Why B2B Marketers Should Stop Making Sense

July 30, 2020

Taking the Long View

Editor’s Note: This post is part of The B2B Institute’s series spotlighting the insights of marketing leaders. Register now for the webinar, “The Objectivity Trap,” which takes place Friday, July 31, and features a conversation with Ogilvy’s Rory Sutherland and LinkedIn’s Jann Schwarz.  

How do B2B marketers innovate when budgets are down? Can you make bold strategic moves when everyone wants short-term results? The surprising answer is yes, it’s perfectly possible, providing you’re brave enough to throw caution to the wind and ignore logic and reason. That’s not a joke – we’re serious. Ogilvy’s Rory Sutherland and The B2B Institute have written a whole research paper on the power of subjectivity and emotion in B2B marketing. It provides a new map for marketers to escape the “Objectivity Trap” and to find our way back to value creation.

One of the hidden blessings of an otherwise dismal 2020 is the widespread realization that the status quo of how we used to work isn’t going to cut it anymore. Many commonly held assumptions about business, indeed about life in general, turned out to not be an accurate or useful map of reality. This very much holds true for the professional category of B2B marketing. To make lemonade when life gives you lemons, how about we use a rotten 2020 to provide air cover to give up some of the self-limiting beliefs that have held us back as an industry? Our advice to B2B Marketers who want to win is very simple - to quote an old Talking Heads song: STOP MAKING SENSE!

Being sensible is completely overrated if you care about beating the competition. You’ll never win by doing things the same way as your peers. Everyone in your sector has the same spreadsheets, with the same data, from the same tools, and is going to use them to arrive at the same objective, sensible, rational conclusions, with little competitive advantage.

Much of B2B marketing has gotten so good at hyper-rationally optimizing messaging via machines and being data-driven, it has completely forgotten how to be persuasive to humans. And while humans often think their behavior is completely rational, it usually isn’t. By ignoring human behavior, B2B marketers have painted themselves into a very tactical corner they need to urgently escape from, in order to return to growth.

To do so, let’s put aside the spreadsheets and databases and let’s remind ourselves of the unique power of marketing as a strategic, entrepreneurial function. Marketing is a mindset, not just a marcom department treated as a tactical cost center. What can we as marketers do right now to help our companies back on the path to growth, and how can we do it in a way that doesn’t require more budget and yet creates sustainable competitive advantage? How do we zig when others zag?

As a think tank focused on studying the future of B2B marketing and decision making, we at The B2B Institute have thought long and hard about this question and turned to our network of industry experts for answers. Here is one of the key insights we have uncovered: “The opposite of a good idea can also be a good idea.”

This deliberately paradoxical pronouncement comes from Rory Sutherland, Vice Chairman of Ogilvy UK, and founder of Ogilvy’s Behavioral Science Practice. Rory is widely known in ad land as a brilliant thinker and highly entertaining public speaker - his first TED talk scored over 3 million views.

But don’t let his droll delivery fool you – Rory’s ideas pack a punch and are more relevant than ever. They are radical yet grounded in the simple truth that marketing is about persuading humans, not just optimizing messaging via machines. The insights of behavioral science teach us that human motivation and actions are complex and far less rational than our brains would lead us to believe. We are all products of millions of years of biological evolution, invisibly guided by animal instincts. What persuades us are often things that don’t make objective sense, and conversely, we often fail to respond to rational messaging, even if it is in our objective interest. We tell ourselves that we are driven by reason, when instead we are driven by emotions. For brave marketers that’s not a problem – it’s the source of competitive advantage if you can make it work for you.

If you are a B2C marketer this is not news to you. If you’re in consumer retail, you know all about irrational buying decisions made in the grocery aisle based on the color of the packaging, the location on the shelf and that cute tv spot with the dog that had little to do with the product’s features. Apple became the most valuable consumer tech company not by touting its product specs, but by how it made us “feel.” But for most B2B marketers, the thought of not making objective sense and being brave enough to focus on the subjectivity of human feelings is a terrifying one.

