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‘Toxic positivity’ in marketing: Could B2B ads benefit from a little cynicism?

By Hannah O’Rourke, Director of Content

Don't be Shy


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January 17, 2024 | 8 min read

B2B marketing is marked by a relentless optimism of rainbows, unicorns, and sunlit uplands. But reality, right now, is a little less rosy. Is there room for realism? Don’t be Shy’s Hannah O’Rourke thinks so.

A giant multi-color mural of a clown

Is B2B marketing too positive? / Nick Fewings via Unsplash

B2B marketing has a toxic positivity problem. From initial client pitch to final ad copy, all too often we present ourselves and the things we sell as the Holy Grail for [insert problem – I’m sorry, challenge – here].

Confident, steely-eyed positivity is the default setting for B2B marketing. Exhausting as it is, it’s perhaps understandable that brands want to project an aura of reassuring invincibility; of imperviousness to economic tumult. The very safest pair of hands, that’s what you’re getting. Trust us.

Thus, B2B messaging tends to focus on promises of mega-wins, giga-growth and fortune-filled futures. There’s no room for talk of businesses fighting for survival, economic necessities, difficult decisions, heartbreaking cutbacks, or financial close calls.

A dose of realism

Right now, for some businesses, hearing ‘We’ll help you make it through the next three payrolls’ would be a more enticing message than ‘We’ll help you enact your ambitious growth plans’. (At the very least, it’d make for some arresting, attention-getting copy.)

The funny thing is, we talk a lot in strategy sessions about meeting customers where they are. About understanding their issues. About empathy and pain points and conflicting priorities. But all too often, whether through brand protection or plain old-fashioned cold feet, an explicit focus on the actual things that are doing their heads in falls short in the execution.

If we were more honest with ourselves, and more brutal about the challenges B2B personas are facing, we may see more lines like these.

‘Employee benefits platform’ Perkbox: Cheaper than pay rises.

The audience for this one: HR. The challenges: employee satisfaction, lack of budget, and employee engagement.

Online B2B banking provider Monzo Business: Use the POTS for your TAX.

Audience: people who really have no business setting up a business. Challenge: not bankrupting oneself.

Positively toxic

With the global economy continuing to stumble, is there a point where B2B’s relentless, reality-denying optimism starts to sound out-of-touch, alienating or even insensitive? Where promises of a brighter future, always just around the corner, begin to sound empty? I believe so.

In a quest to simplify messaging and achieve ‘cut through’, many B2B brands fall victim to the same sort of posturing and preening that your common-or-garden LinkedIn lunatic would. Nuance is lost and, with it, so is credibility.

“You can tell toxic positivity from other kinds of positivity by its impact. Toxic positivity tends to feel dismissive and simplistic in the face of complex challenges.” – That’s a definition from Everyday Health.

B2B buyers face a deluge of complex challenges every working day. From hard metrics to soft skills, anyone who’s carving out a career has some sort of reputation to protect and some kind of standard to uphold. And they’re wildly different from person to person.

Of course, in selling anything, the positives need to be highlighted. But there’s a certain level of trust and authenticity (sorry) to be found in a brand that acknowledges shortcomings, avoids the oversell, and with it, eliminates any risk of under-delivery down the line.

The comfort of the negative

Humans buy from humans. Etc etc. It’s long-discussed that the B2B buyer is also a person, with consumer preferences and personal tastes. But in B2B, we still don’t seem to try to appeal to their more cynical side. And don’t people like a bit of cynicism? When things appear too good to be true, they usually are. And when people present an air of constant optimism, it all starts to feel a bit uncanny valley.

One of the most human things about, well, humans, is the inclination to commiserate and compare notes. What’s more, going back to our strategy session and the anecdotes and shared experiences gathered there – it’s these things that imply experience, and with it, suggest the overcoming of issues and learnings applied.

There’s already been a well-documented switch on traditionally ‘more consumer’ channels, towards acknowledging what goes on behind the scenes. Admitting that what’s presented outwardly is a glossy highlights reel. It feels like B2B is due a similar reckoning.

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From the workshop to the word count

When you’re in that workshop and you’re getting all those anecdotes and stories and lessons learned from people that have been in an industry for years, they’re interesting, and they’re insightful.

And they’re often very quickly followed by ‘obviously we can’t put that in our marketing though’. Why not? That’s where the opportunity lies. We build brands based on the personalities of the people in the business, so why not let them speak? Through direct quotes or implied shared knowledge – further down the strategic journey, all the way to the ads.

Maybe the toxic positivity tide is already turning. In developing tone of voice for a couple of recent brand projects, we’ve seen a real turn towards realism. More ‘we will be honest with you when it does go wrong’, because sometimes, it does go wrong.

And I’m all here for it, because it seems endlessly more entertaining, down-to-earth, and engaging that relentless optimism.

B2B Marketing Marketing

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Don't be Shy

We go beyond the brief to uncover deep insights. Hidden clues. Unsaid truths. We find them, and we use them to create beautiful B2B brands, websites and campaigns...

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