Why B2B Marketers Need to Get in Touch with Their Feelings

B2B strategies that appeal to emotions are 7x more effective at driving long-term sales, profits and revenue than those just delivering rational messaging

November 10, 2019

emotions in B2B marketing

Editor's Note: A webinar exploring the Binet & Field research covered in this post takes place Monday, November 11, at noon ET. Register for the webinar. A version of this post originally appeared on the the LinkedIn Sales and Marketing Blog in EMEA.

Ignoring people’s feelings is rarely a good strategy when it comes to building relationships, both in our professional and personal lives. B2B marketers have always assumed they’re an exception to this rule – but groundbreaking new research from The B2B Institute at LinkedIn shows that bottling up their emotional side is hurting their long-term success.

Our Institute has just published a study by Les Binet and Peter Field that explores the impact of different marketing strategies on growth for B2B businesses. It proves that telling people why they should buy from you isn’t enough. Relying solely on rational messaging undermines your potential for future leads, sales and profits. Emotions should be a key part of every B2B marketer’s strategic tool kit.

To be fair, it’s not entirely surprising that B2B marketers don’t feel confident putting themselves out there, emotionally. Making an audience feel something deep inside seems like a stretch when your solution is complex, technical – and part of their day job. We also know that most B2B buyers don’t like to think of themselves as guided by emotion. We all want to explain to our boss that we made a certain decision supported by data and fact, not just based on feelings. Part of being human is to make decisions influenced by emotions and then rationalize these decisions after the fact. This is especially true in business. And so it seems to make sense to treat B2B marketing prospect as though they are just rational decision optimizers, not human beings.

For all of these reasons, it’s easier to put together a B2B marketing proposition based on logic – and so that’s what we tend to do. But as Rory Sutherland points out – logic kills magic, and magic is a much-underestimated force in marketing. How did Apple get to be a trillion-dollar business and one of the most powerful brands in the world? It wasn’t through human beings making cold, calculating, rational decisions about which phone, tablet or laptop to buy.

Binet and Field’s report, The Five Principles of Growth in B2B Marketing, uses data from the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) Effectiveness Awards to analyze how different types of B2B marketing strategy contribute to the bottom line. And one of the most emphatic conclusions involves the role of emotion in B2B.

The proof that emotion builds the bottom line in B2B

B2B marketing strategies that appeal to an audience’s emotions drive a massive 7x more very large business effects in the long term than campaigns that appeal to them on a rational level. They deliver far more value in terms of sales, profits, revenue and other bottom-line measures. In other words, appealing to the emotions is very, very good for business.

Emotional Strategies Outperform in B2B - Source: IPA Databank, 1998-2018 B2B cases

It’s a very significant finding – but what does it actually mean for your B2B marketing strategy? Do you need to start rewriting every piece of content and ad copy, throwing out references to price and product features and working in something to tug at your audience’s heartstrings instead? Are you only having an impact if you’re making potential B2B buyers laugh – or cry?

Not exactly – because brand marketing and the emotion that goes with it are only one part of the B2B growth formula. However, the data shows that over time, they are far more important than marketers assume.

The Binet and Field study suggests that, on average, the best way to divide up your B2B marketing budget is to spend 46% on building brands in the long term – and 54% on activation marketing that prompts immediate action and supports sales directly. Lead generation campaigns fall into this second category.

Emotional messaging builds the brand; rational messages that appeal to logic and common sense lead to action. However, that action is far more likely to happen if the brand asking you to take it is one you know – and one you like. That’s why emotion has a far more important role in B2B marketers’ ability to generate leads and drive sales than many of them realize.

Messages vs Emotions in B2B - Brand Effects - Source: IPA Databank, 1998-2018 B2B cases

The power of brands depends on memories: memories that can spring to mind years in the future, prime you to view a brand’s products or solutions positively, and prompt you to listen to what it has to say. These memories only form through emotion. You don’t remember product details or pricing for very long. However, to paraphrase Maya Angelou, you do remember how a brand made you feel. Because emotions build longer-lasting and more influential memories, marketing that generates an emotional response is far more effective at building brands. If you want a B2B brand, then you need a B2B strategy that’s designed around producing a consistent emotional response from people.

What does a B2B emotion feel like?

One of the reasons, that B2B marketers resist using emotion is a misunderstanding about what it has to involve. They don’t believe they can make audiences laugh or feel happy or sad – and so they stick to reason. However, appealing to emotions doesn’t have to mean making someone feel emotional.

Your goal as a B2B marketer is to associate your brand with a positive, relevant feeling on the part of your audience – and that feeling can actually be quite subtle. It could be confidence, trust, being impressed, or simply the sense that they like you. But it’s something that’s felt rather than something that’s thought. And when people start to have feelings about your brand, rather than just thoughts about it, powerful things start to happen.

