BtoB

10 years after: Assessing changes

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The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, had a quick, dramatic impact on nearly every aspect of U.S. life, and b-to-b marketing was no exception. The most immediate change for marketers was a rapid drop-off in travel. As business declined, travel budgets were slashed; on a more basic level, many people just didn't want to get on a plane. Many trade shows were canceled, while others saw steep declines in attendance. The bleakest scene I witnessed in more than a dozen years of covering the b-to-b space was the Direct Marketing Association's annual expo in Chicago the month following the attacks. McCormick Place seemed too cavernous for the shrunken event, and the somber mood inside the vast halls matched the dreary weather along the lakefront. The show concluded on Halloween, and there was something especially surreal about the airing of a cult horror movie in one of the event's final sessions. How different the mood has been at the shows I've attended this year, as the meetings and convention industry strengthens even as the economy struggles. It's no wonder that media companies see events as a crucial element in their portfolios going forward. Another change in the aftermath of 9/11 was in the tenor of advertising. Even before the attacks, it was clear the heady dot-com days were coming to an end, taking the sock puppet with them. Now, marketers were reluctant to take a light or irreverent tone, or to risk being too edgy. It would be more than three years before the pendulum completely swung back—and then some—when Go Daddy came to Super Bowl XXXIX. Somewhere in between the solemn and the over-the-top, marketers such as FedEx, IBM and UPS stepped up and showed once again that clever, humorous advertising can still carry the day in a changed world. I believe the other dominant theme of b-to-b advertising over the past decade—the emphasis on connecting people and the focus on the “human” in business—was in part a response to the unease and uncertainty brought about by the inhumanity of the 9/11 attacks. It's not just great visuals that have driven successful campaigns such as Cisco Systems' “The Human Network,” Dow Chemical's “The Human Element” or IBM's ambitious Smarter Planet initiative. It's the basic message embodied in those campaigns that's reassuring. In a time of global unrest and economic upheaval, when public discourse seems to grow more toxic by the hour, it's good to be reminded—by b-to-b marketers, no less—of the connections that truly matter. John Obrecht is editor of BtoB and Media Business. He can be reached at jobrecht@crain.com.
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