The B2B marketing growth formula – from Mark Ritson, Les Binet and Peter Field

The science you need to balance brand and activation, emotion and reason, in B2B marketing

June 20, 2019

The science you need to balance brand and activation, emotion and reason, in B2B marketing

It was my great pleasure recently to host an evening at LinkedIn’s London offices, with three of the most important thinkers in marketing today: Professor Mark Ritson, Les Binet and Peter Field. In two hours of presentations, discussions and questions, we explored some of the most important choices facing our profession, with an audience of marketing and agency leaders. Most intriguingly of all, we got a first look at striking new data from a joint research project with LinkedIn. It’s a study that starts to answer some of the key questions that B2B marketers have always struggled with. How do you balance the top and the bottom of the funnel? What proportion of budget should you spend on brand and activation? What’s the real role of emotion and reason in B2B buying? And what’s the formula most likely to drive sustainable growth for your business – and sustain your own career?

If you work in the UK, then Mark Ritson probably needs no introduction. His weekly columns for Marketing Week inform, entertain and (he insists) irritate most of our profession every Thursday. Les Binet and Peter Field don’t enjoy quite the same level of brand awareness – but if you’ve read their seminal study of how to balance brand and activation in B2C marketing, The Long and the Short of It, then you’ll know they deserve to. They’ve brought academic rigour to questions of marketing strategy that have all too often been settled by gut instinct, received wisdom, and the pressing need to keep the C-suite happy.

That’s why it’s so exciting that Binet and Field are partnering with LinkedIn to extend their research on how different types of marketing combine to drive growth. This new study looks specifically at how brand and activation work in B2B marketing, and the creative and media strategies that businesses should adopt. It’s early days with a small sample, which is why Binet and Field are not planning on publishing their work – just yet. However, the early data should make any serious B2B marketer sit up and take serious notice. It shows that the long-running assumption that B2B marketing appeals to its audience only on a rational level is wrong. It shows that B2B marketers are consistently under-investing in building brands. And it shows that the long-term success of even fast-growing B2B businesses risks being undermined as a result.

Sustainable growth in B2B depends on branding, mental availability and fame

The Long and the Short of It proved that, in B2C marketing, mental availability is the most powerful driver of growth. If you’re the brand that everyone talks about, and that springs most readily to mind, then you have a serious advantage over any less familiar competitors. You are always an obvious answer to the question of what to buy.

Binet and Field’s preliminary research shows that many of the same rules hold true for B2B brands. Being the ‘no-brainer’ option – the most obvious answer to the questions that B2B buyers and influencers ask themselves – has great value. It maximises the efficiency of your marketing, strengthens your pricing and increases your profitability. It’s why people still don’t get fired for buying IBM, for example. Over the long term, it has a far greater influence on these things than activation activity focused on generating leads and closing deals. As a result, sustainable growth for B2B businesses depends on branding.

Throw the word brand at most marketers in a quick-fire word association game, and they’ll probably come back with the word, “awareness.” However, Binet and Field’s work makes it clear that awareness isn’t enough. It’s important that people know about you, but it’s even more important to build on this and create levels of brand salience and, if you can manage it, brand fame. In B2C, being the brand that everyone talks about, the most famous brand in a category, increases marketing efficiency by a factor of four. There’s reason to believe something similar happens in B2B.

Building brand saliency and fame depends on investing in the right types of marketing activity over the right timeframe. However, it also depends on boldness and creativity when it comes to managing brands. Ritson, Binet and Field all agree that marketers overestimate the importance of their brands in their audiences’ lives. The biggest challenge they face is indifference, and they don’t focus enough effort on keeping them front-of-mind. They also don’t make them distinctive and recognisable through consistent codification (applying consistent design cues, colours and other facets of the brand). All argued that taking risks and being bold in pursuit of fame is worth it. They also pointed out that B2B brands often have a closer and more authentic relationship with their customers than B2C ones do – and this provides more options for building positive mental availability.

Sustainability as a B2B marketer depends on balancing brand and activation

‘Long’ brand effects are the most valuable investment that a B2B marketer can make because they don’t decay over time in the way that activation activity (which nobody remembers) does. However, branding also takes time.

Part of the reason that marketers in general focus less and less on brand is that they have immediate targets to meet – and immediately available data that shows when they’re not meeting them. This is why a smart B2B marketer needs to balance the long with the short stuff of activation, and targeted campaigns designed to generate demand and quality leads for sales.

Success depends on getting the combination right, hitting immediate targets as efficiently as possible so that you can free some budget each month or each quarter, to build the brand that will underpin your long-term effectiveness. As Peter Field pointed out, the ‘Long’ of this balancing act will benefit the ‘Short’ over time by making lead generation more effective. However, the ‘Short’ can’t benefit the ‘Long’. Activation marketing can’t build a brand for you, no matter how much you spend on it.

Effective B2B marketing involves two types of targeting

Because B2B marketers need to balance brand activity, which plays out over a longer timeframe, and activation, which plays out in the short term, they need to master different types of targeting.

