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B2B insights

Finding the elixhir for B2B brand vitality

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How do you optimize the health and vitality of your B2B brand? And once you’ve done that, how do you maximize its impact in your marketing? These were two of the fundamental questions we were seeking to address at a recent marketing leaders’ dinner, focused on the topic of brand, held in association with global B2B agency Transmission. Here’s what we learned.

All of a sudden, ‘brand’ seems to be flavor of the month in B2B. That’s not to say that brand shouldn’t have always been of paramount interest to a community of marketers, but for the past 20 years too many B2B marketers have managed to dodge, sidestep, avoid or delay focusing on their brand – for a variety of reasons, many not of their own choosing. But it’s interesting nonetheless that we have collectively ‘woken up’ to the topic at a time of economic uncertainty, when marketers are widely under pressure to focus on sales enablement… or at the very least, account for every penny of spend.

Given this context, I was excited to have the opportunity to discuss branding in B2B with a group of marketing leaders at an invitation-only dinner, held at an exclusive location in London’s swanky Mayfair district, in association with global B2B agency Transmission. The event comes in the wake of Transmission’s publication of a couple of new studies into brand health and vitality in B2B, and into the evolving role of the B2B CMO (see links at the bottom of the page).

The marketers attending came from a variety of different backgrounds, and brands with widely differing histories and contexts, thus demonstrating the full breadth of the B2B sector. They included B2B brands that are household names; challenger brands looking to take on globally recognised players; others that are at the bleeding edge of technology and others still who may have lagged behind in terms of latest thinking but are seeking to drive accelerated transformation. The event took place under Chatham House rules, so names of individuals and organizations remain confidential. So what did we learn?

Customer indifference = marketing’s enemy number 1

Well, the conversation focused around two key discussion points. The first was the notion that B2B brands need to work harder creatively to enable standout, or as it was framed for the meeting: ‘Your biggest competition isn’t other brands in your sector, it’s indifference.’ The question about why B2B marketing isn’t braver is as old as the industry itself, and Transmission’s own research demonstrates that four out of five B2B buyers themselves give campaign creative only one star out of five. So why are B2B brands and marketers still failing to create campaigns that resonate?

Unhelpfully, the answer that we arrived at is complex, and there’s no single reason or consequently solution. Lack of understanding or willingness isn’t the problem… at least as far as the individuals in attendance are concerned. Some could point to examples where their organization had conducted genuinely impactful, creative and/or emotionally resonant campaigns. For others, the context was simply not conducive to doing that, sometimes because it wasn’t possible (ie. they didn’t have the marketing maturity) and sometimes because it wasn’t necessary (ie. marketing’s brief was to be more functional and the cost/expense of going that extra mile creatively simply wasn’t relevant… at least at the time). To a certain extent, the acknowledged inability to strive for edge creative excellence does explain the ongoing obsession of many global B2B brands with high profile sports sponsorship – F1 in particular.

In trying to detect the signal from the noise, my sense is that driving standout creative is inevitably at the very end of a long chain of considerations and decisions that lead to and enable marketing activity. Marketers don’t set out to do something underwhelming or less good than it could be, but there are a variety of reasons why any particular brand doesn’t operate at the creative bleeding edge.

Outdoor ad with minimalist copy from Intercom

Is this the future of standing out in B2B? The panel discussed Intercom’s recent outdoor ad in San Francisco

Is marketing failing at marketing marketing?

The second question that we sought to address in the meeting was around CMO to CFO dialogue. Transmission’s research revealed that 79% of CFOs believe that there are no reliable brand metrics that clearly tie brand marketing in to revenue growth… and perhaps more worrying still, that 66% of CMOs agree! So that leads to the inevitable question: ‘Are marketers communicating the value of the brand correctly in the boardroom?’

It was clear that all those attending agreed that stakeholder management is critical for CMOs, not just for brand campaigns, but for marketing effectiveness more generally. So what does good look like and what are the keys to success? Well, ironically enough, it’s all about (you guessed it)… good marketing. Marketers need to position and frame the brand communication challenge in a way that CFOs (and CEOs, in a different but related way) understand. That involves starting with the problem that you’re trying to address, moving on to what you’re trying to achieve and in what timeframe and showing how you’re going to measure that.

The timeframe bit can’t be understated, as all its critical to how the initiative is made relevant and compelling to non-marketing stakeholders – it’s more than likely that the org has a strategic objective linked to a timeline, be that an IPO, a PE divestment, a geographic expansion… any marketing initiative needs to align with the wider corporate agenda. The is a great way of qualifying and clarifying the age-old expression (as used by one attendee) that marketers: “need to talk the language of business.” It’s not just about being financially literate, although that’s important too. As important as brand is, it’s a means to an end, rather than an end in itself, and that end is overall business success.

The alternative to this approach is to shift the mindset and priorities of the business by creating a crisis, which only brand investment can solve. There’s little doubt that this can be effective, but as best seems histrionic and at worst, potentially very high risk for the marketing leader propagating it. Speaking the language of business seems more proportionate!

Don’t bet on a single ‘killer’ metric

Finally: on the subject of measurement: none of the marketers attending had identified ‘silver bullet’ of a metric which soundly and squarely addresses CFO scepticism about brand investment. But as one attendee demonstrated, it’s less about individual metrics and silver bullets, more about building up trust between finance and marketing by demonstrating the importance of brand incrementally, through multiple pieces of evidence, over time.

This was an excellent event with insightful unexpected contributions from those participating, once again highlighting the enormous value in this kind of peer-to-peer discussion – there were many more fantastic points made, too many to squeeze into a single article. Kudos to Transmission for seeking to move the brand discussion forward and my thanks for inviting me to be involved.

It’s trite to seek to distil a complex and far-reaching discussion into a handful of bullet points… but I’m going to try to do it anyway:

  1. Always strive for emotional engagement… but to do that, you need to understand the emotional context of your buyer. And that might not be what you expect.
  2. Don’t let cost put you off brand research – it’s likely to be worth it in the long run. Brand tracking studies are expensive, but enable marketers to contextualize brand relevance and define strategic investment need, rather than simply operating in the dark or on hunches. It might take your whole brand budget, but there’s a good chance it would be worth it.
  3. Remember that communications are only one aspect of your brand – albeit the one that marketing can most easily impact. There’s a whole wealth of brand inputs that come from ongoing customer engagement, support and product or service delivery.
  4. The key brand battleground isn’t customer communications. It’s stakeholder communications. The marketing leader’s ability to influence them and form truly collaborative and mutually respectful relationships will be critical to the success of any campaign or sponsorship.
  5. Don’t expect to rely on one metric – build trust and respect over time by demonstrating impact and trajectory.
  6. If all else fails, create a crisis – or elevate a known drama into a full blown crisis. Show the board the worst case scenario of what might happen if they don’t act.
  7. Challenge your agency to help you make the case for brand investment. They should have the expertise and insights to help you demonstrate the value of brand as opposed to other forms of marketing – or of doing nothing.

If you’d like a copy of either of Transmission’s reports that inspired this conversation, you can find links below.

B2B Brand Health: The APEX Index 2023

Closing the CMO-CFO Brand value gap in B2B

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