Is this applicable to B2B marketing? Please stop asking

Is this applicable to B2B marketing? Please stop asking

This week, our marketing professor asks and then answers the most annoying question of them all.

So, I did a thing this week. An online talk. You know the type. I bang on about some marketing stuff. We show a few saucy pictures of Korean dictators and a partially eaten wildebeest. I bang on a bit more. And then we do a Q&A.

I could have predicted this before I even opened my mouth, but one of the first questions off the rank – and another about 60-odd questions later – was the same old chestnut: how much of this is applicable to B2B marketing?

I’ve been asked this same thing (and this is no exaggeration) more than 1,000 times in my career. Since my earliest 20th-century days as an assistant professor, there was always a bastard hand somewhere in the back of the room throwing a bucket of B2B water over whatever we had just discussed.

It’s never an out and out repudiation. No-one has ever said, “This shit just isn’t relevant to my work in B2B,” and stormed out. It’s gentler than that. A query rather than a contradiction. And more annoying as a result.

But it’s as regular as a squeaky wheel on an otherwise well-oiled bike. Every talk. Every class. It always ends with the same B2B query. And while it’s a fair question, it is also a dumb question.

Different sectors, universal concepts

It’s fair because most articles, examples and professors use B2C examples far more than B2B. But there is a good reason for that. I have worked about 50% in both sectors. And while I could happily use examples of selling dialysis machines to hospitals, I would first need to explain what dialysis is, and what ESKD means, and what HD and PD modalities do, and hospital buying committees, and private clinics and public hospitals, and tender structures, and market access, and health insurance, and providers and payers and policymakers. And then, about four hours later, I could get to the marketing point.

Or I can show you a pint of Guinness and get on with it four seconds later. B2C is not cooler. Or more interesting. Or more lucrative. But it is simpler to set the scene and, for that reason, Gillette references will always outnumber GE in the back of any marketing textbook.

Almost every marketing concept and approach is still relevant to B2B.

The B2B question is also a fair one because these brands do have to handle a few things that usually don’t crop up in B2C. The buying committee is infinitely more complex than a single consumer, for example. And the sales force is always 80% to 95% of the tactical execution in B2B, which adds a layer of relationship building that most B2C marketers don’t require.

But, with these exceptions to one side, it turns out that almost every marketing concept and approach is still relevant to B2B. In fact, I will go further and suggest these things are just as appropriate to B2B as they are to B2C. And I have proof.

Over the last five years, Ty Heath and her deliciously talented bunch of LinkedIn marketers have been crossing the streams and applying B2C theory to B2B marketing. While we all use LinkedIn for ‘Me2B’ self-promotion, the company itself makes most of its billions from companies targeting companies. So The B2B Institute at LinkedIn has worked with Peter Field, Les Binet, Byron Sharp, Jenni Romaniuk and a host of other marketing demi-gods to essentially take their latest work into the B2B universe. And, so far without exception, these concepts not only work but seem to work better in B2B.

Salience. Long and short. Distinctive assets. Category entry points. ESOV. Funnels. Double jeopardy. Emotion. Attention. Mental and physical availability. Creativity. The whole shebang works differently but just as powerfully across B2B markets.

And don’t pick on the word ‘differently’ in that last paragraph as evidence of some kind of worthy partition. The other part of my rejection of B2B being different from B2C is the implied similarity inherent in the initial question: ‘Does this apply?’

B2C brands aren’t all alike

The whole premise that B2B is different from B2C hinges on the assumption that the latter sector is somehow a club of common approaches. Horseshit! Are you trying to tell me that selling handbags, ice cream, genital wart cream, software, home insurance and trombones are fundamentally similar in approach and concepts?

No, and the difference between these disparate B2C challenges is no less than their difference from equally distinct B2B sectors. Every marketer faces a different set of issues and opportunities, even within the same category, let alone across different ones. Inferring that B2B is somehow always different in the same ways from the uniform work done in B2C makes no actual sense.

Somehow, marketers who sell ice cream can learn from marketers who sell software. It happens all the time at marketing conferences. And at no point does the ice cream marketer feel compelled to raise their hand to query how much of this software nonsense is actually relevant to selling Cornettos.

The difference between disparate B2C challenges is no less than their difference from equally distinct B2B sectors.

I would happily take a world-class B2B marketer and put them into a B2C role. Just as happily as I would pinch someone from a B2C position and put them into a big B2B job if the candidate was the right one. They are both marketers. They both know how to do marketing. It isn’t like hiring a geologist to work on molecular biology.

I’ll bet those 1,000 marketers asking the ‘Does this apply to B2B?’ question over the years would have, to a man or woman, instantly taken a big B2C job if the phone had rung with the right money on the end of it. And, as they were being shown around their fancy new B2C office, had any of them been asked “Are you at all worried that your B2B skills may not be applicable to this strange B2C environment?”, I’ll bet none of them would have expressed even the slightest concern.

They would have been right to shake off the question, too. Where are the specialist B2B advertising firms? B2B market research companies? B2B digital organisations? Yes, I know some exist, but they are small and end up doing what everyone else does but with the prefix B2B in front of everything. They offer ‘B2B positioning’ and ‘B2B marketing strategy’ and ‘B2B segmentation’, but drill past the opening gambit and this approach is no different from a general marketing approach. Nor should it be.

Marketers need to recognise that there really aren’t that many differences in selling a service versus a product. Or targeting companies rather than people. In this much-heralded age of diversity, wouldn’t it be nice if we realised that every marketing challenge is different but that they are usually different in very similar ways, and accept we can all learn from each other?

The next time someone puts up a hand or posts the same dreary digital challenge about “whether this is applicable to B2B”, I reserve the right to reply, “You bet your fucking life it is,” and then just move on.