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That was a B2B ad? How the pandemic forced business marketers to pivot forever

Now that's funny: Motley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee and wife Brittany Furlan pitch email marketing services

Business-to-business marketing is becoming increasingly indistinguishable from consumer marketing. It is a trend that’s being accelerated by the pandemic and will most likely continue for the long term, according to industry experts.

Have you seen the ad where Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee talks about the Forrester Wave? How about that immersive virtual reality experience for tugboat drivers? And then there’s that new Glossier-inspired website for a company that makes equipment to test other equipment.

If you’re a consumer, it’s likely you won’t have. But if you are a business-to-business customer, there’s a very good chance you’ve noticed that the way B2B brands are now behaving has changed significantly. There has been a clear shift from boring, methodical and rational to entertaining, engaging and emotional.

“B2B marketing as we know it is dead,” says Carla Piñeyro Sublett, the chief marketing officer of NI, the aforementioned equipment testing company that used to go by National Instruments. “If we continue to run the same plays in B2B, filling inboxes with unopened emails and throwing up banner ads, we are only contributing to a go-to market strategy that is noisy, flooded and at risk in its terms of its ability to make an impact. We must instead take a page from consumer brands, going a level deeper and taking the time to think about how we can develop a meaningful relationship at the right level with our customers as people.”

Cheetah Digital’s vice-president of content and data Tim Glomb puts it more bluntly: “We’re talking to people, not machines.” When he was looking at creating the virtual Signals conference and its supporting ad campaign, he says the controlling thought was “how can we fucking jazz this up so it doesn’t feel like work?”

This shift has been years in the making but has be ignited of late by two key factors: our personal and professional lives becoming interwoven and the accelerated adoption of digital among B2B marketers.

“The worlds of B2B and B2C have been on a collision course for some time now,” says Joe Rivas, global chief exec of Doremus, the Omnicom B2B agency. “The recent impacts of Covid-19 and new work from home models have only increased the intersection between the two worlds. At any one moment you can be a mom, a CMO, an organizational leader. And as work and home continue to blur, B2B brands are having to compete for time and attention with not only their direct competitive set, but all B2C marketers. This certainly raises the bar. B2B brands must respond by upping their game in terms of content that is genuinely useful, relevant and culturally significant if they expect to engage the multitasking business leaders of today.”

Got jokes? Funny business is on the rise

Animating conference sessions in the style of South Park... Conducting an interview in a tree... Tapping a heavy metal icon to pitch email marketing services... These are just a few of the tactics Cheetah Digital’s Glomb has leveraged.

“What doesn’t work is a bunch of Zoom webinars. Whether you’re a B2B or a B2C customer, you like the unexpected. Sometimes you need to be spinning plates and wearing a clown wig, but if you get them in first 90 seconds they will stay for the rest.”

This rationale is only natural for Glomb. His background includes building AXS TV with Mark Cuban, producing and starring in MTV’s Viva La Bama and working as a Crüe guitar tech in the 90s. He simply reached out to his old friend Tommy Lee and his wife Brittany Furlan to star in promo spots for Signals 20 that lean heavily into humor.

He’s certainly not alone, with the use comedy and star power in B2B very much on the rise. American software company ServiceNow, for example, debuted a comedic B2B spot last month to make light of returning to work, licensing the iconic Spinners song Working My Way Back to You.

While having a heavily tattooed rock drummer talk tech or showing people walking to work in a hamster ball may seem silly, they can be effective according to research from LinkedIn’s B2B Institute. “Ad testing data from our research partner System 1 shows that establishing a strong emotional connection in an ad is hugely important, and even more so during difficult times,“ says Jann Schwarz, senior director of the B2B Institute at LinkedIn. “In fact, ads with humor or established brand characters scored even higher in 2020 than they had in previous years.”

For those who continue to take the old-school approach to B2B, the results are significantly less rosy. More than 75% of B2B ads tested this year achieved only one star out of five in ad effectiveness scoring tests, says Schwarz. This is largely because they tend to feature mostly left-brain characteristics, such as a focus on literal, narrow, rational elements in the content of the ad.

