Skip to Main Content

Balancing brand and activation work in B2B marketing

Posted by Chris King on 26th May 2021

I recently stumbled upon the work of The B2B Institute — a think tank, funded by LinkedIn — that has been doing some really interesting work geared towards making B2B marketers more productive and successful.

The Institute’s work touches on lots of areas, but the one that struck a particular chord with me is around brand building, or rather the lack of it, in business-to-business relationships.

The Institute maintains — and I think they have a point — that as B2B marketers we’re preoccupied with short-term, bottom-of-the-funnel tactics designed to get fast click-throughs and downloads to the detriment of long-term brand building.

The conclusion, in a nutshell, is that there needs to be better balance between the two.

Is B2B and B2C really that different?

When you think about consumer marketing, so much of the effort and spend is geared towards brand building.

Let’s take a brand like Evian as an example. Along with other bottled water brands, Evian has been very successful in convincing huge numbers of us to buy from them what we have in plentiful, low-cost supply from our nearest tap.

How have they done that? Through years of brand associations with the Swiss Alps, purity, health and youthfulness. This is then balanced with activations like the #LiveYoung social media campaigns and celebrity tie-ups with tennis star Maria Sharapova.

Now, assuming you’re reading this as a B2B marketer. Think about what your company’s marketing is telling your target audiences about your brand. What kind of meaning, feelings, emotional cues are you conveying about the company? Is it all just product press releases, blogs, campaign-driven whitepapers, webinars, surveys and maybe some LinkedIn ads?

I’m guessing so…but don’t beat yourself up. Think of other B2B brands you know and it’s probably the same answers for them, too.

When you’re selling something like bottled water, branding is everything. Apart from a very slightly different combination of minerals in the bottle, what you’re selling is identical to everyone else so the brand is how you differentiate.

Granted, in the B2B and tech space there can be more differentiation as a result of the IP that underpins the products and services that are offered. Yet even then, the kind of marketing themes and content being focused on are probably broadly generic and highly competitive, like #DigitalTransformation or #TheFutureofWork.

Elephant vs. goldfish

As I said at the outset, the secret is balance.

It’s not about branding being better than activation-focused efforts, or vice-versa. You need both, but it’s easy to see why activations get a disproportionate split of the budget.

In the short-term you’ve got demand generation KPIs to hit every quarter and the pressure of real-time dashboards/reports exposing the extent to which those targets are being met.

In contrast, brand building is a long game. It takes years to create a brand but it’s ultimately a really valuable investment. You’re cementing your company in the consciousness of an audience so that, like an elephant, they never forget. Activations, in contrast, are more opportunistically catching people ‘in the moment’ — not leaving a lasting impression, like a goldfish.

If you can hit the right combo you can create some powerful momentum.

Hit short-term KPIs efficiently and you can free up budget to develop that long-term brand effectiveness. Over time, as you build the brand this has a kickback in terms of making demand gen efforts more effective.

On the flipside, just doing action-focused marketing won’t build you a brand regardless of the amount of money you throw at it. Les Binet and Peter Field’s seminal report The Long and the Short of It is great additional reading on this topic.

Binet and Field are also famous for their 60/40 rule. Their B2C studies suggest that for the optimum balance 60% of the communications budget should go to mass brand building/advertising and 40% to narrowly targeted, segmented campaigns that are focused on immediate sales. The work of The B2B Institute suggests as a guiding principle that in B2B the split should be more equal (i.e. 50/50).

Job preservation vs. ambition

If you’re risk averse, B2B marketing can become all about job preservation — targeting receptive buyers with relevant messaging that generates immediate leads and ROI to stop you from getting fired.

However, B2B marketing can also be about ambition — the less targeted but more emotive work to reach the broader circle of people who could be involved in buying decisions in years to come.

The kind of emotive branding that sticks in our memory and influences purchase choices well past the useful life of a typical activation.

So why not be brave and be ambitious?

Using the Wildfire Think.Bold approach, we can help you find that balance between integrated campaigns that meet the short-term need for sales opportunities and those that turn ambition into action to support long-term branding goals.

Chris King

Chris’s extensive experience of agency PR, ‘can-do’ attitude and track record for achieving outstanding results time after time make him a firm favourite amongst clients. His natural teaching skills make him an expert mentor and respected MD.