B2B marketing for a right-brain world

The pandemic has brought about a change in how audiences of all types respond to ads – and that can be good news for creative-minded B2B marketers

September 8, 2020

B2B marketing for a right-brain world

Ads that give you clear facts, straight up; that focus on price and performance; that feature a lot of words on-screen; that present a single, logical view of things; that empower an audience to succeed and remind them how talented and smart they are.

If this sounds like a pretty good description of most B2B advertising to you, then there are few observers that would disagree. However, if the last decade has convinced you that this is the only way for B2B brands to communicate, then it might be time for a rethink.

Recent research suggests that ads with these characteristics are becoming less engaging and less effective as a result of the pandemic. However, ads that present the world as a less certain place, that make fewer claims to be 100% rational and right, that don’t just aim to convince with a flurry of facts – these have performed noticeably better. The data shows this isn’t a time to give up on advertising, but it’s a very good time to explore different areas of creativity and communication. If we’re to support our businesses effectively over the coming months and years, we might need to take a broader approach – and engage different parts of the brain.

The right brain reset – and why it matters

Orlando Wood is the Chief Innovation Officer at System1, an agency that researches and monitors how different styles of advertising correlate with effectiveness. He’s also a contributor to the B2B Institute’s recent series of essays on how to market effectively in difficult times. Orlando argues that, for the best part of a decade, advertising as a whole has been adopting a left-brain view of the world that’s overly rational and confident, wants to find the simple, single truth of any matter, and has little room for metaphor, poetry, humour or alternative ways of seeing things. The System1 data though, suggests that the COVID-19 pandemic is bringing about a sudden ‘right-brain reset’. It’s an idea that has some big implications for how we go about building brands and competing for our audiences’ attention. And if you’re a creative-minded B2B marketer, that’s a challenge you’ll be ready to respond to.

The idea of the right and left brain comes from the work of the psychologist, Dr. Iain McGilchrist, in his book The Master and His Emissary. According to McGilchrist, the left brain is narrow, goal-oriented and focused on detail. It likes to categorise and control; to separate things into right and wrong, black and white, superior or inferior. When it comes to business, the left brain is drawn to productivity, efficiency and getting things done. When it comes to culture, it values authenticity above everything, and wants to strip everything back to its essence. The left brain loves a good process chart. It admires movies that follow repeatable formulas, enjoys TV shows about making things, and sees little difference between two versions of the same song. When it comes to advertising, it’s the core content or message that matters to it. Soundtrack, images and how a message is delivered are just decoration – it doesn’t really matter how they’re done.

The right brain experiences the world in a far more complete way. Its role is gathering information and understanding the world around us, not focusing on doing one specific thing. It’s interested in everything: exploring connections, open to new experiences – and new ways of seeing the world. It’s occupied with intangibles like emotion, community, relationships and it’s intuitive about others’ feelings. The right brain embraces complexity and ambiguity. It can see why two opposing points of view and perspectives might be true at the same time. It isn’t motivated to reduce everything down to a clear answer and move on.

The left brain – great to do business with, but no sense of humour

The right brain delegates the nuts and bolts of repeatable, narrow tasks to the left brain and concentrates on putting those tasks in context. This is why the left brain is great at using language – but has no sense of humour. The right brain has delegated the nuts and bolts of communicating to the left, which leaves the right brain free to understand and enjoy a joke.

Given all this, it’s easy to understand why the left brain has become such an attractive audience for B2B marketers. When we engage it, we’re talking to the part of the brain that wants to be convinced there’s a clear and simple course of action – and will take it once we’ve given it a good reason. And the left brain has plenty of attractive features. It’s confident and optimistic. It likes things to be concise and straightforward – it’s easy to do business with.

What makes the left brain even more attractive as an audience is the fact that it’s increasingly in control – a classic B2B decision-maker. Human beings need both left and right brain to operate – but the left brain doesn’t see it that way. It gets carried away with its own narrow definition of success and keeps control rather than sharing it. Crucially, although the right brain is usually aware of what the left brain is doing, the reverse isn’t true. The left brain thinks it understands everything it needs to about the world. Until something happens to prove that it doesn’t.

