B2B brands: a potentially offensive warning and some helpful analogies
Brian Macreadie reveals what your brand can learn from UK football teams - the successful and the underperforming.
At the end of this post I'm going to share a few analogies that have always helped me as I've sought to build and reinforce B2B brands. But before I get to them, I'm going to share both a warning and, right now, an apology.
I offer an apology because I'm conscious that this marketing blog post is potentially going to offend a large group of infamously vocal people (largely from the Midlands and North of England). I hope those concerned will forgive me - particularly given that I'm fairly certain those offended will have uttered far harsher words than I have on this topic...
It's all kicking-off
I'm not sure quite how, but our species has somehow managed to survive the few weeks between the 2018 FIFA World Cup ending and the new European football league seasons starting.
Of course there has been plenty to keep us distracted in the meantime, such as the trials and tribulations of achieving our B2B marketing goals, political turmoil, heatwaves and - in the UK - Love Island, but it's been a tortuous few weeks of abstinence for us football fans. [*pauses for a moment of mass empathy*].
Thankfully, however, the long wait is over. The beautiful game is back. Various leagues are nearing their opening day fixtures, bringing with them all of the blind optimism, pessimism, excitement, nerves, hope, pure delight and abject misery that the first kick-off tends to bring.
As I cycle through most of those emotions during the opening 90 minutes of the season - wishing as hard as I can wish that this will be 'our year' - there is always one additional marketing-related thought that occurs to me right about now... whatever happened to Nottingham Forest?
Whatever happened to...
When I was a young lad, long before my first email marketing campaign was even a remote glint in my eye, the list of the most renowned football teams in the UK included Leeds United, Aston Villa and Nottingham Forest. [*This is the point in the post where certain people's pulses will start raising - tensions heightening among stalwart supporters of those clubs that someone is about to insult their beloved team. I once met an unyielding-looking chap from Nottingham that had 'Forest' tattooed on the inside of his lip, so you'll understand if I tread carefully as I continue...*]
Between them, those three teams had won countless trophies, including two European Cup victories for Forest, one for Villa and a couple of near-misses for Leeds. Back in the day, each of them were among the premier fixtures in the football calendar. You knew you were going to have a long Saturday afternoon playing against any one them.
Wind the clock forward nearly 30 years and, while those clubs still have among the largest and most vibrant fanbases in the UK, they're no longer at the top table of European or even English football in terms of league status, success, TV clamour, press coverage or income. [*I really hope that tattooed Nottingham Forest fan isn't reading this*].
Somewhere along the line, some things went wrong for those proud, feared, success-hungry clubs. As it has done for many other famous historic clubs before them.
I'm not close enough to each of those clubs (or entitled enough) to cite all of the things that went wrong, but I'm going to venture a guess at some of the problems. And, given this is a marketing post, I'm going to use those things as a warning for us marketers...
A marketing warning
A myriad of things can go wrong in the world of sport. That unhelpful last-minute equaliser you let slip through at Stoke City. That late tackle at Inter Milan that left your star striker in crutches a week before the semi-final. The 'biased' referee that you're convinced 'wrongly' sent off your best defender (despite his two-footed, studs-up challenge at throat height). Even the world's greatest teams can't win them all. Bad luck and bad days happen. But when they happen consistently, they point to deeper-rooted problems...
They may point to repeated bad choices in personnel. They may point to poor tactical decisions. They may point to poor competitive strategy or lesser physical conditioning. They may point to you just being inferior. For example, and with all due respect, Stranraer FC - from Scotland's third tier of football (and by far the coldest, wettest place I have ever watched a football match) - are never going to be a consistent match for the football royalty that are Barcelona or Bayern Munich. Because football, like business, isn't an even sport. David rarely beats Goliath in real life, and certainly not repeatedly.
But Leeds United, Aston Villa and Nottingham Forest were no inferior Davids. They were all once counted among the elite of English and even European football. Something went wrong at those clubs that didn't go wrong at their former peers - the Liverpools, Manchester Uniteds and Real Madrids of this world. But what?
In among some bad luck, bad days, bad personnel choices and the like (since other big clubs have stacks of those too), it would seem that those clubs failed to capitalise on their strength when they had it. Perhaps they didn't invest enough in their physical infrastructure to maximise revenue potential or team performance. Or they didn't grow their global fanbases while they were in the spotlight, or otherwise invest in their domestic and international marketing. Maybe they didn't seek outside investment quickly enough when the time was right, and didn't invest in commercial partnerships that were as prestigious as their trophy cabinets. Or, most likely of all, they probably got most of those things wrong.
