Why Business-to-Business Advertising Is Increasingly Also Aimed at Consumers

Both B-to-B and Consumer Advertisers Hope to Have Their Ads Rub Off on Their Mainstream Products

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Have you noticed more predominantly consumer advertisers touting their ability to solve complex business problems? And, at the same time, business-to-business advertisers playing up their work for consumer products?

Both, I surmise, believe that their ads can rub off (in a very positive way) on their mainstream products, whether they be turbines or mobile phones.

Consumer marketers are seeking credibility in a commoditized world. AT&T might be best known for consumer phone service, but it also likes to demonstrate how it can use its technology to track business equipment. One of its commercials shows a bunch of semi-trailer with prefabricated homes and supplies moving in a caravan down a country highway.

A GE ad tells consumers its turbines keep their Buds cold.
A GE ad tells consumers its turbines keep their Buds cold.

The voice-over announcer explains that the chain of trucks is part of Genco Services in McAllen, Texas. "In here, heavy-rental equipment in the middle of nowhere is always headed somewhere." A computer screen shows a truck's ID number, time of arrival and location. A guy in the field pulls out his cellphone and pushes a button -- and up comes a map with trucks arriving at the home office at that same time and location. "AT&T created a mobile-asset solution to protect and track everything. So every piece of equipment knows where it is and how it's doing and where it goes next," the announcer says.

Another campaign, for GE, shows how the company's industrial prowess brings other companies' consumer products to life. A TV spot features a guy who helps make turbines at its Schenectady, N.Y., plant and borrows consumer-ad techniques such as storytelling to show the worker up close and personal. "When I was a kid, I wanted to work with my hands," the worker tells us. "That was my thing. I really enjoy building turbines. It's nice to know that what you're building is going to do something for the world."

Then he switches to a product we can relate to. "When people think about GE, they don't think about beer. A lot of people may not realize that the power needed to keep their Budweiser cold and even to make their beer comes from turbines made right here."

Cut to a local bar. "So you guys make the beer?" a patron asks him. "No, we make the power that makes the beer," our GE worker says.

Today's B2B marketers need to approach their business target as a person with a story to tell, not just a buyer of their products. That realization has had a profound effect on the creative approach -- B2B marketers don't sell nuts and bolts anymore, they are more likely to emphasize emotional reasons for buying their products.

Bob Felsenthal, publisher of Crain's BtoB magazine, doesn't believe that B2B marketing has morphed into consumer marketing. What has changed, he says, is that the business prospect is now engaged on all types of content channels, so there's a need for business communications to be relevant "anywhere, anytime." Social media makes any interaction a two-way conversation, and word-of -mouth is now much faster and potentially larger.

"But at the end of the day, B2B is still a very different messaging, sales cycle, language and feel than business-to-consumer marketing. Even if it has emotional pull and humor, it needs to be business-relevant as well. And often it needs real vertical industry understanding, context and messaging," Bob told me.

When my father, G.D. Crain Jr., started Class, the forerunner of BtoB magazine, in 1916, he boasted in a "why we are here" editorial: "We don't know a blooming thing about general mediums."

Back then you didn't need to know, because industrial advertising was distinct from consumer advertising. But today the same products often serve both B2B users and consumers, so advertising often plays dual roles as well.

Al Ries, a former president of the old Association of Industrial Advertisers, said since high-use products like personal computers, smartphones, printers and scanners are purchased by both business and consumer users, most companies prefer one campaign appealing to both.

Even with products sold primarily in the B2B marketplace, ad messages are being consumed in many places away from the offices, and B2B customers are seizing control of the conversation. "Companies are getting amazing results by letting their customers do their marketing for them," said Rob Fuggetta, CEO of Zuberance, an agency that helps marketers harness brand advocates on social media.

What's more, B2B marketers are generating leads themselves on their own websites. Customer testimonials and webinars can be posted on YouTube. Spreadsheet templates, RFPs and catalogs can live on scribd.com. Frequently asked questions can be debriefed about a conference in an audio interview that becomes a podcast, consultant Paul Gillin told BtoB magazine.

Whether or not you agree that B2B and business-to-consumer marketing are coming closer together, B2B has come a long way since The National Industrial Advertising Association's founding in 1922. The NIAA, now the Business Marketing Association, recently celebrated its 90th anniversary.

My dad and Keith Evans, advertising and sales promotion manager of steel distributor Joseph T. Ryerson & Co., were prime movers behind the NIAA formation. My dad said, "There never was a clearer example of a need than the case of the National Industrial Advertising Association. All through the country industrial advertisers were groping for information, so they rallied to the colors, and it was not long before we had the largest advertising association in point of numbers in the world."

Their numbers are still growing. BMA has 2,450 members, up 12% over last year. The association is expanding with conferences in Beijing and London, and Eduardo Conrado, senior VP-CMO at Motorola Solutions and chairman of BMA, sees marketers taking a broader role. "For decades, marketers functioned in task-oriented roles -- product launches, lead generation and media hits," he wrote in BMA's 90th-anniversary program. "But today we need a more strategic perspective that reflects the impact marketing has on the organization as a whole." He sees the marketing function as "the seamless conduit that connects everyone" in the company.

My dad and Keith Evans (whom my brother was named after) were best friends and did a lot more than cook up trade associations. Dad and Keith and their families (including my brother and me) would go fishing in Canada every summer, and I vividly recall Keith Evans cooking his famous fish chowder for our shore lunches. More than 50 years later, my wife, Merrilee, and I, along with Al Ries and his wife, Mary Lou, still enjoy those shore lunches and great bass fishing at the exact same spot.

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