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Creative effectiveness in B2B marketing

6 min read - by Tim Wilson-Frier - Senior Strategist

B2B creative remains dominated by marketing at the least effective  end of the spectrum, and so struggling  to deliver long-term commercial value,  there’s a huge opportunity for B2B  brands to gain competitive advantage.  Because driving creative effectiveness  in B2B really does drive commercial growth. It all comes down to a simple matter of falling in love… We all understand the power of creativity and emotion in marketing. I mean, who hasn’t been moved by at least one ad or campaign over the years? One of John Lewis’s festive spots perhaps? Guinness’s famed ‘Tick follows Tock’ surfing thing? Whatever. Here’s the question. Given that we’ve all experienced and loved great marketing creativity at some point, why do we seem  so stubbornly reluctant to wield it in B2B?  Or at least wield it well? Because, just to be clear, we don’t.  A fact that’s borne out in recent research; one particularly damning stat being that 77% of B2B ads have no brand building effect, according to the B2B Institute’s research with System 1, choosing to focus instead largely on sales activation and demand gen.  It’s tricky to know exactly what the ratio is between cause and effect here, but the fact is that what little creativity is present in such ads is typically short-sighted, short-termist, and short on quality. And that’s being kind.  In fact, if we’re honest, it’s often just plain boring. The vicious circle. It’s habitually born of a desire to connect product, sales, finance, and marketing while simultaneously driving brand and revenues. Which is a great idea, but a big ask. And doomed to failure if the organisation doesn’t fully commit to it creatively and emotionally as well as idealistically. It also gives rise to your classic vicious circle.  Mental availability. Accordingly, we have to recognise what’s really going on here – the real reason so many B2B ads don’t perform and drive growth.  Because they’re not very good. Because they fail to build memory structures. Because they’re not truly invested in an ‘idea’. Because they don’t create and nurture the mental (emotional?) ‘availability’ we want from our audiences.  Remember, we’re more renting a stage in their minds here (perhaps 95%) than hunting in a game reserve (the remaining 5%).  We have to learn that showmanship and not salesmanship is what’s likely to win in the end. Creativity is a powerful tool. Let’s say it once and for all then.  Creativity – creative, emotional commitment  – is a powerful, important tool in the tech  marketing arsenal, and it’s time we started  seeing and using it that way. There is clear  and compelling commercial value in challenging incumbent thinking and promoting creativity  to the top of the agenda. In building out  professional, social, emotional connections  and benefits. Still not convinced? Well how about this: depending on which source you care to listen to (and even the more conservative ones are generous) creativity can be a 10x or even 20x sales multiplier. Let that sink in for a moment.  Moreover, most of this isn’t even new data.  Roll all this thinking up into the boardroom (picture the CMO being able to actively demonstrate the bottom-line impact of her department’s activity to the rest of the  C-suite), and it’s a conversation changer. Suddenly marketing is putting something very new on the table. Namely a capacity to drive business performance, and not  just in the short-term. To build a future pipeline rather than just secure meetings.  To return shareholder value, to impact IPO valuations, and more.  That’s the true power of creativity. And it’s there for the taking.  Making the customer care. Some important lessons must be learned if we’re to really take advantage though.  That customers really don’t care about your product for instance. And that, instead, you have to make them care about you.  Think about it. How many times, having seen an ad, have you immediately dropped everything and rushed out and bought the product in question? Hardly ever, right? (There’s that 95:5 ratio working in practice). And yet this is invariably how campaigns are measured in B2B. How the next campaign investment is planned. Did it convert? How did it compare with X? Did we persuade the prospect? Indeed, persuasion is too often used as the key and only metric of success. That rarely stacks up against the audience’s own metrics, however. And those are the ones  that really count. 62% of B2B buyers think that we’re all selling basically the same stuff**, for example. 86% see no real difference between suppliers – or value the difference enough to  pay for it** – with many believing that the fabled ‘Unique Selling Proposition’ (USP) is now dead. We need to accept that we are, for the most part (the 95%), in the publicity business  rather the persuasion business (the 5%). Once we do, we can then see and start to fully appreciate the balance between priming the future audience and activating the in-market one. It makes one wonder how many B2B CMOs are currently acting on that basis, however. How many are anywhere close to even a 60:40 or 50:50 brand to sales activation investment ratio? Commoditisation and micro-differentiation. What else?  Well take the sea of commoditisation and micro-differentiation that now characterises many B2B marketplaces. We buy from whom we think of first under such circumstances (mental availability). That being the case, tech brands are doing themselves – and their customers – no favours if they don’t truly differentiate. I.e. if they don’t flex their creative and emotional muscles and really engage.  Despite this, instead of committing to the kind of ‘publicity creative’ that will build their brands and prime the audience, many continue to work very hard (spending $millions in the process) chasing that same elusive ‘5%’ as their competitors. And that with poor, samey, utterly forgettable imagery and messages. Falling in love. B2B mindsets have to change.  And, as we’ve already seen and said, there are clear and compelling commercial reasons for them to do so. To start seeing marketing as more than a short-term feeder club for sales. To start leveraging its power to brand build, create future value, and secure sales interactions further down the funnel. Oh and to attract talent  (which has never been a bigger or more critical part of the marketing remit, or that of the business at large.)    For now (and I’m aware that this will be both controversial and tough for many of them to hear) very few B2B brands are truly marketing-led. Even those who may think they are.  To prove the point, we need only look (of course) to B2C, where marketing isn’t  the mere sales support function it often still remains in B2B. Where marketing  is considered – in fact is expected to be – one of the key decision makers and business  shapers. Where marketing is a co-pilot, not a  passenger. Where creativity isn’t something  to be mistrusted, but celebrated and embraced.  Loved even.  And, happily, signs are emerging that B2B may at last have been, um, ‘struck by cupid’s arrow’ as it were. According to recent figures from LinkedIn*** 82%  of B2B marketing leaders globally, note that “creative confidence” is growing, with 69% agreeing that B2B purchasing decisions are just as emotionally driven  as in B2C. 81% meanwhile, believe that B2B brands  are producing creative campaigns that rival  consumer brands.  Before we get too carried away, it is worth noting that these stats are drawn from B2B marketers themselves, who are scarcely likely to decry their own creativity.  The fact that they clearly now care about how they  are perceived creatively, however, is surely a sign  that their thinking is moving in the right direction.  It is to be hoped that their hearts follow.    Come on B2B, let’s do it.  Let’s fall in lov