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Three ways to make B2B marketing more emotional

Written by Uri Baruchin.

There’s a common misconception that emotion plays a lesser part in B2B marketing than in B2C. In fact, research points out not just the importance emotion plays, but that B2B is often more emotional than B2C. Back in 2013, Google published a whitepaper with CEB (now Gartner) called ‘From Promotion to Emotion’. Google would probably prefer marketing to be less emotional, which makes the strength of the paper’s conclusions especially remarkable. It showed that the emotional attachment to B2B brands was greater than to B2C and that emotions around the brand were influential across the entire sales funnel. The importance of emotion returns in the recent ‘The 5 Principles of Growth in B2B Marketing’ from Linkedin’s B2B institute and the IPA (which is to a degree ‘The Long and Short of It’ for B2B).

Research aside, it just makes sense. The stakes, when choosing a brand for an organisation, are high. And the leading proposals can be quite similar, so one needs to feel reassured the choice won’t come back to bite one’s behind. As there’s often parity on the functional level, we shouldn’t think about ‘nobody ever got fired for buying IBM’ as a rational thought, but an emotional one.

So if emotion is so important, why is there so little of it?

There’s a lot of emotion in sales relationships. It’s marketing communications where it’s oddly absent. There’s a huge gravitational pull towards the generic in B2B. The clue is in the name. For B2C you famously have to try all sort of research methods to get under the skin of the customer, using as much empathy as possible. In B2B that rarely happens because you often do know what your clients are like. Especially in cases where it’s engineers talking to engineers, lawyers to lawyers, and so on. You feel they are not that different from you.

On top of that, it’s often believed that you win new business by successfully “ticking the boxes” in a prospect’s RFP. This creates a feedback loop where competitors increasingly focus on sector hygienics, forgetting emotional relevance, difference and distinction. When the best wins come from existing relationships, that is where emotions are. Companies then demote marketing into a check-list-ticking-tool-box that supports the sales-team by providing supportive evidence for what behavioural scientists call‘system 2’at ease while it’s the relationships of those sales-people doing most of the work.

Before digital, a lot of B2B marketing was about collateral. Literature systems dealt with evidence and detail and only occasionally looked to provoke interest. Digital shifted the focus (not that we’re not still drowning in PDFs and PowerPoint) further down the funnel to micro-moments of lead generation and conversion with a focus on efficiency and little space for emotion or creativity.

And yet, can you have interest without emotion? Interest requires an emotional appeal to the brain. Curiosity is something one feels. Even with brands that 100% appeal to the rational, you are often aiming to make people feel smart.

Three potential sources for emotion.

So if successful marketing is linked to emotion, but the core dynamics of B2B threaten to drown that emotion out – where can marketers look to bring emotion from?

Here are three good starting points.

1. Your proposition:

Client value proposition design is currently quite popular. Especially the ‘value proposition canvas’. That framework tends to be client-focused, and often the thinking comes in the form of identifying pain points and alleviating them. Where there’s pain, there’s emotion, and proper relevance requires empathy. Not a bad starting point, as long as you are careful, as the canvas might generate long lists of “things” with little hierarchy or sense of a whole story. And emotion might get lost in detail. An example of using the proposition is a recent client who operates in a sector where most of the marketing is based on fear tactics. Almost every brand shows you the scary hoodie-wearing people coming to get you and, obviously, only that brand’s technology can stop them. We realised that it was a strange way to evoke emotion. Do we think CEOs want to be treated like little kids being taught to wash their hands before the germs get them? What we did instead was using a broader view of what we’re helping CEOs with, and how the outcome felt. The result was a campaign that was the complete opposite of scare tactics. Which felt grown-up, smart and savvy. It hinted that while we know what they want, this would be a different relationship. Especially in professional services, your marketing can embody the emotional experience the client will have once they choose you as their supplier and partner.

2. Your ethos:

In this case, this would be what people in the organisation feel emotional about. It can be what they’re passionate about or feel purposeful about, or an aspect of company culture. However, it would be best if you avoided generic traps. For example – purpose can be emotional, but if it’s too broad it can make for a lousy positioning – it might not be credible, and the audience might not care, and you might sound too much like everyone else. That would make it a three out of three positioning failure.

However, it can also be compelling. For example, a few years back, we worked with a second-tier multinational waste management company. They were in the business of winning complex, massive, politically charged, cut-throat, cost-driven local government and corporate tenders. Needless to say, their marketing was functional and bland. Working together, we discovered a unique detail in their history - they were born during a time of war in their country. They cut their teeth on cleaning their country’s biggest city after the war. Behind that fact was a remarkable story about relentless commitment to improving society and strength of character. A story that could foster intimacy and get prospects to think – ‘Wow! If they can do that they can do anything. They can help me drag my third world town into the 21st century.’ We leveraged that aspect of their ethos in some of the work, but the emotional insight was more important than any particular deliverable.

3. Commitment to craft:

Here, one neglected area of B2B marketing overlaps with another underappreciated aspect. Creating deliverables with a high level of distinction pays off. Keeping in mind that in many cases, most of your costs are in media and production. Or in the time and resources that go into developing thought leadership as well as the time teams and leadership spend in meetings – discussing and workshopping and approving... Hence, putting a bland idea into the market has a similar cost to putting out something brilliant.

When something feels like a lot of work and craft has gone into it, there’s a cognitive bias working in your favour – people instinctively assume it has greater value and importance. It’s easier to communicate that than to rationally get people to appreciate your expertise. Working with some of the world’s biggest consultancies, we noticed savvy clients don’t just demand highly strategic marketing but are obsessed with craft. Producing highly crafted marketing with a strong human side shines in that space. Even an internal initiative or a thought leadership piece can be an opportunity to ask - what’s the story here? What’s going to move people?

What those examples have in common, and maybe an appropriate closing thought – there’s often a creative side at the heart of strategy that presents opportunities for emotion. Keep that in mind as you go about your work. As your strategy ‘connects the dots’, don’t forget to connect to people.

Written by Uri Baruchin, for the Business Marketing Club.

Uri Baruchin (UBCS). Uri is a creative strategist who has worked in some of the world's top brand agencies. He leads a boutique consultancy and teaches the D&AD's Strategy Masterclass. His B2B work includes Bain & Company, Deloitte, Kantar and many others.

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