Project Description

Brand Purpose

November 2020

The World of B2B

Simon Fraser
Simon FraserCreative Consultant

What about B2B, Steve? Do we have brand purpose?

Steve Harrison’s new book is a wake-up call to adland, but it’s colourful cast of characters doesn’t include B2B. Now, why might that be? 

While reading Steve Harrison’s latest book Can’t Sell, Won’t Sell (published in April this year and republished in August with an extra chapter on COVID that includes a damning assessment on how the advertising industry has responded) a thought occurred to me: where does B2B marketing stand in all this? 

For those of you who haven’t read it – and you really, really should – Steve’s book persuasively argues that our industry is now out of touch with the mainstream population, more concerned with issues such as climate change and equal rights than selling our clients’ products and services, and totally deaf to any opposing views.  

At Cannes 2019, only 6 out of 28 Grand Prix winners had an increase in sales as an objective, whereas 76% of the winners had some social purpose. So, Steve asks, are the judges saying that purpose is more important than selling? He goes on to look at the websites of the UK’s top 10 agencies where he finds no overt references to their ability to – or intention to – sell anything to anyone. Clearly selling is no longer fashionable. Capitalism? Wash your mouth out. 

Meet adland’s new role 

So, if we’re not selling, what are we doing? Well, we’re saving the planet, alerting everyone to the evils of privilege, racism, cultural appropriation and whatever might constitute a @metoo or LGBTQIA infraction. This is now our purpose, but it’s got consequences. 

Unfortunately, 80% of CEOs admit they don’t really trust, and are not very impressed by, the work done by their marketers. Can you blame them when top agencies have been spouting nonsense like “The future of marketing is love”, “We are where a more modern HOW happens”, and “It is about harnessing storyliving not storytelling.” 

So, brands have been taking things in house. In 2017, P&G cut its digital marketing budget by $100-$140 million, with no downward effect. It also culled 80% of the agencies that were on its roster in 2015.   

Lemon gets a plug 

The truth of the matter is that advertising, even award-winning advertising, is not as effective as it was. Orlando Wood’s excellent book Lemon(published last year) analyses this in depth and discusses what happens in a world dominated by left and right brain thinking. When it comes to advertising, Orlando provides clear evidence that right brain thinking is far more effective.  

Here’s a quick summary of what to look for in left brain and right brain creative.  

Left Brain Right Brain
Flatness A clear sense of place
Abstracted product, feature, ingredient One scene unfolding with progression
Abstracted body part (e.g. hands, eyes, mouth, face Characters with agency (voice, movement, flow, expression)
Words obtrude during the ad Implicit, unspoken communication (e.g. knowing glances)
Voiceover Dialogue
Monologue Distinctive accents
Adjectives used as nouns (e.g. experience amazing) Play on words or subversion of language
Freeze-frame effect Set in the past (costumes and sets)
Audio repetition (metered prose, sound effects) Reference to other cultural works (pastiche, parody)
Highly rhythmic soundtrack Music with discernible melody

Reading the Left Brain list should provide all creatives with a rather unpleasant wake-up call, because it’s effectively a description of what all we’re doing at the moment (myself included). Now, we shouldn’t blame ourselves for being alive and working at this particular time in history. If we were in our 20s in the early 1970s, we’d all be wearing flares and block shoes and listening to prog rock, so let’s not beat ourselves up about it. However, if it’s been proved that the kind of advertising we’re producing today is less effective than advertising created with Right Brain thinking, surely we owe it to our clients to change our ways?  

We’re in a bubble (no, not that sort) 

Steve also analyses how adland is out of step with the mainstream audience, politically and financially. To put it simply, we’re more affluent and left wing. Now this would be fine if we were aware of our differences – we’d be able to adjust our work accordingly – but we’re not. Worse still, we want to impose our views on everyone else. And this is where our obsession with purpose come in. 

Marc Pritchard, Chief Brand Officer of P&G, has said that “9 out of 10 people say they have a more positive image of a company when it supports social and environmental causes, and half say they make purchase decisions based on shared beliefs with the brand.” Unilever say 28 of its sustainable brands grew 69% faster than the rest of the business in 2018. Clearly there’s a market out there and both agencies and clients have leapt aboard the bus heading that way. Now if you can afford to buy fair trade coffee and organic artisan bread, terrific, but unfortunately, you’re in the minority. 40% of all food shopping in the UK is bought to take advantage of a promotion of some kind. 62% of consumers in the US spend two or more hours scouring the web for promotions. For the majority, saving the world is secondary to saving a few bob.   

