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Brand building is brilliant news for sales

Why is B2B creative such a low priority and why is most of it so mind-meltingly dull?

Brand-building is a necessarily long-term activity. Photograph: Getty

Brand-building is a necessarily long-term activity. Photograph: Getty

 

Sales don’t just happen. In business-to-business (B2B) you’ve got to put in the hard yards. The cold calls, the connections, the cultivating, the drinks and the dinners. It’s just one long, hard slog to make the close. 

What if it didn’t have to be that way – what if there was some magic ingredient that had customers beating a path to your door? Of course, there’s no magic necessary. You can have customers seeking you out any day of the week – as long as you build your brand. 

At first glance, there’s an element of teaching your grandmother to suck eggs. In Squaredot’s Irish B2B Marketing Survey 2021, respondents among Ireland’s top B2B marketers were almost universally in agreement that investing in brand should be – and is – one of their top priorities in 2021. 

They’re talking a good talk but the walk is decidedly wobbly.


This week Ian Blake, MD and founder of Squaredot Marketing, joins us to discuss B2B and the importance of creativity when building a B2B brand. Listen now:


Fuel that engine well

What is the point of investing in your brand? A brand is bigger than marketing and more than a product. It’s your promise to the customer, but more than that it’s the engine behind a company’s success. Fuel that engine well, and you don’t need to put nearly as much hard work into pulling all the other levers that drive your business forward. Steve Forbes (of Forbes, unsurprisingly) has said, “Your brand is the single most important investment you can make in your business”.

Ireland’s B2B marketers understand this and for many, the playing field is wide open to get a head start. Interviewed in the survey report, Travelport’s senior brand director David MacHale says, “It couldn’t be easier for B2B marketers to find their own space because most of their competitors don’t have clear positioning either. There is so much opportunity to differentiate and create a distinctive brand”.

Yet 44 per cent of Irish B2B marketers believe they’re only “somewhat different” from their competition.

More than a third (36 per cent) admitted to investing a paltry 0-20 per cent of their resources into brand building and 32 per cent more spent under 40 per cent. That’s getting on for seven out of every 10 B2B marketers admitting to spending less than half of their budget on what Forbes would suggest is their single biggest asset.

Delivering creative campaigns is one of the most effective ways to build your brand, according to brand mavens Binet & Field. The Ehringer Bass Institute, the world’s largest marketing research centre, gets down and dirty with the numbers, claiming that great creative is 10-20 times better at driving sales than mediocre creative. 

So why is B2B creative such a low priority – it’s last on the list of priorities according to the survey – and why is most of it so mind-meltingly dull? It was always puzzling why HR executives used to insist that people bring “their whole self to work”, as if they were going to accidentally leave a leg behind. But it’s clear now. Most B2B marketing assumes people have parked their personality with their cars when they get into the office. This is a colossal mistake.

“While working at McCann Eriksson, it was instilled into us that you have to address both the rational and the emotional sides of the argument,” says Trish Butler, chief marketing officer, Compliance & Risks. “If you want to change people’s behaviour, attitudes or simply get them to notice you, you have to tell good stories filled with emotion and how you’ve impacted people and their business. Unfortunately, many in the B2B world just don’t understand that.” 

B2B marketers are smart cookies. They’re not wilfully ignoring the benefits of creativity or underinvesting time and money in their brand out of sheer pig-headedness. Quite understandably – and even more so in the current climate – they’re simply stuck in an everincreasingly constricted sales cycle. 

The sales beast must be fed, so brand building, a necessarily long-term activity, is sacrificed to keep those short-term leads satisfied. 

Reduce the pressure

Frustratingly, many of them are probably also aware that a long-term investment in brand could reduce the pressure on them a great deal, if only they could get off the sales treadmill long enough to get some momentum going. 

The pandemic certainly hasn’t helped. While 46 per cent of survey respondents stated they expected a budget increase in 2021, a similar number (41 per cent) reported that their budgets shrank during the early part of the pandemic. Most feel under-resourced while having to spin multiple plates. 

Truly breaking the sales-leads cycle means changing the company culture which has ramifications across the whole business

There is all manner of technology and agency support that can help take the load off the B2B marketer in the day-to-day, but it still doesn’t address the fundamental problem: B2B companies are rational and sales driven, tethered to quarterly reporting and, currently at least, culturally incompatible with branding. 

Forget the old chestnut of comparing bringing a legacy business into the 21st century to turning round a super tanker (thanks to Evergiven for providing one more layer to that metaphor when it comes to complete digital transformation disasters). This is worse – it’s about changing people’s minds. 

Truly breaking the sales-leads cycle means changing the company culture which has ramifications across the whole business. It alters how executives view the importance of quarterly reporting – vital for shareholders and the market but the bluntest of instruments when it comes to measuring brand performance. 

It changes how individuals measure their own worth. A focus on brand may mean a hiatus in sales volume as the company adjusts to the new rhythm. When your value is measured in cold, hard cash, where do you go from here? Worse still, what if some, or even all of the gamble doesn’t pay off? Creative, emotional brand-building campaigns are a great way to stand out but it also means sticking your neck out. It’s safe to say that marketers in any sector, not just B2B, are more interested in keeping their jobs than releasing ground-breaking ad campaigns. It’s hardly surprising they’d want to play it safe. 

Sweeten the disruption pill 

Change is scary and the impetus for it must come from the top. And just because brand building means a move away from the facts and figures of the sales cycle, it doesn’t mean measurement isn’t important. 

B2B marketers are in a better place than ever before to turn the tide and bring brand back to business

“If you want to deliberately invest time and get people to position a product and justify that in terms of business outcomes, you do need to prove the ROI of a positioning strategy,” says Ray Coppinger, lead demand generation manager at Slack EMEA.

Measurement helps sweeten the disruption pill for leadership. It brings a degree of proof to the assertions that if they aim to build brand over time, lead generation will get easier. The market will be more receptive than ever to what you have to say, and may even come to you. 

Talent, already in short supply, will beat a path to your door, strengthening your proposition further and ultimately, you can charge more money for what you do. What’s not to like? Armed with metrics, creative and a plan, B2B marketers are in a better place than ever before to turn the tide and bring brand back to business. 

Ian Blake is founder and managing director at Squaredot B2B Marketing
Ian Blake is founder and managing director at Squaredot B2B Marketing

Inside Marketing is a series brought to you by Dentsu and Irish Times Media Solutions, exploring the issues and opportunities facing the world of media and marketing. For more information, visit irishtimes.com/insidemarketing