In summary, they didn't build on their strong performance or capitalise on their strong brands - and their brands dwindled on the global stage relative to their rivals. And what's worse, barring either divine or dollar intervention, those brands may struggle for a very long time to catch-up - on the pitch or off it - with the global elite clubs that they once counted as their closest rivals.
And it is the topic of investing in our brands and our future where a stark marketing warning comes in...
Investing in your brand and your future
Using sport as an metaphor for business is admittedly a bit of a cliché, but it can still be a useful one. In sport, as in business, a good team, hard work, sound tactics and a bit of flair will get each of us results. But it is incumbent on us to never assume that current success will assure future success (particularly given our competitors - those noisy neighbours across the road with their horrible blue logo - will always be scheming against us).
I think the sporting, business and marketing lesson of those tales of fallen football fortunes is that there must always be a long-term plan as well as a 'this season' plan (the operative words being 'a plan'). That means we need to have a strategy, not just tactics. It means that we have to invest in the future, as well as the now. It means we need to have the best product right now and also five years from now. It means we need to grow our fanbase - our customer base - as well as cherish the fans we already have. It means we need to turn our current fame, renown and attractiveness - our brand - into future fame, renown and attractiveness. It means we need to invest in our infrastructure, rather than just continually 'making do'. And means continuing to invest in our personnel (i.e. skills nuture), to ensure they're in a better condition than our rivals.
Every marketer I've ever met intuitively knows all of that - that we need to invest in the future health of our brands, as well as investing in hitting our short-term targets - but I'm not convinced that all B2B marketing departments are converting that intuitive instinct into a specific, long-term strategy or brand-building plan.
The questions we consequently face as professional marketers are: what percentage of time, energy and budget should we invest in short-term sales activation versus long-term brand building; and are we actually delivering on those percentages?
The answers to those questions will vary from one business to another - the important point is that the questions demand an answer of us marketers - otherwise the future health and success of our brands and our businesses are at risk.
As I leave you to answer those questions for your B2B brand, I wanted to leave you with three analogies relating to investing in brand-building, which I hope you’ll find helpful and also provoke some thought. One of them is my invention; two of them are from some highly-regarded marketing commentators...
Some hopefully helpful brand reminders...
Analogy 1: Pension schemes
To my mind, brands are like pension schemes. If you invest too little, too late, you're going to have some tough years ahead. All of your hard work and success now won't count for anything in the years to come if you don’t plan for the future. This will be doubly tough when your noisy neighbour is still driving around in a Ferrari and swanning off to sunny destinations across Europe, while you reach for the tin opener or worry about turning the heating on. So plan for the future now.
Analogy 2: The airplane crash
If worrying about your pension seems too distant a problem to focus your attention, how about a more imminent fear of death to focus your mind? Renowned brand strategists Peter Field and Hamish Pringle offer this highly visual analogy to make the point about investing in your brand…
"Take an aircraft in flight. If the plane's fuel supply is cut and the engines stop, the plane does not fall out of the sky immediately. Indeed, it can glide for some time before inevitably hitting the ground. The same things happen to brands whose investment in marketing and communications is cut off."
Analogy 3: Exercise
The ever-insightful Bob Hoffman (aka 'the Ad Contrarian') offers a further thought-provoking analogy, linking advertising and exercise. His analogy - which I reproduce below - focuses on advertising, although I believe it has wider and direct relevance to B2B brands. I believe it holds for whatever marketing communications we put out there to help build our brands. You can read his full, highly recommended article here, but here's the analogy...
"Advertising is like exercise. If you're not used to running, and you run five miles today, you will not be stronger or healthier or feel better tomorrow. Or next week. As a matter of fact, you'll probably feel like crap. But if you run five miles every day, next year you probably will be stronger, and healthier, and feel better.
That's also how advertising works. If you advertise today, your business is not going to suddenly be successful tomorrow or next week. But if you advertise every day, next year your business probably will get better, and healthier, and stronger."
Final footnote - to Villa, Forest and Leeds United fans
Sorry if I offended you by singling out your clubs above. All I can say in my defence is, I know you would NEVER swap allegiances to Manchester City, Chelsea, Liverpool or other challengers for the Premier League and European trophies. And I know you will always follow your clubs through thick and thin. But I also suspect that many of you would have preferred to have retained your top-of-the-league status all these years. At least that's what I've learned from plenty of your fellow supporters over the years. (Apart from the chap with the ‘Forest’ lip. I learned some very different language from him).
I know it’s not about club envy – it's about seeing your club where it belongs. Still in the mix for silverware come May.
Good luck this season.