Why Can't B-to-B Advertising Be More Like B-to-C? It Already Is

Speakers Contend What Works in Consumer Marketing Works in B-to-B -- Storytelling, Disruption, Segmentation, Engagement

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G.D. Crain Jr. Award recepient and former BMA Chairman Gary Slack
G.D. Crain Jr. Award recepient and former BMA Chairman Gary Slack

I watched "My Fair Lady" the other evening, and I was especially struck by Rex Harrison's lament: "Why can't a woman be more like a man?"

Well, we all know that's not going to happen (and I think he concluded by the end of the movie that he had "grown accustomed to her face" and liked Eliza Doolittle the way she was).

But the question again became relevant, in a slightly different context, when I attended the Business Marketing Association's conference in Chicago. Why can't b-to-b advertising be more like consumer advertising?

The answer, in this case, is that it can and is.

I'm happy to report that the two are coming closer together -- that premise was the rationale for merging our oldest publication, BtoB magazine, into Ad Age earlier this year. Ad Age over the years hasn't devoted much space to b-to-b marketing. But now we have two reporters devoted exclusively to b-to-b stories.

Matt Quinn, our executive editor, took to the stage to talk about how we've integrated BtoB coverage into print, online and our events. Our reporters covered the BMA confab "and are eager to tell your stories," Matt said.

Already, we've named our first BtoB agency of the year, Ogilvy & Mather, and produced our first BtoB Fact Pack. And in the coming months we'll release our ranking of the biggest b-to-b marketers by ad spend. We're also continuing BtoB's Top Digital Marketers franchise.

"As you can see," Matt said, "we have big plans for our b-to-b coverage, and we look forward to becoming an even stronger part of your community."

As Beth Comstock, CMO at General Electric, said in her keynote address, "Good marketing is the same at the end of the day -- we're all about people." And she added: "BtoB does not mean boring to boring."

What works in consumer marketing works in b-to-b -- storytelling, disruption, segmentation, engagement -- speakers contended. Wendy Gibson, VP-Americas marketing for Mitel, said: "Exactly the same challenges and strategy" apply to both.

Another trend is that b-to-b marketers seem to be spending more time with the end user "who's actually using the stuff," as one speaker said.

Social media is a major force drawing consumer and b-to-b closer together, I heard over and over again. "The b-to-b buyer is starting to behave a lot like the consumer," noted Karen Walker, senior VP of marketing at Cisco Systems. "They start online, no geographic boundaries, they're easily targeted and mapped."
She said 60% of b-to-b buyers go to social communities to find out what they need to know about business products, according to a Google study.

And Ms. Walker pointed out that the buyer is in control of the journey -- 43% of those business buyers have already made the decision about what they're going to buy and who they're going to buy it from before they contact any vendor. "It's no longer about b-to-b buyers or b-to-c buyers. It is about human to human. And humans are creatures of emotion."

Business buyers, she said, are actually more emotionally connected to the brands they purchase than consumer buyers because they have more to lose. "It's not like buying a pair of shoes you know you can return. This decision is bigger. There is more risk. You could lose time, effort, credibility, even your job. The consequences are greater and risk and fear play a much bigger part."

Ms. Walker's advice: "Create and communicate 'personal value' for the buyer. You're marketing to a person, not a title or a building," She advises marketers to take advantage of social media. In a game plan that could be ripped out of the consumer marketer's playbook, she asks: "What are people saying about you, what types of words are they using to describe you and their experience? And then once we understand that, we then take that back in terms of 'What are they saying?' and 'How do we reach them?' How do we communicate with them in their language that's simple and human?"

It was my pleasure to present our annual G.D. Crain Jr. Award to the organizer of the conference and former BMA Chairman Gary Slack. It was especially my pleasure because this year's honoree, as I said in my remarks introducing him, was "a reluctant recipient but we're going to force it on him anyway because nobody deserves it more."

Gary, who runs his own b-to-b agency in Chicago, explained why he had put so much "heart and soul" into upgrading the understanding of, and respect for, the b-to-b niche in marketing. He mentioned three "tent poles" that help delineate and define a profession: strong professional society (BMA); a strong, independent trade press (Ad Age, BtoB); and a must-attend annual global event (this year's BMA14).

I especially liked his nice words on "the excellent job" we've done in integrating BtoB into "the mother ship."

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