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

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

In the previous blog, I covered the background to B2B’s evolution over time and the classic differences between B2B and B2C. This blog explores the classic similarities and classic grey areas.

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.  

1. For over 20 years, the branding process 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 recently written about how self-determination theory can help identify even deeper, intrinsic emotions in both consumers and customers).

2. 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 Propolis

(c) More on positioning (why?) and messaging (what?)  

I cannot emphasise enough the significance for both B2B and B2C of identifying your positioning, your offering’s why, and messaging, 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 exactly parallel 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. 

2. 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 Propolis, see also David McGuire's blog post. 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.

You can read part one here.

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