Covid-19, B2B marketing and the changing face of cutting-edge creativity

It’s June 2021. Despite the approval of a number of vaccines, the world has been in pandemic mode for pretty much a year and a half. The virus continues at a slow burn and intermittent local lockdowns are the new normal. Alongside its relentlessness, there’s economic stagnation and failures to make meaningful strides on both climate change and racial justice continue to spill onto the streets.

Life, of course, goes on. And yes, it’s significantly changed. Boundaries between work and home, colleagues and friends, citizens and corporates, and brands and governments are more blurred than ever before. In this world, businesses still must ‘do business’, but their success is dependent on their ability to sense changing conditions and moods and adapt in real time.

Of course, trying to predict the future is a mug’s game, and especially now. But something like this scenario seems likely to emerge as the status quo over the coming months. The deeper into this world we go, the greater the role marketing will have to play in preserving the bottom line and snatching potential growth for B2B brands. As always, teams will be charged with forcing prospective customers to take notice, influence them throughout the buyer journey, drive loyalty and build ROI. That’s all normal. Beyond that, however, the marketing landscape has changed irrecoverably.

The decline of out-of-home and print over the last 18 months has fundamentally reframed the channel mix (and it’s unlikely to return to pre-pandemic levels). Looking ahead, there’s a new emphasis on in-house channels – social and streaming being critical – and, of course, digital has to be prioritised.

Elsewhere, campaigns will need to be structured for marathon efforts, not sprints. They’ll need to be built from the ground up with flexibility in mind. These campaigns will need to be seamlessly intertwined with digital and physical experiences that make customers of all kinds feel recognised and reassured. Companies with a strong ‘north star’ will find their marketing teams better equipped to adapt to a volatile business climate and ever-changing social and cultural norms.

Much more significantly, however: the experience of the last year has left our audiences temperamentally and attitudinally changed. Attention spans have suffered, and emotional states are much more extreme. People feel a new need for empathy. They want something to feel positive about, but withdraw when positivity is too overt or outlandish. They want the human touch – an approachability, a personality – but one that is delicately measured and, above all, relevant. And, finally, they want and expect words over action. Brands they admire, trust and are prepared to partner with will be purposeful and ready to operate in ways that meet needs broader than their own.

All this has massive implications for how creatives in marketing need to think and work – not least because it has entirely redefined what good creative needs to look like. Against this backdrop, cutting-edge creative is about far more than merely experimenting with the latest technologies (although more immersive outputs such as VR, AR and interactive films should certainly have their place in the mix). It’s about mastering two things: the authentic human touch; and the complex.

Nailing human authenticity

B2B brands have been slow to react to the changes brought on in the post-pandemic world. Feedback from industry bodies has suggested that, in the opening phases of the pandemic at least, organisations’ creative output was often seen as ‘unoriginal’. Mired in time and budget constraints, and potentially an over-attachment to ‘safety and belonging’ messages, brands’ communications too-often missed the emotional mark and struggled to create new connections with critical audiences.

To raise the importance of the ‘human touch’ may feel like cliché, but it’s ever more important in a world where the boundaries between the personal and professional lives of B2B decision-makers are increasingly blurred, and where customers are holding suppliers and partners to more stringent ethical standards.

The trouble is, in a world of diffuse emotions and relentless change, landing on useful, meaningful human insight isn’t easy. Delivering creative work that works requires walking a tightrope: it needs to be brave or provocative, but not unthinking. And in a world where working from home is still the norm, creatives aren’t always working in the right conditions to judge the audience mood and turn insight into standout, effective campaign content.

We believe in tackling these challenges head on. Relationships between strategy or planning teams and creatives should be strengthened by breaking down formal barriers and inviting the latter into campaign development much earlier. Expose creatives to audience research – whether it’s statistics in columns or attending focus groups – far more directly. We also suggest letting creatives work in pairs (or perhaps give them ‘buddies’) to combat feelings of isolation, encourage fearless critiquing and give everyone a trusted, hands-on partner to kick the tyres with. Experiment with new ways to expose your creatives to real-life feedback from their campaigns’ most important audiences.  

Mastering the complex

The demands on creative campaigns are increasing exponentially, too – and with these new demands come new expectations of creative teams to not just produce more dynamic content, but to work faster too.

This isn’t just about delivering campaigns today that need to be cognisant of so many more factors than yesterday – from balancing boldness with reassurance and communicating purpose, to engaging with the biggest socio-cultural issues of the day. The shape of the typical campaign needs to get more complex.

Campaigns need to be pre-baked with the flexibility built-in to engage broad and diffused audiences that will shift and change as conditions and opinions mutate. This means an increasing focus on customising content (for example by segment or market) and a willingness to refine this ‘in the moment’. Furthermore, as working from home continues to be normal for vast swathes of your market, the need to prioritise smaller, bitesize creative over bigger set-piece executions will increase. Stringing together consistent, relevant and engaging experiences for your audiences capable of interrupting their home-working state – over longer periods of time and multiple channels – will become the name of the game.

Doing more, and to a new standard, with the same amount of resources won’t be possible unless we rethink how we ask creatives to work and how we support them. For us, this starts with marketing teams embracing a readiness to experiment, encouraging teams to drop old, linear ways of working and embrace trial and error. At its most basic level, this could take the form of challenging creatives to take on short, sharp, time-limited challenges.

Elsewhere, more sophisticated marketing teams are already embracing digital tools that allow them to customise marketing executions market-to-market and segment-to-segment. We’d suggest plugging your creative teams into this process at a topline level, and especially into any reporting that measures response and impact as your campaigns hit the ground.

The changing face of creativity

Cutting through to your audiences over the next year isn’t going to get any easier. Negotiating endless, unpredictable change, increasingly diffused audiences, and new demands for campaigns that land as experiences, will put new strains on marketing teams and the creatives they work with. Sure, cutting-edge campaigns with an authentic ‘human touch’ that really work will spring from embracing new tools, channels and formats, but they won’t be possible without addressing the people at the heart of your team either.

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