By Sahana Jayaraman
For the past decade, B2B marketing has been primarily data-driven. But times have changed. The lines between B2B and B2C audiences have blurred and a post-B2B world is taking shape.
Businesses of every kind must prepare for the "consumer factor" — taking into account a customer's values when addressing issues such as the #MeToo movement, security breaches, racial discrimination, and a whole host of other concerns that have become all too common in today's business climate.
To see how these trends are affecting brands, communications agency Hotwire commissioned a significant global study across eight major countries.
Hotwire's "High-Stakes Leadership in a Post-B2B World" study focuses on three audience groups: business decision makers (BDMs), marketing leaders, and consumers. What comes through loud and clear in the results is that changes in consumer expectations make it imperative for all brands to take a stand.
Choosing the Right Battles
No business is immune from an event that brings its values into question — not even those that consider themselves pure B2B entities.
While everyone agrees on the need to plan for high-stakes events, many companies are seriously underprepared, putting their reputations and bottom lines at risk. Hotwire's research shows that while most marketing leaders have a high-stakes communications plan they can turn to if trouble strikes, just over half classify that plan as up-to-date or in the middle of being updated.
Consumers don't want a generic crisis response. They want a firm stance. And this means not just being reactive. Taking a stand on a values-related issue creates a clear point of difference, helping a brand distinguish itself from the competition.
The priority given to particular values varies across audience groups and geographies, the study found.
There are some overlaps between what marketing leaders and consumers deem important, along with some stark differences — and those are leading to some marketing disconnects.
Data security is among the top three issues for marketing leaders in four out of eight countries, the report found. And indeed, data security came out head and shoulders above other issues when looking at the topics marketing leaders actually run campaigns on. Yet, the issue of data security never makes it into the top three concerns for consumers from any of the eight countries covered in the Hotwire research. What many marketers see as a major issue, and one they should spend time and money on, is simply not a top priority for most consumers.
While no one would suggest businesses turn their backs on data security campaigns, there is a mismatch between the concerns of marketing leaders and consumers. Marketers need a reality check. It's time they seize the opportunity to develop campaigns that address the issues and values that people actually hold dear. (See sidebar "Understanding the Stakes" for additional key findings.)
Facing a Generational Shift
Of course, there are naysayers ready to argue issue-based marketing is just another trend; the latest short-lived marketing fad that's sure to come and go. Hotwire's firm belief, however, is that this change is real and enduring. There's plenty of evidence the post-B2B world is here to stay, powered by a seismic shift in attitudes and demographic changes.
The social and commercial influence of millennials and gen Z is already immense and expanding by the day. The opinions and expectations of these digital natives have been shaped by socioeconomic factors such as the 2008 global recession and extreme political polarization, from Trump to Brexit. Time and time again, studies highlight the importance of values to these younger consumers, who increasingly occupy influential positions in the workplace.
What's more, recent research by Forrester shows consumers are getting smarter at navigating online content and gaining visibility into almost anything a company does, with the expectation that its values will be reflected across all business functions rather than merely in advertising copy or hollow sustainability statements. Adding more detail to the picture, Deloitte's seventh annual "Millennials Survey," published in 2018, finds declining loyalty and confidence in business among millennials and gen Z. These groups also show a distrust for companies' motivations and ethics.
Shifts like these are worrying and should not be dismissed, but the upside is a great opportunity for businesses prepared to engage head-on with the high-stakes issues that matter to millennials and other generations.
A good example of one such issue is mental health, which in the context of employee well-being has rocketed up the agenda. It was certainly a standout theme at the recent Fortune Brainstorm Health 2019 conference, which included sessions on making healthcare human again and "learning how stress and anxiety can be your friends." A timely topic, given that almost 80 percent of Americans say they are stressed out, as one of the presentation description's notes.
Picking Up the Gauntlet
It's no stretch of the imagination to conclude that companies prepared to address high-stakes issues in an honest way and behave in line with their stated core values will prosper in the war for talent, in terms of recruiting and retaining people who share those same values, and in building a credible and sustainable employer brand.
Yet it isn't always an easy path to follow. As CBS News reports, software maker Oracle was recently under fire for discriminatory pay practices, allegedly underpaying thousands of minority and female workers to the tune of $400 million. Conversely, in November 2018, outdoor clothing company Patagonia, which positions itself as a business in business to save the planet, took an unusual but very on-brand values-friendly step in response to a tax windfall. The company announced it would donate the $10 million it saved through recent tax cuts to environmental programs, citing President Trump's denial of climate change and "irresponsible" tax policies as the prime reason.
Companies willing to take a firm stance on an issue have a lot to gain by demonstrating values that connect with their core audience. Those who would rather shy away from sensitive or challenging situations need to realize their fate will be decided by public opinion.
Technology and social media have taken business transparency to a whole new level. Information leaks all the time, allowing external audiences (such as suppliers and customers) to make a call on how actual behavior squares with stated values.
How, then, should brands prepare for these challenges? To start, they should revise their marketing and communications playbooks, taking into account the growing consumer power found in the post-B2B world.
It's not enough for businesses to simply have core values in place; they need to live, breathe, and effectively communicate those values, internally as well as externally. Otherwise, they'll end up making decisions that cost them their reputations and their bottom lines.
Crucially, values must be actionable to promote the kind of behavior that guides companies to make the right decisions. This is a matter not only for marketing leaders, but also for the CEO and board members. Anything less may be asking for trouble, because the post-B2B world is here, and without a shadow of a doubt, it's not a fad.
Sahana Jayaraman (@hellosahana) is the EVP and global head of strategy and marketing services at Hotwire, a partner in the ANA's B2B Thought Leader Program.