B2B vs. B2C marketing: Classic differences and similarities matter. But will new, B2B-specific trends matter even more? (Part I)

This blog is the first instalment in a series of three on B2B vs. B2C marketing. You can read the second part here and third here.

A time for reflections back and projections forward

As we begin the New Year, 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. 

1. Classic differences: 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. 

You can read part two here.

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