There’s been an uptick in the discourse in marketing circles recently around the subject of B2B marketing. From the revamp of Peter Field and Les Binet’s ‘The Long and Short of It’ with a B2B slant, to Rory Sutherland’s recent discussion of the landscape, it feels like the industry is waking up to the need for an overdue re-appraisal of what B2B marketing can be.
Some B2B brands are taking steps in interesting new directions as a result. BT is one such brand. The latest two campaigns for BT Global’s B2B offerings, created with Wunderman Thompson, have demonstrated a departure from the stereotypes of the space. Partnering with illustrator Noma Bar and artist Michael Murphy, they take a noticeably more human, emotive tone.
To ponder this shift, LBB’s Alex Reeves caught up with Martin Harrison, strategy partner at Wunderman Thompson UK and Antonia Barton, global B2B marketing director at BT.
LBB> There are some stereotypes about how B2B advertising works that run pretty deep. How do you feel about that prejudice?
Martin> I think it probably is founded to a certain extent. I'm the strategy partner and I work across Enterprise and Global, which are the two B2B bits of BT. I wasn't, before I started doing this, a B2B specialist. One of the things that you notice is that there's a formulaic approach to B2B. And it's underpinned by this belief that it has to be terribly serious and terribly rational. Because we're not talking to consumers who are making frivolous decisions about their life, we're talking to serious people who are doing serious business and thinking about things seriously. One of the things that we've seen from our instinct, from research and from speaking to customers, is that people actually do bring quite a lot of emotional baggage to their workplace. We don't have separate identities. And I think the last year with Covid has highlighted that in particular.
We don't have separate work and life identities, they meld together. And we get as much emotional value from the decisions we make in work as we do in our consumer lives, maybe arguably a little bit more in some senses, in terms of your self image and self worth.
So actually, brands should be as inspirational in B2B as they are in B2C. The other side of that is that an emotionally engaging piece of communication is significantly more effective than something that's much more rationally driven. I think we cottoned on to that quite early. Antonia, from the client point of view has championed that internally and has pushed us as an agency to keep raising the bar each time and being more interesting and engaging.
LBB> Antonia, how do you feel about that B2B/B2C dichotomy?
Antonia> My background was consumer. I used to be a product director for television and sports. So I come from a media background. And before BT, I was at Sky. So I've always been up for the wow factor and the best, the most beautiful creative. And I came over to BT to help them with the television and sports side of things, which I spent four years on, then went into enterprise marketing, which was a bit of a shock to the system. That's when I found Wunderman Thompson and we started our journey.
The problem in enterprise was, it took me so long to restructure the team and some of the real hygiene factors that we didn't really get to show any creative flair, I felt. No disrespect, Martin, to the work that we did, but it was very typical of B2B marketing, because that was where we were at.
When I moved over to Global, which was another step up for me, I thought, "right, this time, I'm really going to make this fly and make my ambition come true", which for me as a client is to make technology sexy.
I said to Wunderman Thompson, I don't want to see any smiling men in suits shaking hands, I want to paint it neon pink with rave music. That's quite frankly where my head was at.
Martin> I think three or four years ago it was men in suits shaking hands. And then it was like, "actually B2B needs to catch up with the rest of the world", so it was men in suits with beards shaking hands with a lady. And that was like, "we're reflecting the modern, modern, diverse workplace here".
LBB> Knowing what you’re definitely not doing, where did you go next to work out the strategy you’d go for?
Martin> I think people sometimes struggle to get their head around BT Global because everybody's familiar with BT in the UK. But Global deals with multinational organisations, so their customers are the CIOs [chief information officers] of the world's biggest companies. They've got a group called the global advisory board. And on that board you have the CIOs of their biggest customers. These people are really interesting characters.
To Antonia's point about making technology sexy, over the past few years, increasingly, pretty much all businesses are either a tech business or transitioning to be a tech business in some way, shape or form. Therefore, they're asking their CIOs (who traditionally were just buying services at the cheapest price) about strategy, asking about the future and direction. And these people are equipped to have those conversations. So they themselves are interesting, nuanced, and strategically literate, and a lot of them are very big personalities. And you're kind of trying to influence them with this very bland imagery with granular justifications underneath? They're looking at what the future is going to go to be and what the future means for their business. So if BT wants to be their partner, you have to have that same enthusiasm, the same values. I think that's one of the things that is lacking in B2B an awful lot - that idea that we've got a vision for what the world will look like that's inspirational and shared.
LBB> And how did that crystallise into the idea for your security campaign that launched with illustrator Noma Bar in November?
Martin> 'We see further' was the underlying thought underneath it. But brought to life in a much more engaging, emotionally, visually impactful way that brought through that idea of hidden dangers. Not in a way like classic security - the hacker in a hoodie, hunched over, this unseen threat that lurks. There's nothing very sexy about that. What we're able to do is proactively being able to spot something, almost being a puzzle solver - seeing something that other people don't is a much more positive and interesting way to talk to somebody who's concerned about security.
LBB> How has that strategy panned out and how has it informed your feelings about B2B marketing further?
Antonia> I remember when I took this job in Global and I was running an internal event. I got told all day, "don't crack any jokes", and "don't have that comedian". I was just like, "what's, what's going on here?" And they were like, "well, you know, it's quite corporate". So what? Let's have fun. It doesn't make any difference. It's this stereotype that people don't really want it. And I think Martin and I, and the Wunderman Thompson team, we've had the confidence to take risks, some might say, trying to shake the norm, and see if going down the consumer route is the right thing to do.
