Five Common B2B Advertising Myths

Selling to a company is different than selling to a consumer. But there are some fundamental principles all ads should follow

A few days ago, my company met with a business-to-business client that had hired us to help position its firm as a leader in a category it had recently entered. We presented a handful of concepts that were different, compelling, and that would stand out among all the bland ads in their targeted trade publications. Usually, when an ad agency is presenting new ideas, you can pretty much tell how the meeting is going by the looks on the clients' faces. This one wasn't going so well.

When we finished our presentation, the room was uncomfortably silent until one of the representatives of the client team spoke up. He was the one who gave us the assignment, and he could see how the campaign would accomplish the objectives set out for us. He thought it was different. He thought it was breakthrough. He thought it was smart.

But it wasn't long before one of his colleagues weighed in. He, too, thought we had something to work with but "suggested" a few changes. He didn't want the campaign to be too attention-getting. He thought it should look more like those that were already in the magazines. He was afraid that a captivating appeal like the one we were suggesting wouldn't be direct enough. And he wanted to include more copy points and product shots. In other words, he wanted a typical B2B ad.

Time to Debunk

This is a common occurrence that happens in conference rooms across the country every day. It's not that there's anything inherently wrong with copy points and product shots, but there seems to be a powerful gravitational pull towards the bland in business-to-business advertising. The reasons, I believe, are because of a handful of persistent myths that permeate the industry's thinking. Here are a few:

B2B is different. This is probably the most common misunderstanding—that somehow the rules of everyday marketing don't apply in a business-to-business context. Sure, selling to a company is different than selling to a consumer. But it's no more different than selling toothpaste is to selling paint, or even than selling wine is to selling beer. In each case, you're trying to win over a unique group of people with an existing array of preconceptions and a distinct set of needs. No two marketing assignments are alike, yet every marketing assignment is subject to the same fundamental and unchanging principles (see below).

Information trumps emotion. Anybody who has spent time working in business-to-business advertising will hear this refrain (or some variation of it): "Make the product the hero," or "Get right to the point," or "Just make sure it has a strong call to action." It's as if the people who read B2B ads don't buy Nike (NKE) shoes, attend Cirque du Soleil, or shop at Target (TGT) on the weekends. Or if they do, they somehow disengage the right sides of their brains Monday through Friday.

That's not to say that information isn't important, and especially so when you're dealing with purchases that can run into the thousands or millions of dollars. But the bigger the purchase (typically), the longer the sales cycle. This affects the role that an ad can be expected to play (see, Winter, 2007, "Staying on Top of Your Game").

In most advertising—consumer as well as B2B—it's the job of the ad to open the sale, not close it. And just because you want your prospects to know something doesn't mean they want to hear it. At least not at first. There's a saying that people don't care how much you know until they know how much you care, and there's truth to that even in advertising. First you must demonstrate that you understand the challenging world in which your prospects live, and then perhaps they will be willing to listen.

Creativity isn't important. This myth is less likely to be articulated but still widely held. It's why ads in trade magazines tend to be riddled with bullet points. There's nothing wrong with making advertising for even the most mundane products tasteful and aesthetically appealing. Even people who wear pocket protectors enjoy a good wine, a well-crafted movie, or a beautiful piece of art. With apologies to ad great David Ogilvy ("The consumer isn't a moron; she is your wife."), the prospect isn't a robot; he is your neighbor.

Companies buy things. I've been in business for 20 years, and not once has my company bought anything. Nor have we ever sold anything to another company. Companies don't buy things, people do. True, a committee may need to approve your purchase, but even committees are composed of people. And in all but the rarest of cases, there's one person on that committee who holds the key—someone with thoughts and feelings and likes and dislikes and hopes and dreams. Someone who can be captivated and motivated to move your request along.

But what about the "second sale" that's often required in business-to-business transactions? It's true that once you win one person over you may still have a lot of work to do. However, this real and challenging complexity doesn't change the fundamental equation. And B2B marketers aren't alone in facing it. Ask a breakfast-cereal maker who's more important to win over—junior or Mom—and the answer you'll get is: "both."

You are your target. One of the most common mistakes all of us make is projecting our own attitudes, perceptions, and behaviors on other people. I don't have a MySpace page, and I don't watch Grey's Anatomy, but I'm pretty sure a whole lot of other people do. You probably have a lot in common with those in your industry, but you have many differences as well. Just because you respond to an ad in a certain way doesn't mean other people will do the same. Especially since you're already sold on what your company sells.

Over the years, my company has struggled with the creativity-limiting effects of myths like these many times. But we have also enjoyed breakthroughs with forward-thinking clients who overcome their pull. What we have learned is that people are people, and whether they're making a purchase for themselves, their families, their companies, or even their government, their decision-making processes aren't entirely rational. Even when they're thumbing through the trades (perhaps especially then), they're attracted to appeals that are unique, interesting, and compelling.

When everybody's zigging, it's a good time to zag. Discard the myths that hold most B2B advertising back, and win your company the attention it deserves.

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