This year's 'Best' theme: Softer, gentler b-to-b brands

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When manufacturers of mind-numbingly complex products—chemicals, microprocessors, servers and networking gear—dash, seemingly in unison, to reformat their marketing around such themes as humanism, environmentalism and social networking, you know something important is up.

Take Dow Chemical Co., winner of the TV category (page 32) in this year's BtoB's Best 2006: Top Marketers, Brands, Creative. Dow's elegant 90- second "Human Element" spot boldly recasts the company's brand by pointing out that life is more than a collection of chemical components. The "human element," it suggests, may not be on the periodic chart but is, nevertheless, essential to—and the beneficiary of—Dow's scientific prowess.

Likewise, Microsoft's $500 million "People-Ready Business" campaign, launched globally in March, makes an explicit connection between its software products and the human beings who will use them. " `People-Ready Business' is incredibly important for Microsoft in the way we market, sell and relate to both business and IT decision-makers," said Mich Mathews, senior VP-central marketing group at Microsoft Corp., and our Top Marketer for 2006 (page 4).

Cisco Systems, one of the 10 brands we profile in this issue, has just started down this path. As our profile (page 21) puts it: "The company has set out to reposition itself as a brand with a softer, more human focus." Along with print ads featuring a newborn baby, this new orientation is underscored by a subtle but important choice: Cisco's $100 million integrated campaign, launched last month, unveiled a new logo that foregoes the word "Systems."

Closely related to the humanistic theme is an environmental one, which we noticed over and over in many of the advertising creative submissions for this year's Best issue.

Among those companies embracing environmentalism is steelmaker Nucor Corp., our runner-up in the Print category (page 38). Nucor's "Factory" ad effectively casts the company's environmental and business agenda with the headline: "Not only do we recycle steel. We recycle steel companies."

The green space leader continues to be GE, which rolled out the breakthrough "Ecomagination" campaign last year, touting the company's environmentally friendly products. As our brand profile (page 24) points out, General Electric Co. last year sold $10.10 billion in environmentally friendly products and plans to double that by 2010. The company also is expanding its "Ecomagination" messaging to the rest of the world. More recently, AMD and Sun Microsystems' have gone green, too.

But for the Best issue, we've cited Sun in a different context: For its embrace of the recent, phenomenal interest in user- generated content. Working with, Sun provided an Internet banner that allowed readers to vote or comment on the magazine's cover story. The banner used Sun's signature "share" symbol, which resembles a loose "S." Sun's campaign is our runner-up in the Interactive category (page 36).

Engaging the Internet visitor is also IBM's strategy. IBM is the winner of our interactive category for its playful and appealing "Take Back Control" campaign. Our profile (page 34) describes a few of these highly interactive online ads, which feature Ned and Gil, telling the story of their daily IT struggles in bloglike entries. Significantly, the ads do more than play around. "After interacting with the ads, viewers can access extensive information about IBM's products at the campaign Web sites," our profile concludes.

The one remaining question for these brands and creative efforts is this: Does this welcomed, human-centered emphasis reflect a shift in the way business perceives its broader role and responsibility in our lives and in the world? If so, is this sustainable? I hope so. But only time will tell.

Enjoy BtoB's Best 2006. (You can also view this content at our Web site,, or download a PDF of the issue.)

Ellis Booker is editor of BtoB and BtoB's Media Business and can be reached at [email protected]

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