Big business? Speak small.

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Bankers, manufacturers, agribusiness, insurance companies—all have enjoyed better times and certainly have commanded more respect. But at a time when business is held suspect amid a deep economic downtown, big business needs to act like small business by speaking with a sense of humility and empathy to its audiences. ¶ These are not the times to sound or look big and powerful. It only encourages the backlash. The best b-to-b ads focus their messages on what a company can do for its customers rather than attempting to burnish its own image. Can the mighty sound genuinely humble? We found a handful of examples that did just that. Let's start with a bank. In this case, it's Harris Bank, which evokes America's pastime in a headline that reads: “Baseball got it right with the on-deck circle.” Speaking to an audience of business owners, Harris follows through on its baseball theme with this opening line of text: “Who's going to drive your business when you decide to get out of the game?” Although Harris is a bank, the language of the ad sounds like one friend telling another friend about a good thing. The use of such personal pronouns as “our” and “we” underpins that tone. Here's what we mean: “Our Business Banking team and Private Wealth Advisors have a long history of helping multigenerational companies plan and execute the most effective transition strategies. We believe it's never too late to get started.” To help ensure that the conversation continues, Harris offers a free copy of a succession planning guide that can be had by visiting the bank's Web site. The ad, set against a red backdrop, commands attention. Insurance companies are popular whipping boys these days. So instead of an ad featuring imposing glass towers or stern-looking executives, Unum Group smartly builds its ad around a little gray squirrel, an animal noted for its ability to save, not squander its assets like there's no tomorrow. Here's how the copy gets under way: “In trying times such as these, benefits may be your employees' only safety net. That's why it's important your plans include the added security of Unum. For 160 years, our benefits have been helping to protect employees should the unexpected happen. It's one more way to show just how much you care.” Cargill, the giant food processor, trots out the down-home image of an Illinois corn grower and a Japanese egg producer leaning against a vintage pickup truck with a classic red barn in the background. Their smiles are as warm as a summer afternoon. The perfectly choreographed scene is accompanied by the headline: “We helped create a business relationship that went well beyond the exchange of business cards.” The well-told story unfolds in the copy: “They live across the ocean from each other, but we help them conduct business like they live across the road. In Japan, a producer of premium eggs for food cooperatives needed corn for chicken feed grown to very precise standards. Cargill's Signature Growers program brought the egg producer together with a farmer in Illinois—who grows the corn to the customer's exact specifications.” An ad like this makes Cargill sound like the kind of company with which anyone would like to do business. Strong storytelling and savvy art direction will do that. Fortunately for Cargill, it had a great story to tell. Finally, here's an ad that manages to deftly humanize even one of the world's largest conglomerates—General Electric Co. Readers are invited into the heartfelt scene of a little boy playfully burying his father in the sand at the beach as his mother looks on, savoring the moment. It's an intimate tableau that speaks to the wonder and beauty of a human bond. GE doesn't need to say much beyond the photo. “Advanced medical technology that helps people lead richer, fuller lives. Now.” M
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