If you Google, “Why is B2B marketing different?” you’ll get tons of results, all listing out in minute detail why branding a B2B product or service – or marketing to B2B audiences – is very different from marketing B2C products.
At surface level, some of this advice sounds reasonable. But I don’t think a single word of it is true.
B2B marketing, some marketers are fond of saying, is a completely different ball game to B2C marketing. They say that B2B products and services are more complex, that B2B audiences are more sophisticated, expert and analytical – and that B2B relies less on branding.
I’ve been working almost exclusively with B2B brands and organisations for the past decade (and spent a good while before that working mostly with B2C organisations) – and I have to say, I think the whole “B2B is different” narrative is a cop-out.
Are B2B products and services really more complex ? (Short answer: No)
Of course, when you begin to work with B2B organisations, you come across whole worlds of propositions you never even knew existed.
You find that an important constituent of fleece fabric is a chemical called paraxylene, which is produced as an offshoot of the petrochemical industry in certain types of plants. And that the older versions of these plants use more water and occupy more space than their newer counterparts. You find that machine learning systems need to be constantly fed with information. And that changes in US foreign policy will greatly impact the internal policies of sovereign wealth funds across the world. And that the role of an underwriter isn’t massively different to that of an actuary.
In other words, as a marketer, brand consultant or copywriter, you find that you have to learn about stuff that isn’t typically “visible” or interesting to the general public.
But that doesn’t mean these things are any more complex than many B2C offers. It simply means that you’ve never heard of them before.
So is a paraxylene plant inherently “more complex” than a bottle of shampoo or any other consumer product? I don’t think so.
There are plenty of complex consumer goods and services. Cars, computers, legal services, ovulation tests… these are all complex things.
Yet we’re able to buy them and make our lives easier and happier by using them because they’ve been marketed to us. And this marketing means we understand what the products do and why we need them in our lives.
Good marketers sell benefits, not features – and that’s as true for B2B as it is for B2C
Here’s what can happen when a marketer comes across a brief for a paraxylene plant, an extractive industry consulting platform or a corporate law service: They poop their pants.
Everything looks really, really difficult and they have no clue what their new client does – or even who they do it for. And yet, by the end of the week, they have to create a game-changing campaign or brilliant web copy for them.
For some marketing people, it’s not necessarily easy to get directly on the phone to a client to ask questions. Maybe this is because the agency they work for has a hierarchical account management structure. Or maybe it’s because they don’t want to admit they need help to understand the brief.
So they’re stuck with background information that lists out the features of the platform – loading speeds, comparison tables, saving options etc – but no real insight into what kind of person needs to use this and how it will make their lives better.
So they come up with an alternative theory: B2B marketing is different, B2B marketing should be heavy on features, B2B marketing is about experts talking to experts, so jargon is OK.
Which of course, is all utter nonsense.
Features should never be a marketing headline. Benefits should.
And that means thinking about customers (yes, someone buying products or services in a B2B environment is also a customer). What do they want and need? What are their pain points and frustrations? What do they wish there was an app for? What don’t they even know they need?
When you begin to look at these questions, you can generally only respond in terms of benefits.
A customer buying new lab equipment from you is probably asking themselves:
- Will it last?
- Will it allow me to conform to regulations?
- Is your customer service good?
- Will this company share ideas and insight with me, as well as selling me beakers and test tubes?
Your answers to these questions are going to be:
- Long lasting
- Meets all regulatory standards
- On hand with advice seven days a week
- Sign up for our genetics lab newsletter
These are benefits and they’re what your customer wants to know about before they even get into the exact composition or mechanics of your products. And you can only describe them if you understand what the product is all about. Otherwise, you’re going to be left tidying up a list of features to put on a website – and understanding very little of what it actually says.
But B2B people are all experts – won’t they be irritated by “fluffy” marketing?
There’s an unspoken narrative out there that end consumers are silly, flighty people who buy on whims – or to “boost their status”. And that people who work in businesses make their decisions with Vulcan-like logic and detachment. Therefore marketing = fluffy. And B2B sales = rational.
Which, of course, is more abject nonsense.
The people in B2B organisations are, well, people. And people are busy and often not 100% rational (or even 50% rational).
Busy is a really important concept to keep front of mind when you’re marketing to businesses and organisations. No-one has time to read or listen to your list of features and infer from them why your company might be able to help theirs.
So you need to spell it out – tell a story and make sure it’s jam-packed with benefits. “Our paraxylene plant designs use 75% less water and occupy half the footprint of traditional approaches,” rather than a tech spec. (The tech spec can come later after you’ve got people interested.)
In exactly the same way you’d approach marketing a bottle of shampoo, you have to show B2B customers what’s in it for them. How is this going to make life easier? How will working with you boost my career? How will my decision to work with you look at my appraisal in six months?
If you communicate with features alone, you’ll struggle to forge relationships, build trust and sell your stuff.
So why is features-focused marketing the norm in B2B?
We’ve already said that sometimes it’s because marketers don’t understand what B2B organisations do.
Aside from that, B2B businesses are often run by specialists – people who have deep technical understanding of the kind of work they do. They’re chemists, lawyers, language specialists, bakers, lighting experts, engineers, farmers, oil rig designers, cheese makers, boat builders… you name it, they know all about it. And that’s why they started their business, or joined the business they work for.
As well as being subject matter experts, they can be very wary of marketing. They might believe it’s a waste of money. Or that it’s fluff – OK for silly people who buy shampoo, but not appropriate for serious people with serious business to attend to.
And these can be very deep-seated beliefs.
But our job is to show that there are alternatives – that there doesn’t need to be such a divide between B2B and B2C worlds. And that to really succeed, a B2B brand needs to differentiate in exactly the same way that a consumer brand does.
When we’re marketing to other businesses, we’re not marketing to buildings or faceless organisations. We’re marketing to other people – people who have needs beyond a tech spec.
The content of this post came from a talk Liz gave at Cardiff Business School. If you’d like Wordtree to talk at your organisation, please get in touch.
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