Keeping B2B marketing human amid the rise of machines

The rise of marketing technology makes human creativity more, not less, vital.

This article first appeared in Future of B2B Marketing, published in The Times on 8th July 2019. Click here to download the full report.

When Google created a B2B marketing campaign to celebrate 20 years of Google Search, it could have used its renowned data science capabilities to build a solid, scientific case for investment in search advertising. Instead, it turned to the hapless BBC TV comedy character Chabuddy G.

The bungling hustler from People Just Do Nothing, played by Asim Chaudhry, is an unlikely poster boy for a company that has helped transform the global landscape of modern business through technology and data. Google’s choice underlines, even in the world of big data and fast-rising martech budgets, creativity and emotional connection remain a vital part of selling business products.

“It’s really emotional marketing because we are using humour and comedy to create a mini-series that is demonstrating the power of search for entrepreneurs and businesses to reach audiences,” says Nishma Robb, Google’s director of ads and industry marketing for the UK.

The Search Like a G series sees the deluded Chabuddy brand himself Alan Brown Sugar, an internet expert and a true entre-paneer (sic). Designed to remind Google’s B2B client base of the power of search advertising, this campaign wins “cut-through” because of the presence of a funnyman, says Ms Robb.

Making business to business, person to person

Annabel Rake, partner and chief marketing officer at Deloitte UK and North and South Europe, says: “I find ‘B2B’ as a phrase quite disappointing for our trade.

“While it is about a business working with another business, at its heart it is about a human who you can identify in one business working with another human you can identify in another business.”

The power of human emotion in B2B marketing was revealed by a 2013 survey of 3,000 B2B buyers conducted by Google, Gartner and Motista. It found emotional connection was more prevalent in B2B customers (more than 50 per cent) than with B2C (10 to 40 per cent). This was partly attributed to the relatively high degree of risk in B2B purchases.

Google used emotion to promote the B2B value of YouTube by prioritising human stories over viewing statistics in a campaign called More Than Just Viewers, says Ms Robb. “Rather than saying to businesses you can buy these ads and it will give you this reach and effectiveness, we tell them a story around how their products are being used by consumers on our platform.”

Unsurprisingly, though, the tech giant regards data science as integral to modern business. “The value of being able to use data and technology to deliver great marketing is really the joy of being a marketer,” says Ms Robb.

The tension between creativity and tech

It’s a question of balance and Heidi Taylor, author of B2B Marketing Strategy, is convinced that the sector’s obsession with numbers has gone too far.

“There’s a huge dearth of creativity in B2B,” she says. “We have filled our teams with data scientists and technologists; people who are really good at using the tools, but without fundamental understanding of what drives and grows a business.”

Data is fallible, she points out, decrying as “B2B marketing fake news” the industry’s embrace of the idea that human attention spans have shortened to less than those of goldfish, an assertion exposed as based on dubious statistics. “I am concerned that we use data to confirm our own biases,” says Ms Taylor.

The tension between creativity and data, the emotional and the rational, has long been a yin and yang of marketing. The legendary creative director Bill Bernbach, famed for iconic campaigns such as Avis’ We Try Harder, told a previous generation of advertising professionals: “We are so busy listening to statistics, we forgot we can create them.”

Since then there’s been a digital revolution and Nick Udall, author of Riding The Creative Rollercoaster, says data is “a key” to the “deeply personalised and transformational experiences” that modern marketing demands. He also argues that time is up for the “creative hero” model of classic marketing, where a “superstar” director or agency is given rein to create a campaign “driven by ideation, ego and fads”.

Yet Paul Marsden, consumer psychologist at digital agency SYZYGY, who lectures at University of the Arts London on the impact of digital culture on human behaviour, believes empathy is essential for effective B2B marketing. SYZYGY offers “empathy mapping” services so B2B marketers can “get into the shoes” of clients and better understand their feelings and anxieties.

“While we are a technology business, we believe ultimately it’s humans who pay, humans who buy stuff and it’s the human experience that really matters,” says Mr Marsden.

Creativity is a necessity to stand out from our rivals in an over-communicated world
Brian Macreadie, Addleshaw Goddard

Bringing emotion back to B2B

Gonzalo Garcia Villanueva, Bloomberg marketing director for Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia-Pacific, points out: “Where some B2B companies have been guilty is not being human in terms of their marketing to clients. When you’re selling something like a big IT contract which may be a multimillion, five-year deal, it’s easy to start treating buyers as if they don’t have feelings.”

Many B2B campaigns categorise audiences into marketing personas created from data analysis. “We try to put some more emotion into our persona,” says Kristina Flickinger, marketing director of Mind Foundry, an artificial intelligence spinout from Oxford University. “It’s not just their needs and pain points, but making them more human.”

Brian Macreadie, head of marketing at law firm Addleshaw Goddard, who has won multiple awards for creativity in B2B marketing, says: “There’s no such thing as a boring product, just boring marketing,” he says. “I have done stuff with NFL [American football] clubs, book publishers, internet companies, and we have had tactics with stilt walkers, X‑ray specs, video games and guerrilla stunts; there’s as much creativity in B2B as in B2C.”

Mr Macreadie would never ignore the insights that come from data. “We can’t act from intuition alone,” he says. But something extra is needed to break through the “email overload” of busy B2B clients. “Creativity is a necessity to stand out from our rivals in an over-communicated world,” he concludes.

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