Marketing mastery: taking it one step at a time

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I was sitting at the CEBA lunch the other week, watching the display of finalists, when someone leaned over to me and whispered in confusion, "Doesn't that look like a consumer ad?"

The answer was yes, it did look like a consumer ad. Actually, many of the finalists in the American Business Press' third annual Creative Excellence in Business Advertising competition looked like consumer efforts.

That is, until you looked at the products being advertised, which were very much business-to-business. It's just that the words "consumer" and "quality" have been linked for so long that they've become almost synonymous when people describe what's good in marketing creativity.

No more. Business-to-business marketing and advertising are finally starting to blossom. The thing is, now that b-to-b creativity is manifesting itself in ad efforts, it's also showing up in more substantive ways as well.

In the past few months, b-to-b has been making a bigger impact -- and apparently having fun at the same time.

Take, for example, the CEBA winners. The work -- which covered industrial as well as high-tech -- was generally sophisticated and compelling, going for style without leaving the substance behind. The artwork was vivid, the layouts clean, the headlines inviting. But mainly, these ads were targeted at people, not businesses. And it showed in the appeal they had for the awards audience. (The Grand CEBA winner: Carmichael Lynch for an American Standard print ad headlined, "It's considerably more Bauhaus than outhouse," and featuring a toilet--but, oh, what a stylish toilet it was!)

Someone else who has buckled down to accomplish a pretty creative goal is Steve Schuster. As you can see on Page 3 of the issue, Mr. Schuster is president of Rainier Corp., a 5-year-old Princeton, Mass.-based advertising and public relations agency that was ISO 9000 certified earlier this year. For those of you who don't know, ISO 9000 standards are a quality standard used by engineers.

Mr. Schuster figured that because many of his clients had to be ISO 9000 certified, it might do his agency some good to go through the process itself. It wasn't easy and it wasn't cheap, but it was creative.

In yet another area of b-to-b creativity, on our front page we look at some direct marketers who are taking some extra steps to put some financial accountability into their direct marketing measurements. They're trying to change the way direct marketing works, and they're making some inroads.

These are just three tales of b-to-b creativity in action. They're notable not only for what they are, in and of themselves, but also because they're just a few examples of many popping up these days.

It seems that after decades of dormancy, business-to-business is taking off.

In thinking about it, all this slow-growing success at first put me in mind of old Aesop's tortoise and hare, where the cumbersome turtle lumbered his way to glory while the fleet, consumer-like bunny kept going and going and going (but never in a consistent direction).

But the more I considered the matter, I realized that b-to-b marketers have really been following along the age-old path to mastery, learning each lesson one step at a time. How else can one explain b-to-b's superiority when it comes to the harder lessons, the integrated marketing campaigns, the reliance on numbers and return on investment over razzle and dazzle? These are not "fun" things, nor are they quick fixes.

These areas take time to learn, and even longer to master. And it's not until they have been truly mastered that they can be taken for granted and built upon.

In our front-page Q&A on budgeting, Henry Heisler, director of marketing communications for business-to-business for American Power Conversion, West Kingston, R.I., told us, "For APC and high-tech businesses, selling to the individual, the consumer, allows you to move more product through manufacturing, but the margin is in b-to-b. The steady growth in good times and bad is in b-to-b. High-tech companies that fail to crack b-to-b are almost doomed to failure."

While business-to-business marketers still have a ways to go, it seems they're entering a new stage that may require more risks and more adrenaline. At a time when their consumer brethren are starting to tackle the harder lessons of integrated marketing, b-to-b marketers are learning to lighten up a bit and put some fun into their work.

They've built the infrastructure; now it's time to go out on a limb and take some chances.

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