All that glitters – B2B marketing’s obsession with the latest tools and tactics

It’s autumn! That must mean we’ll soon be starting to see a trickle of what becomes a new year’s flood of marketing ‘top trends’ and ‘predictions’ for 2018, with the focus typically on an assortment of new tools, tactics and/or technology that every B2B marketer simply must have for the coming year.

Of course, we all know that technology is continuing to fundamentally change our customers’ buying behaviours, profoundly altering how they engage with our organisations and thus impacting what we choose to do as marketers. And we need to know and understand what’s here and what’s on the horizon, as well what’s driving the consumer world, because sooner or later these same consumers will be bringing these behaviours into our B2B world.

But we remain obsessed by these latest shiny new trends and quickly adopt their associated buzzwords and tools, leaping into the new medium, format or channel as if this time they are going to solve all our B2B marketing woes. Yet there will always be something new that we'll need to get to grips with during our long marketing careers. Technology will continue to transform our lives. Granted, the pace of that change just keeps on accelerating, until we feel like we're barely keeping up. But instead of getting sidetracked by all these shiny new things, shouldn’t we focus on the new thinking that is necessary to address the incredibly big challenges our businesses and our customers are and will be facing?

‘Marketing myopia’

In 1960, Harvard Business School marketing professor Theodore Levitt published a paper in the Harvard Business Review where he coined the term ‘marketing myopia’- a near-sighted focus on selling products and services, rather than seeing the big picture of what customers really want. When Harvard Business Review reprinted the article in 2004, it described marketing myopia as the most influential marketing idea of the past half-century.

More than 50 years after its first publication, in August 2016, Amy Gallo wrote A Refresher on Marketing Myopia in the Harvard Business Review, exploring its application to business and marketers in the 21st century. The article featured an interview with John Deighton, a professor at Harvard Business School and an authority on consumer behaviour and marketing, about the continuing relevance of the marketing myopia concept in the current business and marketing environment.

Deighton maintained that it’s extremely easy for marketers themselves to become myopic about what they do – they get so caught up in developing marketing plans and programmes, delivering campaigns and executing tactics that they lose sight of the bigger picture, rarely stopping long enough to ask or answer the question: why are we doing what we are doing?

In Gallo’s article, Deighton reinforced the concept of marketing myopia as still relevant, saying "in part because the original idea wasn’t very prescriptive. Levitt didn’t offer 'ten steps to eliminate marketing myopia.' Instead, he was all about provoking people to think differently".

B2B marketing myopia

Short-sightedness is, of course, not limited to marketers. Especially when the future feels uncertain, it’s a natural human tendency for people to focus on what they know. Yet I would argue that it’s precisely in times of uncertainty that we need to expand our thinking, not narrow it.

Even so, the organisations we work for in B2B continue to be highly risk averse. In addition, they’ve historically been heavily relationship-driven, with sales ‘owning’ those relationships. Both these factors have led us as B2B marketers to be less concerned with the customer than with our own, often limited, tasks. We continue to do what we’ve always done, because it has always (more or less) worked.

This is a risky approach for marketers. When the economy is good and our businesses are growing with relative ease, ‘good enough’ tends to be good enough. But ever since the global economic crisis of 2008, we've come under increasing pressure to justify our marketing efforts.

As this pressure mounts to prove marketing's value within our B2B organisations, many of us – for the very first time – actually have to develop proper marketing plans, often without a marketing strategy to guide us. Granted, we're good at these tactics and they’re what our leadership asks of us. Most of us are measured, promoted and receive pay rises based on our ability to deliver a series of marketing activities that are known as the marketing plan.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. However, it becomes an issue that impacts our effectiveness when our focus is only on the tactics. As a default, this B2B marketing myopia keeps us in an ongoing delivery mode that completely omits the critical thinking necessary to really make a difference to both our customers and our businesses.

Getting past the surface glitter

Tactics are not strategy; outputs are not outcomes. We need to be very clear about what we are trying to achieve – the outcomes - and only then develop and deliver the activity – the outputs – that realise those outcomes. We simply must move past all that surface glitter and create marketing activity that shines for all the right reasons, meaningful and memorable long after the latest fad has disappeared. Otherwise, we're left doing what may very well be some very cool marketing ‘stuff’, but without any purpose at all.

This an excerpt from my new book – B2B Marketing Strategy: differentiate, develop and deliver lasting customer engagement – now available to pre-order from Kogan Page publishers and Amazon everywhere.