Often B2B marketing is seen as the less creative version of its customer-facing cousin. Throw away those brainstorming sessions and build-in perpetual innovation.

When you think of attention-grabbing, innovative marketing campaigns, do you think they are something you could do in your B2B program? Or are they great ideas that have little to do with your organisation – something you look at and think ‘if only!’, as far flung from the world of B2B marketing as Red Bull’s skydive from the stratosphere.

“One thing to keep in mind is that what looks innovative in B2B is very different than in B2C,” says Carla Johnson, Chief Experience Officer at Type A Communications and Former Chair of the Association of National Advertisers Business Marketing Board. After all, she notes, people don’t make decisions the same way when buying a $6.49 burrito as a $6.49M piece of equipment.

But, Johnson says, there is “ample opportunity” to be creative in B2B marketing, in the same way B2C campaigns do.

After hearing a talk on customer experience by Zappos, an online shoe and clothing shop, Johnson lamented the lack of relevance to her work – her biggest client at the time was a boron mining company. There was, to her mind, no connection between what Zappos was doing with shoes and what her client wanted to achieve in mining.

“But when we dug into what Zappos was doing, it turned out there was a great deal behind the ideas of what Zappos was implementing that did apply to the mining industry. It was just our ability to step back and look at what made them successful and why, and then transplant that into our work.”

Innovation requires marketers to look beyond their areas of expertise

Johnson initially ignored useful tips on customer experience because they came from a company that was, on the surface, from a different world from hers. She likewise thinks that what prevents B2B marketers from producing creative and attention-grabbing work is the tendency to “dismiss the relevancy or application of a great idea because they think that what they sell is different or unique”. Johnson calls this Brand Detachment Disorder.

“It comes into play when people try to use another company as inspiration and instead of relating the essence of what’s behind an idea to their work, they try to copy and paste it,” Johnson says.

Further, buy-in isn’t due to lack of appetite for marketing innovation among B2B executives. Johnson notes executives tell her they want more innovative ideas from their teams, but instead see the “same ideas they’ve always done, just dressed up in different packages”.

B2B marketers are more than capable of thinking outside the box, but it is difficult to connect the dots between ‘what your company does’ and what inspires you (and your audience).

Johnson points to Tim Washer, who had a background in comedy before moving to a marketing position at Cisco. Washer took note of how comedians built relationships with their audiences through humour and applied those ideas to creating content. For example, ‘The Perfect Gift for Valentine’s Day’ video promotes the Cisco’s $80,000 ASR 9000 router. Washer didn’t think anyone would rush out to buy the expensive bit of technology after seeing a short video, but saw the advantage in humanising a B2B brand when building relationships. The video hit a nerve was shared multiple times over, made it to the New York Times blog and is still mentioned now, over four years later, as an example great marketing humour.

“The most creative marketing that I see comes from anyone who’s able to make an incredible personal connection with someone else,” Johnson says.“I’ve seen this from people who offer shoe shines on the street and have people lining up because they entertain people with the experience.”

How to build marketing innovation into your DNA

“Whether we choose to outsource ideas or come up with them ourselves, we have to understand our objective, our audience, our internal restraints – which can include time, budget or Joan, the kill-joy in accounting – and how we’ll measure what we do.” Johnson says.

“And when we measure, we have to be open to different ways of looking at indications of success. If we pilot something new and expect it to generate revenue in the next two weeks, we’re not being realistic.”

To build a connection with your audience, Johnson believes B2B should take on marketing innovation as a continual process in what she calls perpetual innovation.

5 steps to perpetual innovation

Johnson says that perpetual innovation is a way for marketers to bring new ideas to the table and present them in a format that executives want.

“At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if we’re a CMO or a front-line marketer, we all want to do work that we’re proud of – work that makes us stand out from everyone else in the marketplace

  1. Observe the world around you
    “When we slow down and bring awareness to the everyday things that we do, or ideas that inspire us, and look at the details that make them up, it adds meaning to all the minutiae of our days.”
  2. Distill what you have observed
    When you take time to observe the world beyond the B2B, patterns will begin to emerge. “Our minds form patterns, so distilling what we’ve observed into groups is something that people do quite naturally,” Johnson says. This gives your ideas greater context and shifts focus away from the same, old predictable ideas.
  3. Relate what you have distilled into your own work
    “This is the step that takes the most practice, but it’s what differentiates the brands that want to be innovative from the ones that actually are innovating,” Johnson says. “We dig into the patterns of what we’ve distilled and identify what we can relate to our brand and our work.”
  4. Generate ideas
    This is the step that most people start with, but shouldn’t. “They have a problem and want to brainstorm ways to solve it,” Johnson says, but bringing in fresh ideas is impossible without steps one through three.
  5. Pitch
    You may know a lot about marketing, messaging and measurement, but you need to include the story in the pitch. This means taking your audience – whoever’s making the decision about whether you can go ahead – through the entirety of your process, from the real world observation you had in step one. Bad pitches kill great ideas.
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