How the pandemic has changed B2B marketing

With new data showing B2B marketers rebounding from budget cuts to redefine their role, we asked four marketing leaders how their approach has changed

October 29, 2020

How the pandemic has changed B2B marketing

Editor’s Note: A version of this article originally featured in Raconteur's Future CMO Report in The Times. You can see the full report here.

The events of 2020 have hit all marketers hard – but their impact on B2B marketing has been arguably the most significant of all. New research from LinkedIn shows that B2B marketers are more likely to find themselves with reduced budgets – and pressure to shift brand investments towards more tactical activity. However, those same marketers are now more confident about the future than their peers in B2C. They’re embracing the opportunity for greater cross-functional collaboration, exploring new routes to market, and helping to drive a shift in perceptions of marketing’s role.

In our survey of 1,200 marketers, we found that three out of four of those in B2B had experienced budget cuts, compared to only two-thirds of those working for B2C brands. However, we also found that B2B marketers were more confident in their chances of defending budgets going forward. A majority describe themselves as optimistic about the next 12 months, including roughly half who say they can reshape perceptions of marketing and prove their value to the business.

We asked leaders from Adobe, WalkMe, WeWork and HSBC Global Asset Management about how the pandemic has changed their approach. Their answers illustrate the different ways that B2B marketers are rising to the challenge – and why so many feel able to look ahead with confidence:

Rebalancing brand, demand and creativity

Understandably, the period of the pandemic has shifted marketers’ focus towards short-term priorities – both for themselves and their customers. In our survey, 38% said there had been more focus on the tactical execution of marketing campaigns – and 51% expected this to continue in some form. Similarly, 47% said they’d been forced to shift marketing priorities – and 39% expected to be able to take fewer risks with marketing campaigns going forward.

“Having fewer resources and levers forces you to think differently, and our focus has been on providing value to our customers,” says Simon Morris, Senior Director Digital Media Marketing at Adobe EMEA. “We’ve done a lot more to digitally network with them. One example is Adobe Live for Business, a programme where we spotlight industry leaders to inspire others, and share how their businesses are currently addressing challenges, driving new innovations and developing pioneering ways of working.”

Could focusing on customers help B2B marketers balance immediate tactical priorities with the need to keep building brands?  Independent marketing and advertising professional and B2B Institute Research Fellow, Peter Field argues that despite the pressure to think short-term, it’s vital for marketers to find room for longer-term initiatives such as brand advertising. “This is because the key benefit is felt later, during recovery, when markets are rebounding and the returns on that investment will be much greater,” he says. “On the other hand, short-term direct response advertising is likely to experience reduced returns because its effects occur immediately, while sales are generally still depressed.”

Creativity is a vital ingredient in effective brand marketing – and there are encouraging signs in our survey that marketers are finding ways to keep creative thinking alive. Although 30% say that creativity has been impacted during the pandemic, only 15% see this as a significant concern going forward.

“At Adobe, creativity is in our DNA,” says Simon Morris. “Covid-19 caught the world by surprise and very early on, we created a squad mentality. We took some of our biggest challenges and created teams across different disciplines to bring a variety of points of view to the table.”

At WeWork, it was conversations with customers that provided the inspiration for a global brand campaign, ‘That’s How Tomorrow Works,’ which stresses flexibility, health and safety and collaboration. “It’s an example of how we have transformed insight into action,” says Amanda Zafiris, WeWork’s Regional Head of Marketing for EMEA. “We have been working closely with our member-facing teams to not only redefine our value proposition as a company but also re-evaluate our position as a brand.”

Adapting business models and routes to market

The disappearance of face-to-face sales meetings and in-person events has created obvious challenges for B2B marketers. However, many have responded by exploring new routes to market and new ways of delivering content. Roughly half see the acceleration of digital transformation at their business as a positive outcome of the pandemic.

“In the absence of in-person tours, we’ve adapted by taking members on virtual tours of our buildings to showcase our unique workspaces,” says Amanda Zafiris. “We’ve also focused on determining which aspects of our narrative resonate most with our members and where we need to pivot our strategy in order to achieve more targeted results.”

