Out of the Shadows

July 7, 2015

B-to-B marketers take a giant leap forward

By Barbara Apple Sullivan

Twenty years ago, B-to-B marketers were practically an afterthought, living in the shadow of a consumer-driven world. Budgets weren't as big, thought leadership wasn't as prevalent, and recognition certainly didn't come as easily.

We've come a long way. The size and strength of B-to-B-specific media and organizations, along with years of tremendous work, have moved the industry off the backburner. We're making news, playing on the world's largest stages, and sharing our great work like never before.

The marketing landscape is also transforming before our eyes. Technology has democratized branding, and as part of that process, previously defined silos between the B-to-B and B-to-C worlds are rapidly disappearing.

Adapting to this changing world is no easy feat, but it provides a thrilling opportunity to rethink how we build brands and relationships with customers across a growing number of moments and channels. Here are a few ways to ensure you take advantage.

  • Write your own rules. Too often, we find ourselves wed to certain channels and messages because they're part of a traditional "playbook" of tactics. The most effective marketers, however, look at each opportunity with clear eyes and find a message, medium, and channel that make sense for their target audiences. A great example is defense contractor Northrop Grumman, which ran a 30-second spot during this year's Super Bowl to pitch its capabilities for a single multi-billion-dollar contract with the Air Force. Complex in scope and targeted to an audience of about 500 members of Congress and Pentagon officials, the spot was the ultimate B-to-B sale, played out on the nation's largest B-to-C stage.
  • Unleash your inner anthropologist. "Know your audience" is a familiar axiom in marketing circles, but in today's competitive landscape, it doesn't go deep enough to make a sale. B-to-B marketers today need to know their customers inside and out and build personas that address their attitudes, behaviors, and needs/concerns. What's driving their decision to engage with you? Approaching sales with an anthropological perspective can lead to a dynamic, consultative conversation that goes far beyond facts and specs. Every person we encounter, from procurement to the CEO, is driven by factors both inside and outside the workplace.
  • Don't lose sight of the power of intuition. Yes, big data is incredibly valuable for developing new ideas and innovating, but it's one piece of a larger process that involves inspiration, intuition, creativity, and in-depth qualitative research. To reflect and capture the emotional resonance of a brand, I ascribe to Steve Jobs' philosophy: Technology alone isn't enough. Many of the best companies and brands fully embrace intuition.
  • Remember that the power of your brand lives on the front line. The best brand strategies and identities can fall apart if they're not articulated the right way at the six-foot level, where clients and prospects actually decide whether to do business with you. It's crucial to give your sales and customer service teams the proper preparation and training — and then arm them with the right story and tools.

Now that B-to-B marketing is front and center, it's even more critical to rethink how we build and market our brands. By recognizing the power of emotion, the increasingly blurred lines between categories, and the crucial role the front line plays in building and communicating the value of your brand, we can cement our spot on the main stage.

BMA member Barbara Apple Sullivan is founder and managing partner at Sullivan, a New York-based brand engagement firm.


"Out of the Shadows." Barbara Apple Sullivan, Founder and Managing Partner at Sullivan. BMA Buzz. 7/7/15.