An open invitation to a wake...-up call.
Incense laces the air as it slips off a gold thurible. A raspy cough flogs the breathy silence. An open casket awaits.
B2B is dead.
"It can’t be so!!” you might gasp. With the B2B ad spend set to pass $30bn next year in the US alone, a calendar full of awards shows and summits and a constant flux of new agencies entering the market, how could B2B possibly be dead?
I understand. It's hard to wrap our heads around it. And yet, I hereby confirm that, yes, B2B is dead. Super dead. In fact, I'd even go as far as to say that it has been for a while. Since its very own birth.
Think about the last time you saw a B2B campaign that had heart. Not a faint pulse, but a thumping, pumping, pounding heart. A stirring grip that clutched you so tight to squeeze a laugh out of you, maybe even a tear. A pure emotion.
Think about the last time you saw a B2B campaign that had soul. That fascinating incognita that some say weighs 21 grams and sets us apart from every other animal species. Because it makes us human.
Think about the last time you saw a B2B campaign that had guts. The bravery to inspire, disrupt, dispute and polarise with a distinct point of view – a message that’s bold and meaningful. A provocative truth.
If no more than a handful of exceptions come to mind, then you'll agree with me that B2B has no heart, soul or guts. And therefore, it must be pronounced dead.
"What killed it, then?!” you might ask now. Well, that's where the plot thickens.
Rumour has it that B2B has long been afflicted by a horrible disease; a bizarre condition that convinced C-suites around the world that rational, product-centric messaging is the best strategy to promote and sell their products. Mimi Turner from the B2B Institute diagnosed it as ', the logical yet lethal fallacy that B2B buyers’ purchase decisions are largely based on product features.
She poignantly presented the effects of such disorder with the example of the B2B Coke. If the marketing team at Coca-Cola was afflicted by product delusion, Coke would market itself as ‘brown’, ‘fizzy’, ‘sweet’, and ‘98% effective at reducing thirst’.
Fun fact: Coke used to advertise like this... but in the early decades of the 20th century! We all agree that Coke is now one of the most iconic brands in the world. It evolved so much from that rather un-refreshing product messaging that some Coke ads today feature nothing more than a red background, a white glass bottle silhouette and the message ‘Open Happiness’. 0% product, 100% brand. And yet, we still get that tingling sensation at the back of our tongue…
After all, how many different ways to say ‘sweet and fizzy’ could a writer possibly find? Surely not enough to fill in the marketing calendar of a century. But, more importantly, even if a writer was skilled enough to craft a million variations of ‘sweet and fizzy’, who on earth would ever care to read them?
That's where the power of brand lies. By tapping into the vocabulary of emotional marketing, brands learn to speak a new language. They make the product a living and breathing entity that communicates to their audience with a voice, a personality and values of their own. That’s why we connect with them. That's why we remember them when we need to buy something, whatever that something may be: a soda, a soap or a piece of software.
Because we talked to them, we bonded. Because we got to know them on an emotional level.
Now, does that mean that to resuscitate B2B, all we have to do is inject emotion into it? Most agencies seem to think so. But let me ask you another question: if you plunge a syringe of emotion into a dead body, would that corpse suddenly ‘stand up and walk’? Like Lazarus?
No, lads. You’re not Jesus.
B2B is dead and stays dead, no matter how potent the emotional elixir you inject into it.
"That's it then. B2B is fuc***”, you might observe now.
Well, yeah. But there is hope.
The truth is that product delusion didn't act alone. It wasn't the only killer. (Plot twist!)
Its accomplice was another condition, one that prevents B2B from connecting with the present and desensitises it to the changes happening around it. I call it ‘Nownesthesia’: the illness that anaesthetised B2B to the now and keeps it buried in the past.
In my diagnosis, the illness has three symptoms:
1) Audience Blindness
2) Market Deafness
3) World Numbness
Audience Blindness is a condition that hinders B2B from seeing that the business decision-makers have changed. They got younger; they’re millennials. The content they consume is worlds apart from what their predecessors consumed, and is constantly evolving.
Also, with the advent of smartphones and flexible working, our work and home personas are more intertwined than ever. At work, just like at home, we want to be entertained, engaged, surprised, inspired. Who enjoys receiving one more email that’s just as flooded with cold and rational information as all other work emails? Nobody. Instead, who relishes a quick escapist moment that brings a bit of joyful wonder into our job’s daily grind? Pretty much everyone. Brand marketing could deliver just that, but B2B is failing to see it.
Market Deafness is the inability to hear that, in today's world, plenty more voices are in the market screaming for attention, some of which are saying the same things as you. No company can rely solely on their product features because no product is unique anymore. The power of brand can generate that differentiating value that will set you apart from the competition, but B2B cannot recognise it.
Finally, World Numbness is the lack of touch with the state of reality. We live in the era of speed: people want to do more but have less time to do it, and that applies to B2B buyers just as much as B2C buyers. Whilst different, the time poverty experienced by business decision-makers is no less acute. To prove it, the Ehrenberg-Bass study found that very little evaluation occurs even in high-involvement purchases. For example, when B2B buyers need a new financial service, 47% go straight to their existing bank, and 75% of those who claim to shop around also end up with their current bank. Most buyers don't even consider more than two brands.
Customers tend to choose the first acceptable solution that comes to mind quickly (mental availability) and is easy to purchase (physical availability) over the best possible solution. And that's what brands exist for: to create that mental availability. But, once again, B2B seems to ignore it.
What the ‘Nownesthesia’ autopsy reveals is that the reason why B2B would remain cold in its coffin despite the emotional shot in the arm is that it doesn’t have any blood to carry it to its organs. It lacks a vital stream of brands.
The future of B2B is to live in the present. And to exhume it from the past and reunite it with the now, we must inject it with the power of brand.
Only then can B2B see the new audience, hear the new market, feel the new world. Only then can we resuscitate it with a new set of heart, soul and guts.
Only then can we re-viscerate the eviscerated.
So, please now stand and take a moment to mourn the dead.
But remember, there is a new beginning to be celebrated.
It's about time we usher it in.