Until now, we all grew up with the thinking that B2B and B2C marketing are two completely different worlds. If you Google this topic, you will find a myriad of blogs and articles explaining the differences in marketing between the consumer and tech space.
It’s true to say that a lot of the known differentiators continue to be valid, such as the longer buying cycles, higher spends, more people being involved in the buying decision, products and buyer journeys being more complex compared to consumer brands etc.
However, we are also seeing B2B and B2C marketing converging more and more. The speed of technological progress, digitization, increased digital adoption through COVID-19, demographic change, and the emergence of the new B2B buyer have transformed B2B marketing in an unprecedented way in recent years.
Let’s take a look at what has happened.
B2C customer experience enters professional buying
The working environment has been changing for a while now, but the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated this evolution dramatically. Even in the slow-moving manufacturing and deep-tech sectors, today we see work set-ups that would have been impossible to imagine a couple of years back. Many B2B buyers now work from home. This diffuses the boundary between work and professional life as people start to use their mobile devices for private and work-related research and buying alike. The time has gone when a buyer was purely ‘business’ from 9am to 5pm and ‘consumer’ in the evening or on weekends.
Today, we all buy on platforms like Amazon. Therefore, any B2B buyer is influenced by their digital consumer buying experience. The constant drive of consumer brands for excellent user (UX) and customer experience (CX) has a spill-over effect to the B2B world, where people now expect the same seamless and dynamic experience that they know from their latest online shopping. This “consumerization” of professional buying significantly changes the way B2B marketing works as traditional key differentiators like product or price become less important. CX has even become a key selection criteria: More than 80 percent of B2B customers stated in a survey that they will look for a new supplier if their expectations in terms of customer service and user experience are not fulfilled.
B2B brands have to catch up with consumer brands in terms of UX and CX as Shellie Vornhagen rightly points out in her blog: “On average, B2B brands are falling far behind buyer expectations. According to research from McKinsey & Co, B2B brands score below 50% on customer experience index ratings on average, compared to 65 to 85% for typical B2C brands. And that’s not to mention that (according to Gartner) 77% of buyers report that their last purchase was very difficult or complex. As CX improves in the consumer world, B2B buyer expectations will rise as well.”
Next generation buyers
With demographic change, we also see a new B2B buyer emerging who is often young, more informed, and more willing to research and, critically, purchase online. These digital natives expect an always-on offering and a personalized buying experience. Research from McKinsey revealed that this shift towards a more self-driven, digital customer experience – fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic – has a great impact on B2B sales and professional buyer journeys.
A 2021 study suggests even that omnichannel is the “new normal”. Looking at the data, this doesn’t come as a surprise since B2B customers are regularly using ten or more channels in their research and are now willing to spend large sums in a single online transaction. The study speaks of a “rule of thirds” where customers employ a roughly even mix of traditional sales (e.g. in-person meetings), remote (e.g. videoconferencing and phone discussions), and self-service (e.g. e-commerce and digital portals) at each stage of the sales process.
B2B = Human to Human
In the past, the main narrative was that technical buyers and engineers are rational human beings and take decisions based on logical criteria only. This made sense as B2B products tend to be complex, often require significant spend and need to fulfill technical specifications to fit the demands of the application. But increasingly marketers understand the impact of emotions in B2B buying. Steve Hemsley wrote on MarketingWeek:
“Business people do not park their emotions and personality in a cardboard box when they come to work and buy products and services. In fact, the way people interact with B2B brands is incredibly similar to how they engage with B2C brands. This means creativity, storytelling and long-term brand building are just as important as a product’s features and price.”
When we think of B2B buyers as mainly being rational, we ignore the fact that all humans are emotional beings – this applies to engineers or other technical audiences too of course. Some people say that B2B customers are often more emotionally connected to their vendors and service providers than consumers. The main reason for this is risk control. When a consumer makes a bad purchase, the stakes are relatively low. A business purchase can come with various risks: financial, poor business performance, the loss of a job or even safety-related risks. Research reveals that there are many emotional aspects influencing B2B buying decisions and that B2B buyers control their personal risk by buying with established and trusted brands – or should I say people?
With all that said, more and more marketers go away from the traditional B2B concept and speak of a B2H (business to human) or a H2H (human to human) approach. This is how Monika Kumar explains the concept in her article:
“B2H is a form of marketing that targets the human behind the screen and focuses on what each individual needs rather than marketing just to a specific consumer or business. It’s about being focused on the person rather than the pocketbook and building long-lasting relationships.”
If B2B deep-tech companies want to take this shift towards human-centric marketing seriously, they need to stop marketing to generic groups of people and to start considering how an individual customer feels when interacting with their product or service. Trever Ackerman explains this in his Forbes article:
“Perhaps it’s most important to understand and acknowledge that both B2B and B2C customers expect personalized sales experiences. B2C businesses understand this and have been hard at work on it for years, but B2B businesses, generally speaking, have been late to the party in realizing that there are emotion-driven human beings at the end of their customer journey touch points.”
The Power of the brand
Fueling B2B marketing with emotions also means that brand matters now more than ever. In times of content-overload it is getting harder every day to make the buyer care and to interrupt his or her routines – be it professional or leisure. To identify the emotional triggers of your target audience, marketers need to invest in research and customer insights to fully understand the pain points of their buyers. This includes finding out where the customers do their research and what their communication preferences are.
The high art of content marketing then is to come up with a compelling story that explains how your brand can help to solve customers’ problems. And don’t forget to infuse your story with emotion as this is what makes it stand out. Let me quote Ngaire Moyes from her LinkedIn Blog on the B2B marketing growth formula:
“Appealing to the rational side of B2B buyers can work for immediate activity driving sales and leads. It makes sense for short-term activation. However, it’s hard to build a brand that will give you long-term competitive advantage if you can’t generate creative ideas that resonate with audiences on an emotional level.”
The key thing any B2B marketer would want to achieve with their brand is to become “the obvious choice” in the niche the company operates in. If your brand is “top of mind” in the heads of the right people at the right time, chances are high people will buy from you at some point. Earning the status of “natural choice” gives the buyer the confidence to overcome the risk of failure or lost reputation. As B2B buyers want to be on the safe side, they prefer to rely on “trusted” brands such as Siemens, Bosch, IBM or Intel. And that’s exactly the place where you want to be with your brand.