Why the left brain wants the right brain back

If the current pandemic is bringing about a right-brain reset then it won’t be the first time it’s happened. Orlando Wood argues that, at several points in history, plagues and epidemics have brought about flourishings of art and culture informed by a new sense of perspective. The Renaissance and the Baroque periods were both the results of right-brain resets in the face of scary diseases.

It’s easy to understand why this might be happening again now. Across the world, people are reporting feeling mentally drained as they try to come to terms with fast-changing and contradictory information. Certainties keep changing in the face of a threat we can’t see or fully understand. The left brain is suddenly feeling overwhelmed by events it couldn’t predict, and its narrow view of the world has become oppressive and depressing. It’s time to call for help from the side of the brain that puts our place in perspective, that’s comfortable with not being the centre of everything, and which recognises the preciousness of life, relationships and experiences. The right brain is our mental escape valve.

From parodying art to clapping for carers: the right-brain reset in action

We can see the right-brain reset playing out on several levels. System 1’s data has tracked changing TV habits, with growing popularity for drama, comedy and other forms of entertainment over news. This includes old shows that take us back through time and space. The right brain has a sense of history and nostalgia – it’s not just obsessed with the now.

We can see more evidence of the right-brain reset in the social media trends and general behaviour. Standing outside and clapping for health workers makes little sense to the left brain. It makes even less sense for a couple who own a costume shop to dress up in different period outfits each day and walk around their village to entertain the neighbours. The popularity of the Getty Museum Challenge inviting people to recreate classic works of art using objects they can find at home owes everything to the right-brain reset. It’s got no obvious purpose beyond creativity, self-expression and connecting to others – yet people respond to it on many different levels.

The advertising that works in a right-brain world

Thanks to System1’s rolling analysis, we can also see the right-brain reset taking place in how audiences respond to ads. Over the months of the pandemic, System1 tracked a decline in effectiveness for ads that focus on things or price rather than people, that make aggressive claims about performance or that flatter the audience by telling them how great they are. On the other hand, it tracked an uptick in performance for those with elements of humour – or which focused on relationships and a sense of community. Crucially, these ads were often not focused on the reality of right now. They dealt in escapism: nostalgic views of history, silly scenarios that occur in alternative realities, and ridiculously over-the-top brand characters.

Working with these types of creative elements can feel daunting in B2B. After all, we’ve got on so well with the left brain and had so much success doing business with it. However, a marketing strategy that can engage both sides of the brain has a lot more going for it over the coming months and years. Not only does it fit the way that people are responding to ads today, but it also enables us to balance brand and demand in a way that leads to more profitable long-term growth.

The creative elements that the right brain responds to tend to produce deeper emotion and more influential long-term memories. Research from the B2B Institute shows that emotional B2B strategies are 7x more effective at driving long-term sales, profits and revenue than those just delivering rational messaging. When we engage both modes of thinking, we don’t just prompt people to take action – we give them a deeper reason why that action still matters. It makes for more complete marketing.

So what should B2B advertising look like in a right-brain world? Here’s some inspiration based on the characteristics of ads that are increasing in effectiveness according to the System1 data:

Focus on the 80% of attention – not the 20%

According to Orlando Wood, the human brain has about five different ways of paying attention to things – and only one of these (specific, goal-focused attention) is associated with the left brain. The right brain dominates how we notice things and decide (sometimes unconsciously) that they’re worth a few seconds of our time. It responds to things that are out of the ordinary and show things differently. Exploring right-brain creative strategies helps us to pique the interest of our audience and sustain it. This doesn’t just help with brand advertising. By standing out, it helps to link our brand and demand campaigns, in the minds of an audience.

It starts with the style of advertising. Right brain ads don’t just aim to deliver a message as efficiently as possible. They invest in intriguing or emotive soundtracks, use music effectively, prioritise interesting creative direction and unconventional camera angles. Recent video ads for Bayer on LinkedIn epitomise this attention to style as well as substance. They are micro stories that treat every one of their six seconds as art – because art communicates on many more levels than news or information does.

