Emotional rescue: why B2B marketers must get in touch with buyers’ feelings

Business-to-business marketing seems to be suffering an identity crisis. Do CMOs need a nudge to stimulate the kinds of big brand-building ideas the sector was having back in the noughties?

Pessimists might argue that the glory days of B2B marketing are long gone. Think back to IBM’s bold introduction of the Smarter Planet brand platform in 2008 or General Electric’s pioneering Imagination at Work mantra at the start of the millennium. These conjured up narratives that prospective clients, discerning investors and potential recruits could rally behind. Yet it seems that this trusted blueprint has slipped gradually from the profession’s collective memory.

While consumer brands continue to invest heavily in crafting strong identities, those in the B2B realm seem to have abandoned boundary-pushing branding work. 

Deepthi Prakash, president, international, and chief product officer at advertising network TBWA Worldwide, recalls that IBM’s and GE’s brand propositions “were big ideas. You didn’t even have to know what these companies did – you still understood the role they played.” 

What would a big B2B player actually gain from a big, bold brand proposition? The answer lies somewhere between market share, brand equity and increased awareness. Research by London Business School’s Leadership Institute suggests that, although most leaders in this space believe that their brand is a powerful asset, such sentiments aren’t matched by their investments in establishing and maintaining a strong corporate identity.

B2B marketing chiefs may be struggling with the tricky task of assigning monetary value to an inherently abstract concept, or perhaps they’re prioritising the search for immediate tangible gains over a longer-term brand-building investment. Whatever the cause, the research findings pose the question: are CMOs fully harnessing the latent potential of their brands, or could they be doing more?

Prakash believes that B2B businesses are too focused on empowering salespeople to expound the virtues of their products, which are fleeting, rather than mooring their value proposition to the broader impact the company can have - a strategy that will likely deliver lasting differentiation.

As technology and competition squeeze companies to meet immediate business targets, intensifying demands on sales teams, the need to focus on messaging more broadly falls to the wayside. Meanwhile, the complexity of the selling process (particularly for companies with long sales cycles) can mean marketers hold less power in B2B businesses. 

“What we end up with is a dynamic that encourages marketers to prioritise short term actions to prove their value, short-changing the potential for long term competitive advantage,” Prakash explains. “That advantage could ultimately have helped salespeople and cut down their buying cycles.” With the emergence of new tech and channels, there’s also a tendency among modern marketing teams to work in silos, targeting specific audiences without an overriding concept to bind their projects together.

Why value propositions matter

“It’s important to consider the role a brand can play in inspiring, informing and energising the broader community of people interacting with it,” says Prakash, pointing to TBWA’s recent work with NCS Group, a tech service provider based in Singapore that partners with governments and enterprises to help them harness technology to advance their communities.

The first step in this collaboration was to pinpoint the five fundamental tenets of the business: adventure, excellence, integrity, ownership and unity. NCS anchored its social media and content strategy on this bedrock, so that every message sent by the business, regardless of the channel or intended audience, reinforced one understanding: “This is what we stand for.”

It’s important to consider the role a brand can play in inspiring, informing and energising the broader community of people interacting with it

This approach has been liberating, according to Howie Lau, managing partner responsible for corporate development and partnerships at NCS. 

“We tune into the pulse of our stakeholders through social listening and we’re not afraid to experiment with the unconventional,” he says. “We don’t want to just keep up; we want to set the pace by crafting content and building a social community that not only places NCS as a top-of-mind B2B brand but also rallies around our purpose and joins us in making the extraordinary happen for our communities.”

Instead of using social content to reach buyers with highly targeted sales messages, NCS supports its regular activities on LinkedIn with a “storytelling” or “edutainment” approach on platforms such as TikTok and Instagram. 

Lau explains: “We spotlight our innovations, people and culture in a more light-hearted way here, encouraging a different form of creative expression that resonates with viewers.” 

NCS’s approach is based on the premise that a more emotional approach to branding can work for B2B, drawing in potential new clients and recruits. 

“We all use social media for several different reasons, including seeking a network, a collaboration, a business partner or a job,” Lau says. “Our strategy means that we’re relating to people at various stages of decision-making.”