Feeling that a business understands what you’re going through is a particularly important emotion among B2B audiences. In fact, as Binet and Field highlight in their report, signaling empathy is a consistent element in successful B2B brand campaigns. It’s been brilliantly executed by the likes of Volkswagen (in its ‘Working with You’ ads telling the story of small business owners) and HSBC (in its ‘Lift’ ad capturing the highs and lows of an entrepreneur’s 40-year career).

But these aren’t the only emotions that B2B brands can generate. Volvo Trucks’ multi-award-winning (and highly effective) ‘Epic Split’ ad worked so well because it elicited a very simple emotion: the feeling of ‘Wow!’ It was impressive, it was likeable, and it was therefore perfectly positioned to generate the right kind of memories. BT repositioned its brand for smaller businesses by focusing on the human power of connection and the good feeling that comes from working in partnership with others.

Reassurance is another key emotion in B2B, and one beautifully triggered by HSBC (again) in its long-running campaign, ‘The World’s Local Bank’, which signaled size and stability while avoiding impressions of arrogance. Nor are big-budget ads the only way of generating such emotions. Consistent, authoritative, high-profile thought leadership can do something very similar. EY’s campaigning stance around gender equality has a powerful emotional element, positioning the business as trustworthy, principled and global without saying so explicitly.

Emotion, then, is a powerful strategy for B2B businesses – and a strategy that’s closer within reach than many B2B marketers assume. But that doesn’t mean that emotion should be the priority for all marketing activity. It’s not a case of sprinkling it haphazardly over everything. At different points in the B2B customer journey, it pays to dial down the emotion – and dial up the appeal to logic and common sense.

When appealing to reason makes sense

Marketing that’s designed to prompt a fairly immediate action like filling in a lead form or agreeing to a call from sales doesn’t rely on memory in the same way that brand building does. As a result, it doesn’t rely on emotion. On the other hand, it gets a big advantage from presenting compelling, conscious reasons to act.

This is why the IPA data shows that campaigns with rational messaging produce roughly twice as many short-term activation effects, such as sales uplifts or spikes in Marketing Qualified Leads (MQLs) as those with more emotional messaging. If you’re targeting the bottom of the funnel, the rational side of the brain needs to come back into play.

Messages vs Emotions in B2B - Activation Effects - Source: IPA Databank, 1998-2018 B2B cases

However, these activation campaigns are not competing for leads and sales on a level playing field. Those that perform best have a huge advantage. They may be pitching messages to B2B buyers and influencers on a rational level, but they are doing so on the back of brands built on emotion, which have already primed people to believe what they say.

Why brands in touch with their emotions generate more leads

It’s the power that brands exert over the decision to take a call with sales, fill in a lead generation form, or take up a free trial that many marketers miss. They assume that because rational messages prompt action, those messages are being assessed in a purely rational way. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

Imagine you’re a B2B buyer receiving product-focused ads or case studies from two different potential suppliers. If you already like one of those two brands, you are going to pay more attention to its claims, and view them in a more positive light. It’s a simple truth, and it’s known in neuroscience circles as the ‘affect’ heuristic. The fact that your judgment of a marketing message is affected by whether you like the brand or not doesn’t make you less professional or less dependable in your role as a B2B buyer. It just makes you human.

This is why businesses that invest in building brands are far more successful at driving sales or generating leads than those that don’t. And businesses that succeed in associating their brands with a particular emotion, consistently over time, are the most successful of all.

Emotional brand strategies – not just emotional ads

All too often, emotion is an afterthought in B2B marketing campaigns – something we ponder while an ad is in development. Could we make it funny? Could we make it sad? Could we tell more of a story with it? The data shows that this is the wrong time to be thinking this way. Emotion needs to be a strategic consideration in B2B marketing from the outset – not a part of the execution to be tweaked. Associating your brand with it is a long-term investment that will influence the success of your marketing and your business for years to come.

That’s why it’s important to choose your emotions carefully: think about them, commit to them, and most definitely, talk about them when building your overall marketing strategy. Doing so doesn’t make your brand less credible or less rational. It just ensures that when you talk to people about why they should buy from you, they are far more likely to listen.

Register now for "The Principles of B2B Marketing" live webcast, which will feature LinkedIn's Peter Weinberg and Jon Lombardo discussing the Binet & Field research. The webcast takes place at noon ET/9am PT on Monday, November 11. 

And to put Binet & Field's principles into immediate action on LinkedIn, visit LinkedIn Campaign Manager today