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B2B | Lessons of B2C advertising can improve results for B2B brands

B2B |  Lessons of B2C advertising can improve results for B2B brands

Strong emotions, not only rational considerations, drive B2B decisions

James Caig

Creative Technologist



At its best, B2C advertising is a form of alchemy. We transmute emotion and creativity into the hard logic of sales, profit, and price elasticity. We generate tangible value for our clients from the intangible value we create in the minds of prospective buyers. It shouldn’t really work, yet it does.  As a result, practitioners understand the combined power of best practice and the counter-intuitive. So, we know that reach and fame are better long-term drivers of acquisition than acquisition activity is on its own. We know the essential nature of what we ironically call “wastage.”

We understand this alchemy thanks largely to marketing experts Les Binet and Peter Field and their analysis of the IPA Effectiveness databank, a UK advertising industry repository of campaign details. We know why this alchemy works thanks to neuroscience and psychology. People are not, as we would have ourselves believe, rational. We develop emotional connections we can’t control and take decisions we don’t understand.  

Despite this, our practitioner instincts disappear like office stationery when we apply our skills to B2B. Too often we stereotype our audience as rational decision-makers, impervious to emotion, context or mood. Especially if they work in procurement. This may make us laugh, but it also makes us look dumb. It blinds us to, for example, the motivating power of minimizing risk. A bad call in procurement can lead to an unprofitable relationship, colleague disapproval, or a poor performance review. The prospect of getting it wrong can be scary.

This example also reveals a universal truth about the choices people make. In business, as in life, people are wired not to make the best decision but to avoid the consequences of a bad one. Advertising, and the emotional connection it allows us to make between people and relevant products, is most effective when it delivers against this. It’s why we trust the brands we see most often and buy the products that come most easily to mind.

Marketing to businesses

Were we to combine the counter-intuitive and observable in B2B, we’d notice how strong emotions like ambition, status, trust and fear already ask searching questions of our industry. Right now, sadly, our most frequent answer to these questions seems to be “case study.” But if we imagined for a moment that we marketed to businesses as if they really were made of people—then what kind of work might we create? Perhaps we’d be less obsessed with the buying cycle and focus more on the long-term.

  • We’d build brands as we know they are built, reinforcing core emotional values that resonate with buyers whose motivations we genuinely understood. We’d have more insight, fewer infographics.
  • We’d rely less on lead generation channels, which make the sales team happy, and instead use advertising for what only advertising can do: reach as many category buyers as possible to create shared meaning around the brand.
  • We’d make more effort to make brands distinctive. Too many play it safe, and therefore fade from view. Categories are pretty homogenous, as is B2B generally.  

And yes, we’d make fewer case studies, putting more effort into “costly signals” like broadcast advertising. Advertising is expensive, which means it delivers exactly what B2B brands need: a demonstration of a company’s faith in its own product that can inspire customers and prospects alike. This might seem a stretch, but ask Adobe, Intel, or Shell about the power of TV for B2B. Broadcast is also the quickest way to achieve “excess Share of Voice,” one of Binet and Field’s tenets, which describes the effect generated by spending more than the equivalent of your market share to drive share growth: each 10 percent eSOV garners 0.5 percent market share.  

Until recently, eSOV, along with Binet and Field’s other effectiveness principles, has been observed mainly in B2C. Now the duo has tested them with a pool of B2B case studies and observed that, while categories vary, broadly the principles hold. Long-term thinking generates bigger business effects. Brand and direct response work together. Fame, emotion and creativity are the base materials for B2B alchemy, not just B2C.

We can now articulate B2B best practices. If as an industry we want to create the equivalent value for B2B as we do for B2C, we need to re-discover our counter-intuitive instincts too.