Several of our marketing leaders are among the 38% of marketers who’ve replaced in-person events with virtual ones during the pandemic – and all talk positively of the ability to scale events in this way. “We pivoted our “WalkMe Realize” event online in just five days, resulting in a 250% uplift in attendees,” says WalkMe’s Senior Vice President of Marketing, Maor Ezer. “In the absence of events such as Dreamforce, we brought the expo floor online and launched a ‘virtual booth’ to engage prospects and customers with product demonstrations and Q&A sessions.”

It’s not just the digital delivery of content that’s provided fertile ground for B2B marketing innovation. Responding to new customer needs has enabled businesses to build innovative propositions around their products – and tap into new forms of demand. Simon Morris describes how Adobe has worked with the UK bank TSB, to release 18 online forms designed in Adobe XD that help cut the need for in-person interactions. “These forms have then been used to process more than 80,000 online interactions through Adobe Sign, our cloud-based e-signature service,” he says. “This has saved over 15,000 branch visits.”

Joanna Kalenska-Guiridlian, the Global Head of Marketing and Client Experience at HSBC Global Asset Management, describes how insight on changing client needs is informing both content and product development. “What’s crucial is how we convert feedback from sales about client concerns into a content, marketing and communications response,” she says. “Where appropriate, we also endeavour to bring client feedback into the product development process.”

Emphasising emotion and values in content and creative

Covid-19 has driven significant shifts in content and tone for marketing. Just under half of B2B marketers say they’ve placed more emphasis on their company’s vision, mission and strategy, and four in ten have adopted a more emotional style in creative. This aligns with content trends on LinkedIn over the pandemic period. Brands generate greater engagement when their content is uplifting and inspirational.

WalkMe, which helps customers realise value from their tech investments, is taking a consciously human approach to the heightened need for digital transformation. “We shifted focus to highlight the value of digital connection within a disparate workforce,” says Maor Ezer. “We pivoted our content strategy to focus on remote work, stressing that company culture and employee wellbeing are now the central tenets of digital transformation initiatives. For many of our customers, those initiatives had accelerated at a pace for which they were unprepared. We sought to convey the necessity of them, whilst reassuring that the digital future was an exciting opportunity.”

It’s not just the tone of content that acts to reassure audiences, of course. At the same time as focusing on the human element, WalkMe has been upping the level of real-time insight that it provides – and the range of channels through which it provides it. “We elevated our strategy to provide real-time business data and help our customers make better business decisions,” says Maor Ezer. “We proactively sought new distribution channels: from engaging with influencers, to rolling out a podcast, to revamping our YouTube landing page and redefining its strategy.”

Taking the opportunity to redefine B2B’s role

The pandemic has created many challenges for B2B marketers – but also one highly significant opportunity. In an era of virtual relationship building and self-directed buyer journeys, their contribution to business growth has never been more obvious. Co-ordinating a response to changing demand and customer needs has both raised marketing’s profile – and provided the opportunity for cross-functional collaboration.

“Effectively communicating the value of marketing is more important than ever,” says Simon Morris. “We attribute and measure everything we do - from how products are being used to what customers best respond to. We partner with our sales teams to build out strategies that align to the issues and challenges our biggest customers are facing. Our marketing remit includes every aspect of the customer experience.”

For Joanna Kalenska-Guiridlian, a need to question established ways of doing things creates an open door for marketing to drive strategic change. “Businesses often do things because that’s how they’ve been done for a long time, and they can be too focused on doing versus thinking,” she says. "The new context has forced companies to revisit the thinking. Cross-functional, deeply collaborative conversations allow different perspectives to surface and be evaluated in the right way. It’s about tightening our focus and truly understanding the problem we are solving for. We have always worked very closely with the rest of the business but this year our collaboration and co-creation has really taken on a new shape.

It’s an experience that resonates across B2B marketing. The pandemic has brought new pressures, new challenges and new constraints. However, it’s also driven a new confidence in the value of what marketers do – and the growing conviction that the rest of the business is listening to what they have to say.