We B2B marketers are trapped in a prison of our own making. We subscribe to self-limiting beliefs where features, functionality, and calls to action all make perfect sense, yet often fail to persuade or be noticed at all. We pretend that the advantages of being famous, although obvious to anyone, only matter in B2B if they can be quantified and neatly placed in the spreadsheets of our lead attribution models.

But to use another platitude, B2B is about people buying from people. And despite what economists may say, people are not rational actors, even when they are businesspeople. Just because we used to put on business attire and head to the office (now replaced by hastily throwing on our half-ironed “zoom call shirt”) doesn’t mean we all of a sudden morphed from human beings into perfectly objective, utility-maximizing, decision-making automatons. As Rory likes to ask facetiously: “If business executives are so rational, why do they play so much golf?”

“The Objectivity Trap,” the B2B Institute’s research paper we partnered with Rory Sutherland on, is his first foray into B2B Marketing, and it couldn’t have come at a more urgent time. In the report we lay out the key principles for helping B2B marketers overcome their hidden biases and challenge the status quo. These new ideas and ways of thinking do not require vast media budgets or large teams. They simply work because adjusting your perspective on a problem can help make you find the other good idea nobody has thought of yet, because it makes psycho-logical sense rather mathematically logical sense. Here are some of the key concepts:

There’s another map, and it’s not the same your peers have.

If you can understand what others assume to be true but actually isn’t, you’ve already found a means to differentiate yourself through shaping marketing messages with psycho-logical rather than logical insight.

Marketing is a ‘mindset’, not a cost center.

While a technological advantage can be copied in months, the injection of a marketing mentality can help companies to innovate and grow by suggesting new psychological forms of differentiation that will last for years. 

In B2B we don’t rationalize or calculate. We avoid blame. 

Explore innovative approaches to price and risk-sharing. By creating a smaller commitment before asking for a larger one, we can reduce fear in key internal stakeholders whose buy-in we need.

Playing the long game is key, particularly in B2B. 

Short-term interventions work, but only in the short-term. With the right mentality, greatly heightened by the development of behavioral science, a single marketer can provide spectacular and lasting value in unexpected places. 

If you want growth, avoid reductionism. 

Brand fame vastly increases a business’s success by presenting opportunities that would otherwise have been impossible to predict. For enduring, open-ended growth, B2B marketers must look to probabilistic not deterministic definitions of success. 

As Rory correctly points out, “ignoring human psychology probably blinds you to an enormous number of potential solutions and interventions, which will be possible if only you considered how people feel, think, decide, and act, rather than using a kind of economic theoretical agent to take the place of real human beings.”

He uses the metaphor of B2B marketers looking at the work through broken binoculars where the two lenses of economic theory (people are rational) and market research (people know what they want and will tell us) distort the picture, and that the third lens of behavioral science is much needed for us to understand what’s really going on.

One truly puzzling question remains: why isn’t a behavioral approach more widely adopted already?

Rory’s answer is surprising and insightful:

“The problem is that if all you do is make decisions using those first two lenses, you won't get into much trouble with the CEO, because you can say, consumers told us to do this. Or you can say that the product wasn’t selling, so we had to drop the price.

Yet when something isn’t selling, dropping the price is the most expensive way to react to information conceivable. You're effectively bribing people to buy your product. It’s not good business. But despite all that, it is also the easiest move to get approved, because it seems logical.

In a business setting, we're always happy with any explanation that sounds rational, because it makes us look clever and sensible. The problem is, is that just because something makes sense, it doesn’t mean it’s true.”

To read the full white paper The Objectivity Trap by B2B Institute Research Fellow visit www.b2binstitute.org and to learn more about how to apply these ideas, please join our webinar with Rory on Friday July 31st at 12pm Eastern on Ogilvy’s LinkedIn page.