Business-to-business (B2B) marketing has long been driven by rational propositions, delivered by hyper-targeting that can give the illusion of great efficiency – even if the reality is, at times, lacking. Over the last ten years, marketing technology has grown at pace. Marketing automation alone has doubled in size since 2017 and much of this growth has been driven by the B2B market. Look at any survey into B2B marketers’ priorities and you will see more investment in data and technology.

In recent years, however, this focus on ever more segmented messages, often supported by ever more sophisticated technology, has obscured a bigger picture. This is partly because B2B has a feature that makes it different from business to consumer (B2C): the coveted ‘lead’. In B2B, you generally start to talk to somebody along time before you sell something. Doing that at scale requires technology to locate leads, to identify intent and to spot signals.

While this use of technology has driven considerable success for B2B marketers, we’re starting to reach the limits. Even as our technology gets better and better, audiences refuse to stay in one place. And, with buying groups expanding and the boundaries between work and home life shifting almost beyond recognition, no matter how hard you try, the data is often out of date.

What’s more, while attention is focussed on the technology, very little is focussed on the other side of the equation – the creative. Our recent Inspire Research found that creative, inspiring brands are not just more effective, they are more efficient, too. We saw that, in B2B specifically, a strong ‘inspire’ score predicts demand, price premium, and conversion.

Our recent Inspire Research found that creative, inspiring brands are not just more effective, they are more efficient, too. We saw that, in B2B specifically, a strong ‘inspire’ score predicts demand, price premium, and conversion.

Put simply, inspiring B2B brands close more deals. In fact, the correlation between inspire score and conversion was found to be stronger in B2B than in B2C.

It seems, then, that B2B marketers need to step away from their obsession with hyper-targeting and take a leaf out of the B2C playbook. In B2C, growth is driven by speaking to the whole of the market, all of the time. Take Rolls Royce jet engines. They don’t need to speak to everyone in the country, you might think – but they should probably be speaking to everyone in the country who may, at some point, be in the market for a jet engine.

Let’s take another example. Sage sells financial, payroll and HR software, with a strong focus on small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). The nature of the market means that broadcast advertising is a necessary part of the mix. This may feel inefficient, because only a small proportion of the audience will be SME owners, with an even smaller proportion at the stage where they need to buy software. One way to deal with this is to hyper-optimise the funnel, investing ever-increasing resources into pinpointing those at the point of need and reaching them. However, another way is to understand that the audience contains an awful lot of people who will need Sage products in future. If the advertising appeals to all those at the point of need, and all those who may be at the point of need in future, suddenly an inefficient method of reaching the audience becomes a very efficient method for building future demand. The key is to focus on the emotional benefit of Sage as much as the practical products.

The B2B institute calls this ‘category reach’. An inspiring brand is already doing this – by nature of its positioning, its thought leadership, its NPD and its relationship with customers. Put simply, inspiring brands get noticed. While many B2B marketers are spending huge amounts of time and money trying to identify and target live opportunities, inspiring brands are already there. They are always on the consideration list.

However, B2B brands traditionally spend very little on building their brand. As a result, the marketplace can be a graveyard for creativity and inspiration. Take, for example, the fact that only 3.9% of the cases in the IPA Effectiveness Databank (1980-2020) are from the B2B realm.

Part of the problem is the habit of viewing the B2B buyer as a job title rather than a human. Because while, on the face of it, a six or seven figure purchase should be a rational decision, there is a complexity of emotions tied up in making these significant purchase decisions. Our first job as B2B marketers is to make our buyers have an emotional reaction and to excite them.

The changing world of work is making the notion of brand even more important, too. Add to this the fact that digital transformation has meant that B2B buyers conduct much research online without ever contacting the vendor, and it should be no surprise to learn that brands with low awareness miss out. With live events having stopped in the wake of the pandemic, and many reluctant to return to ‘normal’ – since they are very happy with the remote and digital state of play – it’s even more important to aim for category reach; to get in front of all those who might buy or influence the purchase of your brand. Today, very few follow a traditional sales funnel and it’s smart to ensure your brand has a memorable impact even before the buying process begins.

To this end, our study determined three core characteristics of inspiring brands to make next steps easier to identify.

Inspiring brands were found to be ‘elevating’, ‘magnetic’ and ‘motivating’. Elevating brands create inspirational experiences; while magnetic brands lead the way; and motivating brands provide compelling reasons to act.

For instance, Microsoft was named in our study as a brand that motivates – making work ‘more appealing and productive’.

Delivery and logistics firms dominated the top of our first list of inspiring B2B brands, too – a reflection of the sector’s increasing importance in a digital on demand world. Then there are what we might call ‘hybrid’ brands –large consumer brands with B2B offers. We see from the Inspire scores that the most inspiring B2B offerings benefit enormously from strong, customer-centric consumer brands – such as Microsoft and Amazon – or from highly visible consumer touch points. Similarly, logistics businesses such as DHL and Royal Mail – brands that rarely advertise to consumers, but bring them something on a weekly, if not daily, basis – prove that ‘inspiration’ isn’t an advertising strategy, it’s a whole-brand approach.

In fact, our research found that among B2B buyers, the most inspiring B2B brands are more than five times more likely to be buyers’ first choice, as well as 20% more trusted.

In a world without third-party cookies, first-party engagement with your content will play a major part in the journey, too. It is possible for B2B content to be as inspiring as advertising. For instance, through our partnership with BT Enterprise, we have seen brand-building thought leadership content shifting perceptions to the same extent as great advertising.

To achieve this goal, what is needed is the right mix of inspiring and activating content, at the right moment. Not an easy feat. But don’t forget, the brand doesn’t just inspire at the top of the funnel, but throughout. So, if you want to convert inspiration into sales, a new model for delivering effective content and experiences across the funnel should be something you’re thinking about.

In conclusion, B2B marketers must see buyers as humans and not just job titles. They should embrace inspiration and find ways to elevate the brand through experiences. They should set out to be magnetic by doing things worth talking about; and to be motivating by bringing new ideas to market.

Content can be used not just to inform or educate, but to entertain and inspire, resulting in longer-lasting memories. It is possible for this to be automated, with messaging output tied to buyer behaviour.

Unless B2B brands act now, they will get left behind. It’s imperative to channel the swell of inspiration into action and inspire across the whole journey. Think of customers and the brand in more human terms. Indeed the ideas of ‘brand’ and ‘emotion’ are, if anything, even more important for those looking to secure the services of other business, in what often amount to critically important investment decisions.

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