So far, it's definitely proving to be the right decision. Internally, everybody in the company loves it. Our CEO is full of praise for the work that we've done, which is incredible, because normally the focus is on consumer marketing. And secondly, the feedback we're getting from customers is excellent. Right now we are trying to be seen as more of a technology company, not a telecommunications company, we're evolving. And if you were working inside BT you would see all of that happening. But on the outside, all of these steps that we're making are to show people that we are changing, we do think and act in a completely different way. And we're trying to bring that to life through marketing.
Martin> It’s a more emotional, more engaging story. It's not a list of rational facts. I think one of the interesting things about Global is that they do have a vision for what the future is going to look like, and how the world's largest businesses should be able to get to grips with it. And that's a more interesting place to start a conversation than "we've got this particular technology which we can roll out in this many markets very efficiently".
LBB> The Noma Bar campaign then led on to your latest one, in which you collaborated with renowned artist Michael Murphy to build an installation on the theme of perception. How did that come together?
Antonia> It gives me goosebumps watching it. It's been a really amazing journey. It hasn't been a difficult one, interestingly. I mean, we had to source a lot of parts. And it was sort of finding the right area, but considering he had to come over from the States in the middle of Covid, and it was Christmas, everything that was there as a blocker, it was executed so well. And, hopefully, as you can see, it's just a completely refreshing way of demonstrating how BT can offer you a contact or connected experience.
Martin> One of the things that we do a lot with Global is speak to the people who actually make the products or are in front of the customers and talking about it. We noticed when people describe the products, or what they do, they use very emotional language quite naturally. People don't really talk in technology.
With the security campaign we noticed that people would use a lot of idioms like, 'needle in a haystack' or 'can't see the wood for the trees', which kind of sparked it off. On this one, I think it was Dr Nicola Millard, who's the workplace expert, who said, talking about customer contact, it's like the face of the business to your customer. And you have to put on a good show. That line was this idea. If you're thinking about a head of customer experience, or somebody like that, that's their job, it is connecting a lot of stuff together, but the ultimate outcome is the customer comes in, has a great experience, goes away, tells somebody about that great experience. So we use the analogy: you can have a show in your local school, or you can have a Broadway show and BT help you create Broadway shows, and not for Broadway prices.
LBB> Why did you end up choosing Michael to collaborate with?
Martin> The interesting thing about customer contact is if everybody does their job, nobody notices. You call up the business and you say "I've got a problem" and the person on the other end of the line says "cool, we'll solve that". And they don't you don't see everything that goes on in the background. Similarly why we thought Michael was a really good analogy for that was that you don't see all the work that he does with all the wires; what you see is this apparently finished thing that's just incredible. It all comes together and it just seems so logical and simple. Bringing those metaphors for what people do in their everyday life to the fore, is a great way of engaging people. It's not talking about technology in its basic stark terms; it's talking about the inspiration or the sexy part of it - the way that it's changing the world that we live in. Our customers are excited about technology, they want to be excited about technology. So it's up to us to share that excitement.
LBB> It’s interesting that both Noma Bar and Michael Murphy seem like figures from way outside the stereotypical professional sphere - they’re much more from the world of expression than business. Is that why they’re such good choices for B2B marketing maybe?
Martin> We landed on art because it's emotional, it's interesting, it's different, you know that you can get something visually impactful from it. But the other thing is that they have their process as well. They're building something, creating. making something. And it is a business, so we're engaging with these artists as a business engaging a business. It shines a light on the fact that there are multiple different types of businesses, multiple different kinds of things that people do in the world that are how they get meaning from their work. Artists get meaning from their work and everybody wants to get meaning from their work. We shouldn't be so rational in B2B as thinking people come in with a tick list. I'm sure you have to make buying decisions. You probably have a Moleskine notebook, rather than the cheapest, most functional one, because it says something about, how you feel about your job. And that that's really what we're tapping into - people want to feel fulfilled and happy. And their job is one of the key ways that that happens. That's as true of an SME down road as it is of the global CIO of Fiat Chrysler. These people want to see that they can affect change, and they get satisfaction from it.
We're not laying absolutely everything out. There's a bit of a visual metaphor, there's something to think about. Our customers are thoughtful people, you don't get to be senior technologists in global businesses by accident. We're acknowledging their sophistication, we're speaking to them as human beings, assuming that they understand art metaphors, etc., and giving them something to interact with in a more interesting way.
In any kind of business relationship, you're one of a series of things that the customer has to think about. And the challenge is to be the most interesting bit of their day. And if you can be the most interesting bit of their day, then you're way ahead. It's the same thing with the advertising materials we put in front of them. If we can be the most interesting thing that they saw the most thought provoking, then we're kind of 50% of the way to engaging them more fully.
Antonia> We feel like we're sort of pioneers in this space at the moment in terms of doing something quite groundbreaking in the B2B market. It's a brand that you wouldn't possibly expect something like this from so it's quite an important milestone for us. And keep watching the space because hopefully next year we've got a lot of other pretty cool stuff to come.
Martin> Yeah, Antonia's not allowing us to rest on our laurels!
Antonia> No, raise the bar every time!