Is B2B marketing lacking creativity?
Heidi Taylor argues why creativity remains at the heart of successful B2B marketing practice: not just being creative with the creative, but being creative in our thinking
Is B2B marketing art or science? Should we focus on creativity or analytics? Incredibly, this debate is not new; it's been raging for more than 70 years, ever since Paul D Converse, an American economist and marketing professor at the University of Illinois, published a paper titled ‘The Development of the Science of Marketing: An Exploratory Survey’ (Journal of Marketing, 1945).
Yet this debate is perhaps more important now than ever before. The proliferation of digital channels has brought an abundance of tools and technologies that enable us to extract all sorts of data about our markets and customers. This has brought real challenges for marketers. There's so much data out there and we don’t have the time or, some might say, the skills to interpret that data and turn it into the information and insight that can form the foundation for our marketing decisions.
"Art or science? If the science is in the data, then the art is in everything else"
We have so much data available to us – about our customers’ buying habits, their issues, their wants and needs – yet where's the human being in the data? Our customers are not a number in our CRM systems, to be scored, analysed, sent along to the sales department (or not) and then included (or not) in our next digital communication.
Data, if interpreted correctly, may tell us what our customers do, but it doesn’t tell us why. Data may inform our marketing activity, but it doesn’t necessarily drive the kind of results marketing must deliver on a sustainable basis for the long-term.
Art or science? If the science is in the data, then the art is in everything else.
C is for creativity
I often worry that the bulk of marketing talent goes into the consumer or agency world, because B2B is perceived as not being cool or creative. Furthermore, in B2B we’ve come to believe that ‘the answers’ are in the data, and we’ve become overly focused on the science. I’ve even had senior marketing directors tell me that marketing is all about the data.
I’m concerned about the data too, but mostly because we can make it mean just about anything we want it to mean. Time and again, without even intending to, I see ‘data’ used to validate what we think we already know, or to prove an existing point of view.
However, more than this focus on data, I’m much more concerned about the almost total lack of creativity within many B2B marketing organisations and the lack of creative thinking among a large proportion of B2B marketers. Just think about the marketing which has stood out over the past few years. What has made it distinctive? Not the data certainly. As one inspired marketing director I know said to me: ‘Creativity still beats everything else – whether that’s being creative with creative or creative with the approach'.
B2B marketing is only boring if we allow it to be. I still believe that creativity remains at the heart of successful marketing practice; not just being creative with the creative, but being creative in our thinking. Interestingly, we hear a lot of about ‘innovation’ these days but not so much about ‘creativity’ anymore. In his book Riding the Creative Rollercoaster, Dr Nick Udall writes about creativity as a strategic differentiator for businesses. He also defines the difference between creativity and innovation as follows:
- Creativity is ‘bringing the new to mind’.
- Innovation is ‘bringing new to the world’.
By this definition, creativity must precede innovation and I found this really thought-provoking. Few of us are lucky enough to work for companies that actually have innovative products or services, and I would argue that marketing in and of itself isn’t innovative. Yet we can be creative.
Still, there's a lingering perception that B2B is boring, even though I can think of many well-known B2B brands whose creativity has made an impact far beyond their industries, enabling them to be very different to their competitors. Remember Volvo trucks and Van Damme’s ‘Epic Split’? What about Schneider Electric and their ‘Llama Superstar’ campaign? Or our very own B2B Marketing People Awards winner for creativity Brian Macreadie, who is head of brand and campaigns at law firm BLP?
Further, consider IBM. Here is a giant of a company that’s been quietly going about its business for over 100 years, continually reinventing itself without veering from its roots, and creating memorable marketing moments consistently over time. Those moments include: Big Blue becoming the first machine to play and win a chess match in the 1990s – beating Garry Kasparov, then reigning world champion; Watson winning the US game show Jeopardy! in 2011 against two former champions; and their centennial celebration campaign that brought to life IBM’s history with people who were born in each of those 100 years. More recently, its Cognitive Business initiative is promoting their Watson technology across industries in a way that reflects how ‘digital’ is no longer a key differentiator for brands but an integral part of our world.
Trucks, energy, legal, and information technology; we’d be hard-pressed to find B2B brands that without creativity at the core would likely be completely unmemorable.
There are three lessons we can learn from them:
- Creativity is a competitive advantage, providing differentiation and driving business value.
- Real stories from real people create an emotional hook and capture attention in a way that features and benefits simply can’t.
- A long-term brand ‘platform’ creates wider impact: focus on one thing and do it well; a big idea, simply told, told over time, sticks in customers’ hearts and minds.
Creativity is not only for the ‘creatives’, it is the responsibility of us all. And it may well be the only thing left that can differentiate us in today’s over-crowded and increasingly commoditised marketplace.
Even in ‘boring’ B2B.
I explore these issues and more in my new book - B2B Marketing Strategy: differentiate, develop and deliver lasting customer engagement – now available from Kogan Page publishers and Amazon everywhere.