School of Thought

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Making Them Care in B2B

This past week, Tom Geary, Executive Creative Director and Founder of School of Thought, spoke in a podcast interview with Sweet Fish Media about building a better B2B marketing landscape.

Effectively, it’s pretty boring out there, he says. Most of the advertising is forgettable.

Although that might sound like good news for a stealthy marketer with novel ideas, it has its own downside. The bar is set impossibly low and it doesn’t take much to impress a target audience. It’s also a struggle to get everyone on the same page to take more risks to stand out.

If it’s been done before, then it must be safe.

“It’s about emotional connection (or it should be) and yet there’s been this perfect storm…” says Geary.

“There’s this notion that our tech is special and our data is everything and we can do it in-house—and the answer to each of those things is ‘no,’ ‘no’ and ‘maybe.’”

There are plenty of companies that believe their approach to B2B marketing should be different than what they employ for their B2C partners. That might sound like a compelling stance, but it’s just not really true. No matter which side you’re on, you’re still human…and human beings are driven by emotion.

Another reason the B2B space frequently fails to create more innovative advertising is that marketers tend to undergo something called “herd mentality.” At McCann, Geary was one in over 600 employees. It was nearly impossible to move the needle.

All people seem to talk about anymore is where they’re at in Gartner’s Magic Quadrant (a measure of how a brand is performing, based off market research.) Companies want to say, “oh, you know, we’re the choice of the Fortune 500…,” but there are a lot of people out there who are saying that already. “When you’re at such an enormous shop, it’s like turning in a supertanker,” he says.


How do you distinguish yourself from the herd, instead of letting your brand be “so much wallpaper”?

One thing we keep coming back to here at School of Thought is this whitepaper, published by Google some years ago. It’s called '“From Promotion to Emotion: Connecting B2B Customers to Brands.”

It’s a perfect example of how marketing in the B2B space shouldn’t be any different than marketing to any other industry. In the paper, the authors say:

“We tend to forget that whenever there are people trying to work together to make a decision, there will be interpersonal and, inevitably, emotional forces at work.”

It takes millions and millions of impressions to make something really stick, says Geary. You have to stop relying on the awards to prove you know what you’re doing. Instead, look at the value behind the work. Anything else would be like going on a first date and leading the conversation with some badge of honor that undermines your true cause. You’ll surely miss that second date if you start out by asking, “have you seen my Porsche?”

There’s a better way to hook people, says Geary. Also, it’s not just your customers and the target audience you need to be thinking about. What about the people who work inside those stagnant B2B marketing departments?


Thinking back to the middle of the recession, Geary remembers the work he did with iShares to help boost morale. When the economy wasn’t doing too well, nobody was trading stocks and everyone had put their money in cash. That said, it was a particularly hard time for everyone at the company, as well.

Geary’s creative team came up with a plan that would drive employee engagement with the company mission again. Internally, there was a ~90% boost in participation from employees. You could almost hear the smiles echoing through the halls: it was just the sort of thing they needed during the downturn to restore faith in the work they were doing, and push the company forward.

So, what’s so hard about making people care? Sometimes it’s just those blinders you don’t even know you have on while you’re at your job. Marketers are too close to the subject matter when they’re working in-house to be able to come up with a fresh perspective.

“Hopefully people out there in marketing aspire to have a distinctive brand,” he says. “If you want to have a distinctive brand, your communications have to be distinctive.”

Realistically, Geary says, you’re not going to be competing with Nike thinking you’re going to outsell them in the shoe department, but you can try to make a tiny dent in that landscape. Even if you come up with something “crushingly good,” it might not affect the brand even a tenth of a percent.

However, you have to kick back sometimes and take a breath and evaluate the industry you’re working in. There’s a great opportunity to be distinct and not enough people are doing it because they can’t see what’s in front of them, or they’re too busy thinking the same way.

Geary likens this to his experience at Adobe. He’s the same writer now that he was back then. The only difference now is that he’s outside of “the bubble.” There’s a cultural effect and sometimes that makes it really hard for there to be effective communication.


So, how do you break from the repetition?

Well, you can always get in touch with School of Thought (shameless plug) for help with your B2B advertising strategies, or you can start asking yourself those difficult questions that get to the heart of the sell. Find out what your “secret sauce” is and show people.

At School of Thought, we always do an analysis of the competitive landscape before we go into a project, because we never want to do anything that’s been done before. We’re always looking to be unique in the category.

That should be a starting point,” says Geary. “If people can say, ‘how can we be different, how can we do something that’s completely different?’ —then, you’re in a good place.”

James Carbary is the founder of Sweet Fish Media, a podcast agency for B2B brands. He’s a contributor for the Huffington Post & Business Insider, and co-hosts B2B Growth, a top-ranked podcast by Forbes.

Get your free copy of The Definitive Guide to Referral Marketing from our friends over at Ambassador. You can find this interview, and many more, by subscribing to the B2B Growth Show on iTunes.

You can connect with Tom Geary on LinkedIn, here.

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