The 1% engagement problem: why most B2B advertising fails

Insurance giant MetLife recently ditched longtime mascot Snoopy, after spending hundreds of millions of dollars – and several decades – making the Peanuts beagle its instantly recognizable celebrity spokesperson. (Except this one never asked for a raise, never got caught in a scandal, and never waded into political debates.)

The move dovetailed with the company’s shift from retail business to B2B sales. In a classic conflation of professionalism and formality, MetLife seemed to think its B2B advertising was no place for a cartoon character.

What MetLife and many other B2B brands seem to forget is that people who work in business are humans, too. And while business decisions are supposedly made based on purely rational considerations, that’s far from the truth. This fundamental misunderstanding underlying much B2B advertising leads to tens of millions of squandered advertising spending every year, across both traditional media and digital channels.

If you don’t believe me, ask Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman. In his book Thinking Fast and Slow, Kahneman delineates two modes of thinking: "System 1" is instantaneous, driven by instinct and emotion; "System 2" is slower, driven by deliberation and logic. Kahneman hones several decades of research to emphasize how people attribute far too much importance to ‘rational’ human judgements in decision-making. Specifically, he explains that even when we believe we are making decisions based on rational considerations, our System 1 beliefs, biases and intuition drive much of our thinking.

Business people have their own notions about brands. A huge proportion of these ideas are derived from humans’ System 1 belief system. And much of what resides in our System 1 belief system are impressions yielded from our own experiences. When it comes to brands marketing to both consumers and B2B targets, the business target has deep-seated impressions of the brand that affect their decision-making. And where do those come from? In large part, consumer advertising.

It seems fairly obvious when stated: B2B targets see consumer advertising. In most cases, your B2B target sees more of your brand’s consumer-targeted advertising than she does your B2B advertising. But would you know this from the B2B marketer’s tendency to lean toward the bland and rational approach when advertising to business purchasers?

For brands selling both to consumers and business buyers, B2B advertising works as a supplement to consumer advertising – it is not the main focus. In one recent study for a client, 86% of business decision-makers saw the brand’s advertising overall, with 85% seeing the consumer campaign and 29% seeing the B2B campaign. So just 1% saw only the B2B ads, and 56% saw only the consumer ads. These are typical advertising engagement rates from our research. So it follows that the campaign theme and brand positioning need to be synergistic, amplifying what the B2B target has come to believe about the brand via their exposure to the brand’s consumer advertising.

Kahneman’s insights, so beloved by consumer marketers, apply just as much to B2B: design advertising so that the target remembers the brand in a way that drives a (non-rational) connection to the brand in their System 1 thinking. Rational ad sells don’t work any better among B2B targets than they do among consumer targets.

Kahneman contrasts the difference between how we experience an event in the moment and how we remember the experience afterwards. In-the-moment experiences are typically only held in the brain for about three seconds before being replaced by memories. But memories aren’t comprehensive; the brain remembers only some aspects of what has occurred. As Kahneman stresses, the experience itself doesn’t count. Doesn’t seem rational, does it? So why is your B2B advertising based on assumptions of rationality?

One brand that gets this right is General Electric. Linda Boff, GE’s chief marketing officer, is responsible for growing the company’s impact among both commercial and consumer targets. After more than 100 years in business, her job has little to do with brand awareness. Boff says it’s “getting [people] to know us as we really are: a brand that’s been about invention and innovation since day one – that’s human, quirky, and a little bit unexpected.”

GE isn’t telling one story to business targets and another to consumers. The brand walks the walk on inventiveness and experimentation by being first on digital platforms, doing cool things with virtual reality, drones, artificial intelligence and live video. While for many (if not most) brands, dabbling in these areas is mere shiny new thing syndrome, for GE it’s completely aligned with its image in our System 1 thinking as innovative and experimental.

Despite what many marketers and agencies would like to think (after all, accounts, jobs and entire careers depend on it), consumers’ appetite to engage with specific ads is not simply a function of “exposure opportunities.” It’s not even wholly dependent on the breakthrough power of the creative.

The hard truth is, inclination toward engaging with your brand will fluctuate on an individual level, and it will do so based on how well the brand and its story resonates with what that individual already believes to be true. Kahneman refers to this as our inherent ‘confirmation bias’. The moral: what a B2B decision-maker believes to be true about your brand based on her experiences as a consumer will strongly color how she interprets your B2B campaign.

For every company like GE that inherently gets this and advertises accordingly, there are dozens more – like MetLife – that don’t. Those who strategize based on a deep understanding of how people think and make decisions will benefit accordingly. Which camp does your brand fall into?

Jeri Smith is chief executive of Communicus

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