Binet and Field are famous for their 60/40 rule, a formula that shows B2C businesses grow most effectively when they devote 60% of their budgets to mass reach brand advertising, and 40% to narrowly targeted, segmented campaigns focused on immediate sales. Their research now shows that a very similar rule applies in B2B. The proportions are slightly different on average – much closer to 50/50. However, the principle is the same.

As a marketer, you need to be able to target particularly relevant or interested buyers through relevant messaging that can generate quality leads for your sales team and lead to a measurable Return on Investment (ROI). Otherwise, you could end up out of a job. However, you also need the ability to reach all of the people who could be involved in buying decisions over the longer term. Because branding is a long game, it can’t be hyper targeted. It has to take the most inclusive possible view of your relevant audience. It may be years before they are considering your business for a purchase – but that’s how long it takes to build a compelling brand to influence that decision. Waiting until they are ready to be tightly targeted at the bottom of the funnel is waiting too long.

Performance marketing is important, acknowledged Peter Field, but if it’s the only thing you do then it should probably be called underperformance marketing – because that’s what it will eventually lead to. Your targeted performance marketing has to be supported by more mass reach brand activity to keep driving results.

Your share of voice predicts your future growth – or decline

There’s a simple rule that applies to B2C marketing. A brand’s Share of Voice tends to predict its future Share of Market. When a brand’s Share of Voice within a category is larger than its market share, it is very likely to grow. When its Share of Voice is lower than the market share, it will most likely shrink. Guess what? A similar rule applies to B2B. As Les Binet explained, the more people you are reaching, and the more people who are talking about you, the greater your opportunity to maintain or grow your market share. If you’re achieving less reach and impact than your position in your category suggests you need, then there’s likely to be trouble ahead. It’s a simple rule, but it’s one that’s all too easily forgotten if you push too hard for efficiency over effectiveness.

Emotion has more influence over B2B buying than logic

Adjusting your strategy to equally balance brand and activation is one part of the formula for more sustainable growth in B2B. However, media isn’t everything. What you say through the brand opportunities that you create is equally important. And Binet and Field’s new research is already showing that most B2B marketing doesn’t have the right balance. We place too much emphasis on rational messaging – and not enough on emotion.

Just as in B2C, it’s emotional impact that creates the long-term brand effects that drive profitability, outperformance and growth. 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.

Emotion in B2B marketing won’t necessarily take the same form as emotion in B2C. Mark Ritson calls it emotion with a small ‘e’. It doesn’t need to be heart-wrenchingly dramatic. It might be most effective when it’s subtle and understated – but it has to be there. Hope, aspiration, confidence and fear of failure are all in play in the B2B buying mindset. As B2B marketers we need to invest in understanding the relevant emotions for our buyers and their relationship to our brand.

Your need for branding changes over time – and start-ups can’t afford to be complacent

Businesses will benefit from brand advertising at any stage in their growth and development. However, the effects of that advertising and the results that it delivers, will vary at different points.

Les Binet pointed out that if you are bringing a genuinely innovative product to market (as many B2B tech marketers are, for example), then you can benefit from a brand that builds itself – at least in the beginning.

Because people are talking about you, and because you are by definition distinct and differentiated from competitors, you can focus more on activation and driving leads. To some extent, you can rely on word of mouth to do the brand work for you. It’s easy for B2B marketers to look at the early growth figures they are generating and conclude that investing largely in activation is all they need to do. However, Binet had two important warnings. The first is that, however quickly your business is growing it can almost certainly grow faster with a long-term investment in brand. The second is that the window of opportunity for brand-free growth is time-limited. After two years if not before, organic growth levels off and competitors (including established brands) enter the market to destroy your natural differentiation and eat into your share. If you haven’t invested in building a brand by this point, it may be too late.

What does branding in B2B look like? It looks like LinkedIn…

Our discussion of the importance of emotion and brand in B2B led to one obvious question from our audience: what is the go-to brand channel for B2B marketers? Where is the environment that they can invest in building brand awareness with the confidence that consumer advertisers have traditionally invested in TV, outdoor and other channels? How can they achieve relevant mass reach without wastage?

Mark Ritson had a very clear, very simple answer to this – and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention it. Quite simply, the go-to channel for B2B marketing is LinkedIn, because of the immense flexibility that LinkedIn targeting provides. You can reach the mass audience of all potential participants in your category that your brand needs – and you can balance this with the relevant, immediate targeting that drives ROI through activation.

Here’s how he puts it. I think it’s a great way to sum up:

“The reason I’m here is because LinkedIn is a phenomenal tool for that [mass reach in B2B]. They’re not paying me to be here. I’m here because I think it’s fantastic. LinkedIn is the top of the funnel B2B marketing tool. It’s super exciting because it’s targeted but it’s not targeted. You can get both – and I think there’s a real potential there.”

There’s more than one way to use LinkedIn in B2B marketing – and as this new research shows, there’s more reason than ever to explore everything you can do.