Can Purpose Build B2B Brands? Our Experience Suggests It Can.

Lessons from one of LinkedIn’s longest-running marketing campaigns.

February 8, 2021

Woman in front of a large window smiling with a laptop

Three years ago, LinkedIn launched the Real Faces of Sales campaign to counter the negative representation of salespeople in the media. It’s now one of the longest-running marketing campaigns in our business’s history and has helped to raise awareness of the valuable role that modern sales professionals play in the success of their customers and how we can help.

Ultimately, the campaign increased unaided brand awareness of LinkedIn Sales Navigator by 250%. The Real Faces of Sales has taught us a lot about how brand and purpose can combine in B2B marketing. Here are some of the most important lessons that we’ve picked up along the way.

Purpose-Driven Marketing Is a Partnership

Purpose can be a divisive concept in marketing. There’s been criticism that marketing strategies focused on social issues are a distraction from the real roles of brands in their customers’ lives – and don’t really differentiate one business from another. However, if you can identify a purpose that will make a real difference to your particular audience – and one that your business has a relevant role helping to solve – you can establish a partnership that brings your brand and customer-base closer together.

The idea for Real Faces of Sales was sparked by research that told us 79% of business decision-makers believed media portrayals of salespeople sold the profession short. They couldn’t recognize the trusted business advisors they chose to work with in the manipulative, aggressive stereotypes that populate TV shows, movies and stock image libraries.

While we had a clear objective around raising awareness for our LinkedIn Sales Navigator suite of tools, which helps modern salespeople build real relationships by understanding how to deliver value for their customers, we were aware salespeople weren’t getting the credit they deserved for this type of relationship-building. So, taking up the cause of dispelling myths around sales helped to turn our target audience into a community, and enabled us to show not only that we understood salespeople and the outdated perceptions they deal with – but that we cared enough to do something about it and had a solution that could help

End-Users Are the Best Possible Cast for Your Brand Story

When you’re serious about a cause that means a lot to your community, one of the best ways of demonstrating that is to make members of that community the heroes of your campaign. This is an approach that a growing number of B2B tech brands are adopting as they realize the value of end-users as brand advocates. And it’s a strategy that was central to Real Faces of Sales from the start.

The first phase of the campaign focused on addressing the issue of negative media stereotypes directly by creating an image library of real salespeople. This was an alternative to stock shots of smarmy-looking models in suits, flashing bright-wide smiles and insistently shaking hands to seal some imaginary deal. It was important to find real people with real stories who reflected the diversity of modern sales, and it took casting calls and shoots with hundreds of companies to find the most compelling.

We made our images available to download for free on stock libraries like Unsplash and Pexels, and launched the campaign with a film introducing the people behind our Real Faces of Sales. Something quickly became apparent: There’s a huge appetite out there for authentic storytelling about sales. Give people the option of something real, and they will ditch the superficial stereotypes nine times out of 10.

So far, our images have been downloaded about a half a million times. They’ve appeared in publications like Fast Company and Forbes. They’re literally changing the image of the sales profession.

Meanwhile, the community that’s formed around the campaign has done something else. As a marketing team, we’ve been able to build relationships with the real salespeople that we feature. We’ve turned to them for insight into how sales is developing, including during the rapid pivot to remote selling over the last year. We’ve been able to revisit their stories in different phases of the campaign. Making heroes of your end-users doesn’t just provide you with a more authentic alternative to models – it provides you with a sounding board and storytelling resource that has continual value.

For Brand Purpose to Work It Needs Codes and Consistency

One of the concerns that marketing pundits have about purpose in branding is that it doesn’t have enough brand-building elements to it. Because cause-related campaigns are focused around a specific issue at a specific point in time, they don’t stick around long enough to build salience in the minds of an audience. Because they’re focused on an external issue, they don’t have the consistent brand codes and tone of voice that remind people which business they’re hearing from.

Had Real Faces of Sales just turned out to be one campaign, it wouldn’t have delivered the returns that it has for our business. However, our image library and launch campaign were just the start. We’ve built on that foundation every year since with new content and campaigns exploring the value that salespeople deliver. And we’ve done so in a deliberately consistent way.

The second phase of the campaign delivered the message of “Real Sales, Real Benefits,” demonstrating how modern salespeople deliver value to their own business by unlocking value for customers and acting as trusted advisors. In our third year, we led with the fact that, “Real Sales Come from Real Relationships,” demonstrating how long-term partnerships are the key to success in sales – not just closing a deal and walking away.

In each phase of the campaign, we used the same language to stress the authenticity of the stories we were telling and reinforce the idea that the reality of sales is different than what most expect. The campaigns told real stories, making salespeople and B2B buyers the heroes of our photography and video ads. By always communicating in the same way, they turned Real Sales into a brand platform. Applying LinkedIn’s visual style and iconography ensured that our audiences knew who was talking to them – but the authenticity of the stories also became a form of brand code in itself.

A Truth That Resonates With Your Audience Travels All the Way Through the Funnel

Campaigns focused around a common cause can build brands over time – and build a sense of community between your business and your audience. They can also do more. The third phase of our campaign – “Real Sales Come from Real Relationships” – was a full-funnel, integrated campaign that introduced the different ways that LinkedIn Sales Navigator helps salespeople put buyers first. It didn’t just drive awareness, it drove demand, too.

Like any effective integration of brand and demand, we used visuals to link our different campaign elements. Our video campaign told the story of Kelly Gray and Jahnell Pereira a VP of global sales and chief business development officer working together to bring fun, innovative learning experiences to children. Photography of these recognizable characters illustrated more activation-focused ads as well. And every element of the campaign, used the same headline. We never stopped repeating the truth that real sales come from real relationships – and the power of that message enabled us to engage sales leaders with new ideas for how they can build those relationships at scale. A Nielsen study conducted for this phase of the campaign found favorability among non-Sales Navigator users increased 14 percentage points with consideration rising 15 percentage points.

A Clear Sense of Purpose Ensures Agility

Purpose can give a campaign more than just a strong emotional connection to your audience. It also provides a valuable sense of direction to help keep marketing aligned and relevant when circumstances change.

With sales professionals navigating the pivot to remote selling, the Real Sales campaign evolved to reflect the new ways that salespeople are finding to build relationships. Under the theme of “Connecting with your Customers’ New Reality,” it told the story of how real salespeople are continuing to create value for the businesses they partner with. We revisited the stories of our real sales heroes from earlier in the campaign – showing how the basis of real relationships remains strong even when those relationships are being built from a distance.

Real Sales has continued to resonate even when the landscape for sales changes. And that’s because it’s more than just a campaign. Purpose isn’t just a tactic. When it’s genuinely relevant to both your business and your audience, it’s one of the most enduring and flexible assets that a brand can have.

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