Embrace brand characters – the most under-used creative device in B2B

Recognisable brand characters are a valuable asset in the right-brain world. They provide consistency during confusing times. They also operate in an alternative, fictional reality that allows ads to reference events safely, from a distance. They have permission to introduce humour and escapism to our lives and remind us of other things besides the current situation. Audiences don’t wonder why the meerkats or geckos that sell insurance aren’t talking about COVID-19. They don’t question why the monkey or tiger on a cereal box isn’t wearing a face mask. Orlando Wood describes established brand characters as an insurance policy in the face of an unforeseeable, ‘Black Swan’ event like the pandemic. They have an emotional meaning to audiences that feels relevant in any situation. They don’t have to change.

Brand mascots are nothing like as widespread in B2B as in B2C – but that makes them all the more valuable to the brands that have invested in them. The IT Monster that HP Enterprise uses to promote its cloud solutions is a real asset for a time when depicting reality is complicated. The lead role in Salesforce’s Trailblazers campaign is taken on by the brand’s feral raccoon-child mascot, Astro. It doesn’t really make any left-brain rational sense for a sales software platform to be represented by a child in a onesie. That doesn’t matter. To the right brain, it’s cute, endearing, visually interesting and conjures up treasured memories of camping adventures. That helps it to make B2B messages noticeable and tie different elements of brand and demand advertising together.

Prioritise humour over reality

The Click Baby Click ad for Adobe is one of the most memorable B2B campaign slots of all time. To the left brain though, it’s nonsense. Yes, it’s hilariously funny – but it obviously couldn’t happen in reality. Nobody restarts a global publishing empire just because of clicks on a single ad. If this was your pitch to a B2B decision-maker in a boardroom, you’d be sent home with your tail between your legs. It’s just plain wrong.

Which, of course, is exactly why the left brain so often falls short when it comes to advertising in difficult situations. We’re not just pitching to people. We’re helping them to look at things differently and realise things that are true in a wider sense. Humour is itself a form of escapism. It takes place in a world that deliberately diverges from reality. It brings a sense of proportion and that makes its messages feel more profound and relevant, not less. Effective humour doesn’t try to make fun of a tragic situation. It recognises the importance of finding other things that can make people smile. If that involves stepping out of reality, then all the better.

Build emotional connections by recognising fragility and lack of control

The right brain doesn’t just want to be entertained. It responds to complexity, ambiguity and nuance. An ad like HSBC’s Lift spot, which shows a business career filled with triumph, despair and complex emotions, earns its attention by showing life as the right brain recognises it. It doesn’t treat these ups and downs as a problem to be solved by HSBC or anyone else. It draws attention instead to the value of emotion, community and shared experience in helping people cope with the journey.

This is the area of right-brain advertising that B2B brands are often most comfortable with – and most effective at executing. We know that business life is complicated and emotional. And right now, audiences are responding to ads that show things that way. In System1’s analysis, one of the ads that has seen the most significant jump in engagement during the pandemic is a B2B slot for West Bend Mutual Insurance. It’s simple, emotive and focused on showing the depth of emotion that entrepreneurs feel for their businesses. It shows that you don’t need complex production values or even original footage to create a right-brain ad. You just need an instinct for the emotions that people are responding to at the moment.

Bringing left and right brain together

A right brain reset doesn’t mean that the left brain is suddenly silenced. It just means that it’s remembered what its job is. The rational, action-oriented part of our consciousness is still around. It still wants to hear about clear, actionable solutions. It’s still interested in relevant demand generation campaigns that show it how to accomplish relevant goals. However, the left brain feels a lot more comfortable about these things when the right brain is engaged as well. This provides reassurance that what we’re focusing on really matters.

That’s why the most effective B2B marketing over the next few years will aim to engage both sides of the brain. It will show how what we do relates to things in life that have taken on new levels of importance: generosity, togetherness, humour, escapism. Very few business decision-makers would dismiss these things as unimportant today. As B2B marketers, we shouldn’t dismiss them either. The more of these elements we can incorporate into our campaigns, the more effective they will be.