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

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

In the previous blogs, I covered the background to B2B’s evolution over time, the classic differences, similarities and grey areas between B2B and B2C. This blog explores a new vs. on the B2B horizon: brand-based vs. CRM-based.

1. Observations: Are differences within B2B becoming more critical than those between B2B and B2C?

Something new is afoot, and there is not much written on it yet. 

In a recent blog, I suggested that brand and CRM/martech should become BFFs. 

Why? Both speak the same language of customer intimacy, both seek the same customer centricity, and both look to create the same customer journeys and experiences. Whilst preparing this paper, however, my journey took me into an exploration into some of the fundamental differences between brand- and CRM-driven organisations (and the corporate cultures they thrive in). 

Characteristics: B2B brand-based corporate cultures

Branding has grown to be a total organisational system, a belief system that unites audiences internally and externally, with the power of the brand’s courage and convictions. The CEO typically assumes the role of chief ambassador, custodian and influencer and seeks to be a partner along the value chain, taking responsibility for end-user experiences. (Echosens is a prime example).  

B2B companies with brand-based cultures seek to drive empowerment of their customers and look to create communities among them to foster inclusivity, co-operation, collaboration and co-creation of products and services. (Edge Endo and their community of “Root Canal Rock Stars” is a “stellar” example.) Brand personality is a huge differentiator for these companies, a compelling, magnetic attraction to their B2B product or service. Brand communications seek to be strategic and visionary, supporting the company’s agenda-setting leadership in the category. (CarlSquare provides an excellent example).

Characteristics: B2B CRM-based corporate cultures

CRM-based companies are also on a quest for customer centricity and intimacy, and early analyses of their cultures shows their approaches are very different (see Brunel University and sugarCRM's research on the success of CRM systems)..  CRM-led companies also seek to draw ever closer to their customers, with the goal being to achieve and communicate with unique “segments of one.” They aim to deliver their customers seamless, bespoke, data-driven needs, even anticipating these needs through data. However, CRM-led companies do not seek to promote the empowerment of their customers due to concerns that buyer's will take control of their own buying journeys. Rather, they want to retain control of their customers through more and more precise data points. The CRM culture and service-culture is, thus, very different from brand-based cultures, impacting the role of the CEO, communities, and co-creation. Who needs these additional, time-consuming, resource-heavy responsibilities and tasks if you already know exactly what your individual customers want, one-on-one?  These differences are huge with the potential to affect entire organisations, not just marketing.

How different are they?

How different are brand-based vs. CRM-based corporate cultures? Do some companies manage to bridge both kinds of cultures? Are different priorities for marketers based on brand vs. CRM dominant-cultures? I would love readers to jump in and correct me or upgrade my thinking. 

Despite starting a blog on B2B vs. B2C, I am ending with the idea that this is not the most fruitful, useful or dynamic comparison anymore.

There is a split, as I see it, a fork in the road, within the realm of B2B itself that is deriving from those businesses that choose branding as the chief unifier vs. those who choose CRM/ABM as the chief unifier. To add to this are questions of the Metaverse and AI - what impact will these also have? Are one-to-one dialogues the sole King going forwards? Will products and messages be so tailored, nuanced, sui generis, that nothing else matters? Will there even be marketing beyond push mails?

2. Implications and recommendations: 

Marketers, consider looking to Self-determination Theory to mine your customers’ professional motivations — control, relatedness, achievement. What can you already do to better target and communicate with your professional audiences? This is a topic we will be exploring more in coming posts. 

Marketers, look to cross-reference brand insights and CRM data — gaps in one should fill in the other. It’s not necessarily one or the other.

Eventually, marketers, look to triangulate — CRM, brand and AI. This stands to change everything.


I invite you to take a stroll with me down memory lane

For over 30 years now, I have been observing, advising, and supporting the discipline of B2B marketing. As I mentioned before, the first five years of my career (1985-1990) began on Madison Avenue doing strategic planning for Young & Rubicam (abbreviation: Y&R) and their B2C clients before transferring to their only exclusive B2B office in the entire global network. In Geneva I observed the B2B vs. B2C differences first-hand. And there were many.

What I discovered about B2B marcomms in 1991: A “clean slate” 

Although our Geneva clients numbered some of the world’s most prestigious B2B companies (such as DuPont and HP) it is fair to say, the disciplines of marketing, communications and branding were only marginally in evidence. Neither among our clients nor within the Y&R office. This gave me the further, fantastic, unlimited opportunity to put the disciplines in place, and to grow and promote their practice and excellence among clients and within Y&R - which I proceeded to do for the rest of my career. I continue to do the very same today with my partner in our private strategic brand consultancy, TorchFish, the need for such services having never abated or diminished, although their fulfillment today is much different. 

My early initiatives: A creative brief and the Values Ladder

In 1991, the B2B communications we produced were mainly print ads for technical books, corporate and product brochures, spec sheets for the salesmen’s kits, materials for trade fairs and booths for events. With B2B marketing at the time being essentially a “clean slate,” I took the decision to begin by developing a creative brief — a first-ever for the office and for our clients. It provided a new experience for the creatives to apply this kind of thinking to their work. And it worked! They began to see the values of integration and synergies across a range of communications and vehicles. 

I also began to promote my favourite (still) messaging tool, the Values Ladder, to help drive brand promises beyond features and attributes to include benefits and values.

Values ladder

My marketing clients and agency colleagues were quick to jump on board, although frankly, we all faced a lot of pushback from client management and sales. Both are still traditionally trained in hard sciences and engineering and are just more comfortable with tangible products. Additionally, for most of these clients, all of this branding talk sounded expensive, soft, unnecessary, and “fluff.” I can still remember some of their stinging remarks: "Branding is for Coke and for TV;” "Our product sells itself, just give me another salesman;” "A brand is a logo, we already have one;” “We already know our customers, why ever should I care about this?”  

However difficult, pushback was a sort of crucible

And yet, it was their pushback, their questioning, and resistance that made our efforts stronger, more rigorous, and fully integrated. (What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.) We introduced the significance of competitive advantage and premium pricing through differentiation — that could only be achieved and sustained through marketing and branding, not through copyable products. We spoke of getting closer to customers — through research, insights and understanding of their needs and "pain-points,” not just in one-one-one sales visits. 

We demonstrated businesses already had “brand personalities” in the minds of their customers, whether our clients were aware of this or not, and that this is what should spark the core values of the organisations and the tone and manner in their communications; it should not default to the colours, images or sports (ice skating!) their wives preferred. (This was 30 years ago!) Pushback and resistance eventually led us to create the Brand Octagon, a platform replete with nine critical branding elements, that integrates business, marketing, communications and internal corporate cultures. At the center of everything is the strategic brand positioning: the organisation's Why? Why, indeed, anyone can, should, must care. I point out, it was for my B2B clients that I created (over time and numerous iterations) the Brand Octagon, honestly the most robust and vital brand platform we know of. It was not created for my B2C clients, although it equally applies to them.    

A Brand Framework: The Octagon

Why this stroll down memory lane? 

For 30+ years now, I have observed successive stages of progress and developments in B2B marketing and the function itself, both tracking ever closer to B2C marketing in sophistication and approach. While awareness of the classic point-counterpoints of B2B vs. B2C is always worth bearing in mind, I find their comparisons are no longer the real game: We know where this story has come to, and it is straightforwardly told. There's a new "vs." to keep watch out for: brand-based vs. CRM-based marketing. Keep your eyes peeled, marketers.

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