It’s the experience, stupid

Whether you’re a tugboat driver or an engineer, you want a great experience in exchange for the time you actually take to engage with a brand. That’s why Trelleborg Marine & Infrastructure leaned into a 360° VR video experience (something you’d expect from a consumer tech brand) when it introduced a new digital offering that helps big vessels and tugs berth more safely and quickly. “Our ‘grizzled’ B2B audience of vessel operators and port personnel took to it like kids in candy shop,” says Tom Stein, chairman and chief client officer at Stein IAS, the agency that created the campaign. He says that social engagement was off the chart while marketing qualified leads are up 820%.

“There has been a lot of conversation about B2B learning from B2C,” says Stein. “Two things have become forcing factors: the expectation set in the consumer world for high quality, frictionless digital CX and the Covid-19 push to digital all the time.”

These factors are reflected in recent eMarketer data that shows digital B2B ad spend is up 22.6%. The fact that in-person events and other traditional tactics have vanished has left marketers looking for new ways to engage digitally with clients. For NI, it was about creating a new site that feels more DTC than B2B, says NI’s Piñeyro Sublett. “Glossier was a brand that stood out as we were approaching our website design and layout. It produces short form videos for its products that are set up to show a problem-fix scenario. We knew a similar approach could work well for our audience of engineers who are trying to solve a specific problem. We want to package content for our audience in a way that is not only quick and easy to consume but ultimately helpful. Glossier has hit on a great model in how it shows the use cases behind its products.”

Given the current trends, the fact is that B2B marketers don’t have a choice other than to evolve quickly, says Lisa Colantuono, president of the search consultancy AAR Partners. “There has been the most amount of change in the shortest period of time. The shift in customer dynamics, purchase journey and behavior make it easy to become outdated. B2B marketers, and their agencies, have to become more innovative based on understanding of today’s new customer in the short-term. The long-term game is dependent on it.”

4 B2B solutions to embrace right now

1. Resist the temptation to go left-brain

There has been a clear shift from boring, methodical and rational to entertaining, engaging and emotional, per industry leaders.

2. Don’t be afraid to play for laughs

B2B ads with humor or established brand characters scored even higher in 2020 than they had in previous years, per research from the B2B Institute at LinkedIn.

3. Dial up the UX or else

The expectations set in the consumer world for high-quality, frictionless digital CX have had a significant impact on B2B marketing.

4. Feel good about leveraging empathy

Marketing that dials up human relevance and emotion have scored well for B2B brands—and will likely continue to do.

Empathy (and excellence) wins out

For the specialty insurance provider Hiscox, it is all about inspiring its small business customers to be courageous in their endeavors. ’Encourage courage’ gets to the core of entrepreneurial spirit, but at the same time the brand knew it needed to raise its awareness in the US. Its ’Barcode’ campaign gets to the core of the old B2B mentality of treating a client like a number instead of a human. The ads directly recognize the concerns of B2B decision makers and reassures them that Hiscox is the business insurance expert they need. It has yielded the strongest results of any ad in the four years of the campaign according to Gyro, the agency that created the campaign.

“Covid-19 has accelerated a shift toward consumerization and also helped to ignite B2B’s rapid growth trajectory,” says Christoph Becker, gyro’s global chief exec and chief creative officer. “With customers’ growing familiarity with technology and rising expectations for more personalized and valuable experiences, messaging and quality of execution needs to be adapted and enhanced in the B2B space.”

Gyro has been digging into the intrinsic combination of the personal and professional since 2011 when it kicked off its ’At Work State of Mind’ research study with Forbes. The relevance of this thinking has only grown more significant, says Becker. “Creative excellency is blind to B2B or B2C, and has been for a long time now, but it is true that the total migration towards more humanly relevant, emotional insight driven experiences and messaging in B2B requires the integration of some B2C techniques.”

LinkedIn’s B2B Institute research reinforces the fact that empathy – which would have been ignored not so long ago in B2B ads – is a key element. It cites West Bend Mutual Insurance’s ad as receiving improved marks in a recent study because the creative is empathetic in nature. “We see faces, smiles and connection,“ says the report.

Piñeyro Sublett concludes: “We are wrong in assuming there is a B2B way to market and a B2C way to market. That only serves to silo ourselves as marketers. Instead, we need to get back in touch with the ‘people’ we are marketing to. Our consumer lives have informed our expectations in our business lives in the way we want to engage with brands. There’s no such thing as a work brain and a personal brain.”

For more, register for free for the Drum’s B2BWorldfest conference (November 18-19).

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