spark the core values of the organisations and the tone and manner in their communications; it should not default to the colours, images or sports (ice skating!) their wives preferred. (This was 30 years ago!) Pushback and resistance eventually led us to create the Brand Octagon, a platform replete with nine critical branding elements, that integrates business, marketing, communications and internal corporate cultures. At the center of everything is the strategic brand positioning: the organisation’s Why? Why, indeed, anyone can, should, must care. I point out, it was for my B2B clients that I created (over time and numerous iterations) the Brand Octagon, honestly the most robust and vital brand platform we know of. It was not created for my B2C clients, although it equally applies to them.
Why this stroll down memory lane?
For 30+ years now, I have observed successive stages of progress and developments in B2B marketing and the function itself, both tracking ever closer to B2C marketing in sophistication and approach. While awareness of the classic point-counterpoints of B2B vs. B2C is always worth bearing in mind, I find their comparisons are no longer the real game: We know where this story has come to, and it is straightforwardly told. There’s a new “vs.” to keep watch out for: brand-based vs. CRM-based marketing. Keep your eyes peeled, marketers.
Why not check out Propolis, our exclusive community for B2B marketers to share insights, learn from industry leading marketers, and access our best content.