How’s your memory? 

So, here’s a question. If people make purchase decisions based on shared beliefs, why the hell are we still buying Volkswagens? In 2015, VW was forced to admit that it had deliberately added software to its diesel vehicles to enable them to cheat emissions tests. In fact, its diesel engines were pumping out 40 times the permitted amount of pollutants. The world was rightly appalled and heads at VW rolled. However, two years later, VW was reporting record sales of 10.74 million vehicles. We have short memories indeed. 

Millennials and beer 

Now if there’s one age group that’s particularly attuned to purpose, it’s the millennials. 81% of them want companies to commit to CSR values, 90% would change brands to a cause-related one, and 92% would prefer to buy from companies committed to ethical business practices. While it would be naive to assume that all millennials are alike – not all of them can’t afford artisan coffee – they are united by their love of a social purpose. In fact, Gianluca di Tondo, Heineken’s Global Senior Brand Director, believes that this unifying factor makes it far easier to target them. So rather than trying to painstakingly work out the nuances of each market and tailoring his campaigns to suit them accordingly, Gianluca took the pragmatic approach and signed off the global Open Your World campaign. Nothing to do with the relative merits of Heineken lager, but everything to do with duping people with diametrically opposite views into building a bar together before their true opinions are revealed. Communication is unarguably a good thing, but it’s got nothing to do with beer. 

Keep it relevant 

However, purpose, when it’s relevant and appropriate, can work and Steve highlights two cases: REI’s #optoutside campaign, when it closed all its stores and online operations on Black Friday 2015, and BT’s It’s Good to Talk campaign from 25 years ago. The latter case delivered £5 billion in incremental revenue over five years. 

…and be different 

Over the last few years, brand advertising has become a platform for a succession of causes. Climate change, plastic in the ocean, conservation, LGBT rights, Extinction Rebellion, Black Lives Matter. All are worthy of our attention and concern, but when every brand is banging the same drum at the same time, how is the consumer to tell them apart? One of the first rules of advertising is finding the USP in the product: how will this product or service solve the consumer’s problem better than the competition? When both Pepsi and Coke are simultaneously telling you how concerned they are about deforestation – along with every other product on the supermarket shelf – where does that leave the poor consumer? 

And now, the question. 

So, let’s get back to the thought that occurred to me while reading Steve’s book. Where does B2B marketing stand in all this? Steve had provided his Twitter handle in the book, so I messaged him. After a little back and forth, he gave me his mobile number and we got chatting.  

Steve had the good grace to admit that his focus had been on B2C and that he hadn’t found many examples of B2B agencies trying to solve society’s problems. 

So, are B2B agencies innocent of the charges laid before the rest of adland and if so, why? 

One reason is that business decision-making tends to be more rational. It has to be. The business depends on it, livelihoods depend on it. Yes, I believe that engaging and entertaining advertising is the way to attract B2B customers (they’re people like everyone else, so bring on the right brain), but business decision-making is more complex than the argument you have with your wife/husband/partner (or indeed with yourself) when you’re buying a vacuum cleaner. It takes longer, the sums of money involved are way bigger, and at least half a dozen other people have got to agree. Buying large amounts of kit is an expensive business and you can’t allow emotion to get in the way of the final decision. 

Secondly, as mentioned above, the link has got to be credible. BT’s campaign to get people talking was slap bang in the middle of its wheelhouse. It made sense to the consumer and so it worked. But when you’re trying to sell data centres (on premise, in the cloud, a bit of both, it’s up to you) I suspect that a campaign that focuses on human rights abuses is unlikely to be effective, important though the cause may be. 

And finally, Steve talks in his book about the way the elite are now signalling their superiority. While this used to be via their possessions, it’s now via their beliefs. As psychologist Rob Henderson explains “… instead of conspicuous consumption, you have conspicuous convictions.” In B2B, it’s very different. Over the years, I’ve worked with many clients who have amazing lists of customers. Big names that would impress anyone. “Can we use them as a case study?” I’ve asked because the alternative was a rather dull business that nobody has heard of (hence their willingness to appear in our client’s marketing materials)The response is invariably no – and this reticence to declare their associations with other brands, and indeed causes, may explain why purpose-led advertising has yet to penetrate the world of B2B. 

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