B2B vs B2C marketing communications: notes from an ex-adman

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Every category of advertising has a code. A common debate is one about B2B vs B2C.  Luxury brands (think high end perfumes, fashion) for example, strive to create desire. The purchase decision is not influenced by rational reasons. So the advertising is anchored on intrigue and mystique and is devoid of any rational claims. While the approach is sound, the execution tends to follow a template. Most fashion brands are about models staring blankly or pouting for the camera. TV spots for high end perfumes and luxury watches border on the bizarre. Consumer goods advertising often has to provide a rational reason-why (unless it is an undifferentiated category like soft drinks) to create brand preference. So the advertising develops a ‘code’ of its own over time. Again, the manifestation is in a template for execution – the food ingredient shot in every biscuit ad, the cut away to a product window in every bath soap ad etc.

The precursor to what is referred to as B2B advertising is perhaps ‘corporate advertising’ which has been around for decades. The aim is to build or enhance the reputation of a company brand among opinion leaders, investors or talent community. It is seen as an investment to make life easier for its salesmen by creating awareness of the company brand (and hence a favourable image) when they knock on doors.

Classic ad from McGraw-Hill promoting business publication advertising. Circa 1958.

Before the days of internet, corporate advertising was limited to print media (mostly in niche interest publications but some in general interest magazines or dailies) or direct mailers. In India, print campaigns for Grindwell Norton, NAB Bearings were popular in dailies like Times of India in the early ‘90s. IT companies have had their share of reputation-building corporate campaigns and so have those with pre-IPO campaigns. Some notable ones which come to mind now:

– Accenture: while the potential audience for their services are likely to CXOs in top companies and select talent the brand had several visible, popular campaigns some featuring celebrities like Tiger Woods
– IBM: their ‘smarter planet‘ idea was splashed all over print, TV, outdoor and the internet. They even crafted the idea for installations in Europe to bring alive the idea

The advent of the internet changed the game for B2B companies as their website became the primary asset for information, reputation management and talent hunt. What’s more, they could reach their potential customers with a lot less wastage through targeted advertising, email campaigns and such like. Over the last few years, what has come to be known as content marketing has been the primary marketing tool for B2B companies. The content includes blog posts, presentations, white papers and articles which are aimed at enhancing the reputation of a company in its field and drive business enquiries. The use of marketing automation software, best practices in SEO have gone hand in hand with such content explosion. The content formats and best practices have been adapted by B2C companies too especially those in fashion, travel and finance.

While the fundamentals of all marketing communication is the same (and will be the same for eons) platforms, technologies and hence the execution, keeps evolving. B2B and B2C marketing communications too have their similarities, differences and category codes:

The similarities

Persuasion is the key: What is common to both B2B and B2C marketing communications is that they have to persuade and effect a change in either behaviour (take action) or mindset (change or reinforce opinion).

Companies in both the categories strive to create an affinity for the brand so that when the moment of purchase decision comes the brand you feel good about is chosen. The reason for the feel good factor can be a combination of various factors: product quality, the design of the brand and its various touch-points & interfaces (the website or app) or the content they put out.

What’s different

In traditional advertising, there’s a sigh of relief in the ad agency the moment an ad is released to media – it signals the end of the project. But in today’s context that is not the case. Work continues after a communication is released in digital platforms in terms of monitoring performance, comments and taking corrective action if need be. This is more true of B2B advertising or any form of marketing communication in that domain as monitoring reactions, shares and responses (in terms of enquiries) is critical. In fact the crux of B2B marketing communication is that it is geared to deliver business enquiries. It could be a blog post about an industry trend (and not a direct sell job) but subliminally it is meant to enhance the brand reputation and hence pushing the prospect closer towards a business enquiry.

The essence of marketing communications in B2B segment is to convey to the potential audience, ‘we are good people to do business with because we know our business… we are good at what we do’. It sends a signal to the potential audience that they are in ‘safe hands’. That’s the reason you will find technical blog posts in service companies in the app development space – they convey to a potential customer that ‘these guys know their onions’. In traditional advertising or to some extent even in B2B marketing communication that (conveying ‘we are good people to do business with’) is not an important criteria. We don’t buy a McDonalds burger because they know the QSR business well. In B2C domains we’ve seen blogs and videos which are either educative in nature or take up a cause related to the category. In my view the approach is similar to what B2B brands do (i.e. these are meant to increase affinity towards the brand) but the ROI is limited as these are not hardwired to an enquiry or a sale. If I see a blog on ’10 best adventure locations in Australia’ from a travel brand (be it a hotel, an airline or a travel booking company) it is educative for me…I may even like the brand for putting out such content but if it does not push me closer to a sale it is a wasted effort. That’s my view with many of the ‘brand videos’ put out by fashion e-commerce brands where the film could be heartwarming and may even have some link to the brand proposition. But if success is measured only in page views and not in sales, what good is it? In B2B domain there are brands which put out educational videos, client testimonials, how-to’s and so on. But the emphasis on an enquiry as an ROI is far higher in this domain as compared to B2C. In other words, feel-good communication is adopted more in B2C rather than in B2B.

Share your views on what’s different between B2B and B2C marketing communications in the comments. 

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