Agency Leadership B2B Marketing Marketing

B2B’s brand-building ‘renaissance’: Are we seeing shift to emotion and long-termism?


By Sam Anderson, Network Editor

February 22, 2024 | 12 min read

Are reports of B2B’s rebirth greatly exaggerated? We sat down with some leading B2B brand-builders to chart an increase in long-termism and emotional messaging.

The Fairy Grotto by Erastus Salisbury Field

Is B2B brand building having a 'renaissance'? / The New York Public Library via Unsplash

Ask a panel of B2B specialists who the standard-setters are in their world and a few names will keep popping up: Google, Mailchimp, Autodesk. Chief among those is cloud software behemoth Salesforce, and its hugely varied suite of marketing assets like learning platform Trailhead, advocacy-pushing Trailblazers, and mega-event Dreamforce. “Everyone wants to be Salesforce,” says Sarah Robertson, vice president of account management at George P Johnson.

What these leaders have in common is deep investment in their brands – something not every B2B marketer feels they have the scope to do when so much emphasis is placed on product and service. It’s a dynamic shrewdly inverted in perhaps the most famous lines in B2B history (though never the company’s official tagline): ‘No one ever got fired for buying IBM’. The thinking goes: B2B buyers are concerned principally with doing good work (that won’t get them fired), so functionality and results are all-important.

But it’s brand-building work that has made those top examples from big tech so sticky. Over the last year or so, Mailchimp did splashy work with the Design Museum with ‘Email is Dead’; Google’s skills training partnered with football legend Ian Wright; and Autodesk crashed the Oscars party with brand-heavy spoof ad ‘Otto Desc’.

Others haven’t failed to notice the successes of these tech brands’ work, says Vanessa Cheal, head of brand services and creative planning at creative agency Transmission: “we've seen a massive uplift in brand investment programs outside of tech… in pharmaceuticals, in manufacturing and retail organizations, in fintech. Anywhere there are highly competitive markets with fast growth, where medium-sized businesses are trying to break through and compete with the big boys, we’re seeing a massive uplift in the attention around improving brand.”

And it’s no wonder, says Propeller Group’s director of growth Jody Osman, who points to recent work in the Brand Finance report that shows still-untapped potential for brand growth in B2B: “there’s a big value there being generated, with B2B still some way behind B2C. The top 100 [B2B] brands have about $2tn worth of value, but if compare the percentage of brand value to business value, it's about a third off where B2C brands are; their representative value would be 3 trillion. So there's probably a trillion to gain there if they really upped their game.”

Speaking of research, it’s no accident, says Chrissie Smith, strategy director and brand lead at Earnest Agency, that brand investment is coming when research in the area is growing; B2B buyers are often data-minded and evidence-driven, so assistance from bodies like the LinkedIn B2B institute ‘think tank’ help arm them with the evidence they need to invest in brand. “This deluge of data, information and research is helping all of us with those debates about why you should invest in brand”.

IPO, M&A, and brand

According to our panel, there’s another phenomenon driving growth in B2B brand work: higher brand standards for B2B companies looking for sale or investment via IPO, M&A or partnership with other agencies. “Investors are saying, ‘your brand is not strong enough for you to exit, and you have to sort it out,’” says Cheal. “So there’s not only a bigger volume of brand projects, but a greater urgency to get them sorted in a short space of time… The pressure is on to get that brand value up.”

Sköna Advertising’s lead creative strategist Alison Michael says that “the majority of the brand work” the agency undertakes is for companies looking at investment: “They’re either repositioning after they’ve just been purchased, or they’re going to market with a new business plan, or they’re getting ready for an IPO, and they need to impress investors; they need to impress the market.”

The new rules: What B2B brand building looks like in practice

With this flurry in B2B brand-building activity, our panel says, the old rules are going out the window (if there were any in the first place). As Smith of Earnest puts it, “This is such a new thing for B2B. I don't know what rules were in place originally to be broken. I think it's still a fairly immature market in terms of brand building.”

In the constant push-and-pull between the marketing world’s left-brain of performance and right-brain of brand (simplified as that dichotomy is), this is clearly a win for the latter. It’s also a victory for marketers and agencies who have been advocating for long-termism, says AgencyUK’s creative director, Dan Srokosz: “There’s a real Renaissance, which is fantastic. I look forward to B2B gaining confidence… there needs to be a break away from ROI and performance. Data and performance marketing have facilitated an over-focus on short-termism, which can lead to quite stale or short-lived creative. I look forward to more bravery.”

This surely does not mean the end of functionality-focused creative in B2B – those bonds are too secure – but perhaps functionality plus emotion is on the up (nothing new perhaps – remember that IBM line). “Companies get obsessed about the nuts and bolts of a piece of software, but that emotional bond just needs to be much stronger,” says Srokosz. “Brands are really recognizing that now.”

(Of course, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. As emotion’s stock rises in B2B, so does the value to be gleamed by bucking the trend. Michael of Sköna points to a billboard from Intercom that got Silicon Valley talking last year: “It’s completely unemotional. There’s truly zero brand at all. It’s a white billboard with black text… There’s something refreshing about just being straight to the point.”)

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Beyond humanization

We shouldn’t get carried away about the newness of all this. Marketers have prophesized great creative shifts in the B2B landscape for a while. One rubric under which they’ve made this point is the ‘humanization’ of B2B, and a corresponding push to make brands more ‘human’. Our panel cautions that this isn’t exactly what they mean when they celebrate an increase in emotion, brand, and long-termism.

“I’m actually really worried about this obsession with humanization,” says Cheal. “We have so many clients that come to us and say, ‘make my brand more human; let’s come up with a purpose that tries to save the world; that shows we care; that you can trust us’. We end up scratching around to find one that isn’t authentic… We’re getting to the stage where we’re starting to purpose wash, under pressure to demonstrate that you’re bigger than just making profit and solving business challenges – but it doesn’t come from the hear; it comes from a commercial goal for market share. That means that humanization is false, and it’s being devalued.”

It's possible that these humanization-obsessed marketers are trying too hard, when what they’re looking for is right in front of them. Here’s The Marketing Practice’s senior vice president of strategy Alastair Hussain: “The irony is that many B2B clients do genuinely create world-changing products and services, working on world-changing problems – whereas B2C is there selling sugar to kids and booze to their parents, chasing after this mysterious ‘purpose’.”

For Hussain, purpose isn’t the only thing that comes easier to B2B than to B2C. Another is that exactly the kind of long-termism that brand work adores is actually baked into a lot of B2B business models, if the brands are willing to nurture it: “one of the more interesting things in the B2B space is the level of engagement and involvement that customers can have with the brands. B2C is limited in how their brands can reach people, whereas some of our clients have products that their customers spend literally hours a day for years on end; they’ll travel thousands of miles to go and hear more about this particular product. So the brand gets to live, much more vibrant, and many more places… That lends itself to really interesting long-term brand-building programs.”

“We sell ourselves a little bit short with these ideas of ‘humanization’ and ‘consumerization,’” says Hussain. “It's not that it’s untrue, but it’s a wild simplification. Yes, obviously, you need to be borrowing some of the codes from consumer behaviors. But B2B’s also leading the change in other ways, ahead of B2C. A lot of the most exciting categories right now are B2B; the most exciting tech right now is being developed in B2B… I dance around the living room with my kids to Blinding Lights, and I behave very differently there than I would in a boardroom. That’s because the context, the environment, the people I'm with, and the purpose of what I'm doing are all so wildly different. Broad-brushing the whole of B2B as ‘human-to-human’ is a giant leap through a vacuum of logic. We aren’t exactly the same people in every context.”

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