Prakash agrees, noting that B2B buyers are just as emotionally driven, if not more, than people buying consumer goods. That’s simply because there’s more on the line when they’re making purchasing choices for a whole organisation. 

The need for connection

This is especially true during a particularly volatile period for business. When missteps can be harder to recover from, commercial buyers want to feel emotionally engaged in the decisions they make.

What is an ‘Edge’?

A meaningful cultural shift that has the scale and longevity to propel a brand toward a greater share of the future.

Expand Close

TBWA’s recent Edges research report, which examines emerging trends with the potential to transform the cultural landscape, reveals that 93% of business leaders would like the situation to be more stable. Notably, it’s purchasing managers who crave a return to stability the most: 74% of those surveyed consider it the number-one concern of their profession.

This revelation represents an opportunity for the B2B marketer. A brand that positions itself as steadfast in the face of uncertainty could be exactly what these buyers are seeking – over and above a technically sound, but emotion-free, pitch about its products and services.

“It is important to talk about your product. But, if you build a higher-order brand platform around which that product messaging can sit, you’ll reduce the need to reinvest continually,” Prakash argues. “That also sets up a firm foundation for salespeople to enter a conversation with a prospect while giving the buyer the confidence that they are working with a reputable provider.” 

Cybersecurity specialist Palo Alto Networks has applied this approach to great effect in an industry that’s widely perceived as technical and impersonal. Its global We’ve Got Next campaign repositions the brand as the work of visionary people who are “ready for the next challenge, the next threat and the next opportunity”. Marketing outreach in this sector usually centres on a product’s quantifiable benefits, but highlighting a security specialist’s people as well-prepared, forward-looking experts is a smart move when you’re selling peace of mind, Prakash notes. 

Being the change

Business leaders are seemingly more confident than ever in their role as change-makers. Research suggests that 80% feel they have a responsibility to help shape a better society. If they’re to do this successfully, they must choose the right guiding principles to align with alongside evolving societal expectations.

Cohesion is key here, according to Prakash, who stresses that firms can no longer afford to operate “a bifurcated strategy when it comes to their social and environmental policies versus their business processes. If a company is truly living and breathing the social and environmental causes it advocates, it’s great to capitalise on that as part of the brand.”

From a recruitment perspective, purpose is becoming more important to young people. KPMG reports that one-third of 18- to 24-year-olds have rejected a job offer based on the recruiter’s lacklustre environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) record. Equally, as these people age and become more responsible for B2B buying decisions, sustainability-led marketing is likely to become more relevant. 

Nonetheless, Prakash offers a word of caution to any brand that makes extravagant ESG pledges it can’t or won’t keep: ““A company’s brand positioning and its ESG strategy must be compatible. If not, it opens you up to a lot of criticism and makes you look inauthentic.”

The need to maintain consistency will only increase in importance as B2B marketers adapt to the rise of generative AI, which has already enhanced users’ abilities to create content and optimise each marketing silo to the nth degree.

“You’ll cut through much more effectively if people recognise that the email you sent them last week has some tonal, visual and/or conceptual relevance to, say, your LinkedIn ad that they’ve just scrolled past,” says Prakash, highlighting the case for picking one clear path and sticking to it.

She continues: “If we overlook design and platform consistency from a strategic point of view, we’re going to end up creating so much, in so many different places, that marketing budgets won’t be able to keep up.”

An interesting thought experiment for B2B marketers would be to envision their audience as gen-Z consumers and consider how to reach these digital-native proponents of authenticity. By aiming to keep up with this generation, companies may be more likely to outperform the herd. 

For the best chance at success, the brand needs to be more than the CMO’s agenda; CEOs should be actively engaged and involved. Some of the world’s most recognisable brands have mastered this principle, bringing their vision to life in every aspect of their business – not just their advertising. “Particularly in a B2B context, it must impact how companies design their employee experience, influence their product development, and how they engage with all stakeholders,” Prakash concludes.

Ultimately, modern B2B marketers should draw from the noughties playbook – prioritising campaigns with strong, simple messages – and adjust this approach for the digital age. The true titans of this era will be those brands that commit fully to their chosen platform, whatever that may be. 

For more information, visit tbwa.com