It's Time to Bring B2B Marketers Into the Social-Media World

Midsize Firms Resist Branding That Will Set Them Apart, Ready for Long-Term Success

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What is the difference between a person who buys a tool at Home Depot and one who buys a service for his company?

Many marketers approach these two customers in very disparate ways. Our industry labels these two as B2C (consumer) and B2B (business) segments. The consumer is surrounded with multimedia approaches, while the business decision maker is treated like a preprogrammed piece of technology -- unable to react emotionally and wired to make rational, predictable decisions. Maybe I exaggerate a bit, but the essence is true. And I don't get it.

Let's look at why B2B advertising is often so uninspired -- especially with midsize companies -- and what the possibilities are.

To begin, some large companies are doing a wonderful job of branding themselves in modern, innovative ways. GE, IBM and American Express stand out. They embrace the web to extend and define their brands while connecting with their diverse audiences, taking the customer conversation beyond the product.

American Express has an OPEN Forum community, moving the brand outside of selling credit cards and stimulating helpful dialogue for business decision makers. GE's Ecomagination effort is designed to position the company as innovative, with profitable ideas/products/services for a safer global environment. The campaign, on multi-media platforms, featured one of the first augmented-reality digital ads -- bold for a consumer company, let alone one with a heavy B2B focus. IBM's Smarter Planet offers thought leadership in traditional and not-so-traditional approaches and treats business communications in a consumer-friendly way. And all three companies are smart users of social media. The campaigns are working, too. Ecomagination has already exceeded its goal of reducing greenhouse gas intensity by 30%; Smarter Planet has nearly 230,000 "likes" on Facebook and 17,000 "follows" on Twitter.

But this is a column for smaller agencies that likely represent smaller (defined as $50 million to $750 million in sales) B2B companies. Many such companies that we talk to, especially technology ones, don't want that "branding fluff" -- they want immediate ROI and insist on tactics that will support that . I won't name names, but many are companies that you likely wouldn't recognize, because they don't believe in branding.

When we probe deeper, these companies reveal what we suspected: Many don't believe that the strategies and tactics used to grow consumer brands (such as research that leads to customer insight, emotional appeals and awareness campaigns) are effective with business decision makers. Some of the reasons why include: a limited budget dictates direct-selling tactics; marketing directors in these kinds of companies are less sophisticated, often coming out of sales without a fundamental understanding of marketing; an over-reliance on relationship-selling methods, such as direct sales calls and trade shows; investors who demand short-term results and don't want to build long-term brand equity because they intend to sell the company in three to five years; and an institutional impatience at the top for results.

It would be easy for smaller to midsize B2B companies to ignore the success of the GEs and IBMs, since the pockets are deeper. But the fundamentals are the same -- and the new channels to communicate are far more cost-effective today than ever before. To those B2B marketers who say social media isn't relevant to them, how do you explain the thousands of "likes" for IBM's Smarter Planet? It's a matter of incorporating a variety of media into a marketing mix, understanding that people who buy toothpaste also buy industrial engines or technology solutions.

Kinaxis is an example of a smaller company that has found new ways to innovate in B2B. It's a supply chain management outfit based in Canada that turned to comedy to help stand apart from larger competitors. Kinaxis has launched several online comedy series, but the one that received the most attention was Suitemates, which won the top B2B creative award in 2010 from BtoB Magazine. Here's a link to Suitemates.

With so few B2B companies properly marketing themselves, there is opportunity for companies that choose to seize this gap and differentiate themselves to be in position for long-term success. Behave like a small GE, IBM or American Express and maybe one day you'll perform like one.

Marc Brownstein is president of The Brownstein Group, Philadelphia.
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