While traditional B2B marketing has historically been viewed as sales-driven, many B2B companies are now successfully evolving their marketing strategies to a more marketing-driven approach, focusing on providing consistent customer experience and sustaining customer interest by employing cause-based narrative storytelling, typically a hallmark of consumer marketing.
B2B organizations of all sizes and in all industries can employ purpose-led storytelling to differentiate themselves in the marketplace. However, to be effective, they need to fully understand the key factors that are influencing this trend.
A New Generation
73% of 20- to 35-year-olds are involved in product or service purchase decision making at their companies. Millennials and Gen Z decision-makers prefer short bursts of information in visual formats and tend to dislike phone calls. Research conducted by the Harvard Business Review shows that young B2B buyers base their purchasing decisions in part on subjective judgements such as cultural fit and inspirational elements such as social responsibility. Aspects of consumer behavior once associated solely with B2C marketing are starting to bleed into the B2B sector as well.
An Accenture Strategy report which analyzed consumer behavior states that factors beyond price and quality, such as transparency and commitment to a social or environmental cause, influence buying decisions of an increasing number of young people. This indicates the personal beliefs of younger decision-makers are likely to influence the purchasing decisions they make on behalf of their organizations.
Brand Narratives and Storytelling
Changing market conditions also necessitate that B2B companies employ aspects of B2C inbound marketing tactics in their marketing mix to gain a competitive edge. The role of technology in selling business services in a crowded marketplace has led to the dehumanization of B2B brands. 70% of all search terms by buyers tend to be for generic terms such as ‘CMS software’ rather than for a particular brand. Purpose-led storytelling narratives can help put a human face to the products and services sold by B2B companies.
B2B sales cycles tend to be much longer than B2C sales cycles and employing storytelling narratives can sustain longer-term marketing efforts. Research has shown that stories can be up to 22 times more memorable than simple facts making it essential for sales teams to recognize the value of long-term storytelling. With customer acquisition costs on the rise, purpose-driven marketing can be an effective customer retention strategy by building a longer-lasting relationship with customers based on a shared set of values.
Kantar’s Purpose 2020 report offered some revealing insights about the future of B2B purpose-led marketing. The brand value of companies perceived as having a high positive impact on people’s lives grew by 2.5 times more than brands with low perceived impact over the same period.
Alicia Tillman, CMO of SAP, is a proponent of purpose-driven marketing and believes that B2B marketing needs to become more like B2C marketing and focus more on messages that resonate with people. After becoming CMO in August 2017, one of her first tasks was to streamline SAP’s communications and develop a brand narrative that articulates SAP’s purpose and the value it provides its customers. This narrative would serve as the foundation for its campaigns and sales strategies.
Practically, this meant focusing on outcomes rather than operations – instead of communicating how it makes companies run better, SAP now communicates how the best run companies make the world run better. This purpose-driven approach has produced results. Under Tillman’s tenure, SAP has gone from 21 to 16 in Millward Brown’s BrandZ listing of the world’s most valuable brands.
Storytelling boosts credibility and brand perception. A 2014 global study conducted by Nielsen found that 55% of its 30,000 respondents had an increased willingness to pay for products of companies which they perceived as being committed to positive social and environmental impact.
Communicating a brand’s purpose convincingly and with consistency can be challenging. For example, according to a Nielsen survey, more than two-thirds of U.S. senior executives said their companies are more committed to corporate citizenship than they were three years ago. Still, only 39% of the general public agreed.
An increasing number of people, regardless of age, value authenticity in a company’s branding. Supporting a cause that perfectly aligns with a company’s brand is less important than a company being true internally to values it espouses externally.
With this shift in perception, brands must tailor their communication style accordingly to create space for authentic storytelling that encourages two-way, open dialogue. With the internet and social media, it is easy to be well-informed about a company’s actual track record. Companies risk losing credibility if they appear to be disingenuous about their value system. Indeed, authenticity may be the determining factor in a purpose-driven marketing strategy’s success or failure.
One way that purpose-driven brands can be consistently authentic in their messaging is by tapping into their employees’ inherent need for greater meaning in their work lives and promoting the adoption of the company’s values by its employees. Active participation from employees aids a more motivated and sustained focus on the overall strategy of a company as well as providing customers with a better experience due to increased consistency in their interactions with the company’s various functional departments. Content shared by employee advocates also receives over eight times higher engagement.
Walking the Talk
Some companies have institutionalized their purpose by registering as certified B-Corps. The B-Corp logo on a company’s marketing collateral is proof that the company has gone through the rigorous third-party certification process – an assessment of the company’s impact on its workers, customers, community and environment – and is committed to third-party validation, public transparency, legal accountability, and balancing profit and purpose. B2C companies such as Patagonia, Danone North America and Ben & Jerry’s as well as B2B Companies such as Traction on Demand, the Optel Group and Republik have all integrated B-Corp certification into their storytelling narratives, to great success. Short of becoming a B-Corp, you can also partner with companies that help facilitate social good and have your clients' best interests at heart.
Authentic and effective purpose-led marketing strategies transcend simple lead generation. They can be of significant strategic importance to B2B companies by increasing competitiveness and cultivating long-term relationships with customers based on factors that go beyond product price and quality. Investment in developing and communicating purpose-led brand narratives can produce disproportionate long-term returns through goodwill earned among younger generations that can be a competitive advantage to companies of all sizes in an often volatile and increasingly competitive marketplace.