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Picture: PIXABAY
Picture: PIXABAY

Many of the conversations I’ve had with chief marketing officers (CMOs) in the B2B space over the past six months – across industries, verticals and categories – have been about how they can position what they do amid all the uncertainty in the world at the moment and stand out from their competitors. The answer is that that concern shouldn’t be specific to times like the ones we’re currently experiencing – it’s something which should always be at the forefront of a B2B marketer’s mind, no matter what the global situation.

B2B products and services are all, by nature, very similar in terms of their offering, effectiveness and even pricing. Much of them are commoditised and can be bought from a variety of companies and providers, so CMOs often come to us over their struggles to remain relevant and access the right audience. Our starting point for them is always asking them to identify the problem they’re really solving for a client.

One of the key influences in what we practise is based on the work of Harvard Business School marketing professor Theodore Levitt and his famous quote about drill companies not selling quarter-inch drills, but quarter-inch holes. The customer has to get a drill, but what they really want is the hole.

While that’s a consumer example, it also applies to the B2B space. When a bank is trying to make one of its products more noticeable and appealing, it needs to think about its customers’ problems and how it can solve them, as opposed to advertising features and benefits that are largely similar to a lot of its competitors’.

Selling business internet solutions is another example – all the major players offer similar products, with similar speeds and features and at largely similar price points. By canvassing its potential customer base, a telco could discover that one of the major pain points is finding a centralised way to manage invoicing and inventory. It can then decide if it’s in the internet business or in the “making it easier to do business” business. By offering customers an easier way to facilitate those processes, it can stand out from its competitors and sell business internet products at the same time.

I struggle with ATL B2B ads that focus on price, because that shows that the company’s assumption is that the customer knows what product or solution they need. I speak to audiences and target markets across our clients every day about the problems they have in their businesses and when I ask them what product or solution out there will solve it, they almost never know. It’s up to the business to understand those issues and communicate that its products solve those problems.

While the B2B marketing challenge remains the same, the most effective advertising channels to achieve that have shifted over the past year or so. Pre-lockdown, companies could rely on people commuting to work in a car, driving by billboards or listening to business radio.

With far more people now working from home, those channels have very little impact – even under level 1 lockdown, the roads had a fraction of the previous traffic volumes on them. The obvious solution is that digital is the way to go, reaching people on their devices, where they spend most of their time.

While digital media usage is way up, it’s also important to consider the volume of electronic communication people are now subjected to. When they were at the office, they may have received 100 e-mails a day. Now that they’re working from home, that number may have swelled to 250, so there’s a lot more competition for their attention – and screen fatigue is real. The key, therefore, is to produce digital content that’s valuable to them – not advertising, but content that they can consume because it’s entertaining and engaging, underpinned by a subtle brand message.

I’ve recently seen some incredible examples of this type of work done in the B2C space this year. One which is still coming is a documentary that’s been put out about the amazing story of the life of Springbok winger Makazole Mapimpi. It’s sponsored by a brand, but I’m sure the brand isn’t an overwhelming part of the show – it’s unlikely that we’ll see him using its products, I doubt he’ll be wearing a branded T-shirt and I’m sure he won’t be extolling the virtues of its products. But by associating the brand with a compelling story that many South Africans – and beyond – will want to watch, it has created an affinity between the content and the brand which will, in turn, create an affinity with consumers. B2B marketers can learn a lot from examples like this.

Warren Moss (@warrenmoss) is the CEO of Demographica.

The big take-out:

Businesses need to understand what problems or challenges their products or services solve.


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