Why B2B marketers need to ‘start with little fires’

Former Hiscox marketing boss Annabel Venner urges B2B marketers who want to sell creativity into the business to start by counting the small wins and building a sense of confidence.

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When it comes to securing investment for B2B marketing, it makes sense to “hold hands with the business” to push creativity through.

This is the opinion of Annabel Venner, marketing consultant and former global brand director at insurer Hiscox.

“Start with little fires, don’t try to do something really big. Then you can make it happen,” she suggested, speaking today (24 March) at the Festival of Marketing: Transform.

Venner explained one of the most successful campaigns she devised at the insurer was ‘The Small and the Brave’, which she described as unlike anything else in B2B. The creative idea was inspired by her eight years in marketing at Coca-Cola.

“It was a very impactful, striking image. We had a headline that was no more than five words. We ran an ad that said: ‘Bald men don’t need combs’. You look at that and go: ‘What has that got to do with business insurance?’” she recalled.

However, part of the challenge was selling the idea internally for such a creative approach. Venner explained that while Coke is a business where everyone “automatically understands” marketing, this was not the case at Hiscox.

A financially-driven business, full of accountants and actuaries, the thinking was based on numbers and being ultra-rational.

The decisions we make in B2B purchasing are arguably much more interconnected than any individual consumer purchase.

Mimi Turner, LinkedIn

“Marketing, in terms of how the brand works, doesn’t fit on a spreadsheet. You can’t say ‘Give me £10m and I’ll guarantee at the end of the year I’ll drive you X in ROI.’ It’s very different, but you have to go with a mind of how you’re selling that in internally,” she explained.

“In my role at Hiscox, a big chunk of my time was taken engaging the business and constantly educating them about what marketing does, how it works and that I understood the financials of it.”

Another key relationship to nurture is between sales and marketing. While sales is focused on driving short-term leads, marketing is having high level strategic discussions about brand and building leads for the future, she explained.

“It’s about finding a way the two can work closer to together. It’s a little bit like the conversation you used to hear about IT and marketing,” Venner reflected.

“They would be coming from a very different place, but I think that has completely changed over the last two to three years, and most of what I hear now is marketing and IT working well together.”

The former Hiscox marketing boss was joined on stage by head of EMEA and Latin America at the LinkedIn B2B Institute, Mimi Turner. She pointed to a lack of understanding in B2B marketing about the real drivers of decision making.

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“B2B decisions are fraught with emotional and social considerations in a way we don’t really think about. Some 95% of us spend 95% of our time in consensual hallucination that logic and professional thinking are the things that really work,” Turner argued.

She explained that beneath B2B purchase decisions are huge amounts of individual risk. Questions about what your boss will think of you, or whether a mistake could mean the team operating with the wrong kit.

“The decisions we make in B2B purchasing are arguably much more interconnected than any individual consumer purchase we make,” Turner added.

She believes if B2B brands fully understand this dynamic they will create messaging that will be remembered. Memory is crucial for B2B customers, 95% of whom in a typical sales cycle are “passive future buyers”, according to joint research from LinkedIn and the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute.

This approach resonated with Venner. During her time at Hiscox, the insurer segmented small businesses into three buckets. There were those who were in the market for business insurance, those starting a business who would need cover in a year or so, and those people who had the intention to run their own company one day.

For those buyers not currently in the market, the goal was to drive brand affinity, awareness and mental availability. Adopting this approach also made commercial sense.

“Somebody who typed in ‘small business insurance’ to Google would probably cost us 20 times more than if they’d put in ‘Hiscox’. We didn’t want to spend all our money on Google, we wanted to drive shortcuts,” Venner explained.

Avoiding the ‘product delusion’

Another watch-out for marketers, according to Turner, is the “product delusion” – characterised as an obsession with products and features in the B2B world.

This skew towards the rational could be compromising the creative commitment made by B2B brands, she suggested. LinkedIn research shows B2B marketing “massively over-indexes” in email and direct marketing, compared to other mediums such as TV.

From a creative perspective, the research reveals B2B campaigns over-index by 175% in highly informational and educational messages, versus the use of brand characters, music and emotion.

The ‘product delusion’ is holding B2B back

Venner explained part of the reason why product is focused on more frequently in B2B is a “misunderstanding” about how customers engage with advertising.

“People go: ‘Well the person who might engage with an ad for Coke is going to be very different to if they need to buy a new IT system, or a new photocopier.’ But it’s not, it’s the same person and your brain doesn’t switch off when you see an ad for a consumer product versus a business product. You’re engaging in the same way,” she pointed out.

“The risk with going down that route is you get into a comparison between features and benefits, and people want to know more. They want to understand the reputation of your brand, they want to know that you get them, you get their industry. If everybody goes down that route you don’t get that distinctiveness, you won’t get that mental availability, you won’t stand out.”

By contrast, her approach at Hiscox was focused on distinctiveness. Venner recalled a trade show where the team gutted a piano, sprayed it red and hung it over the Hiscox stand, which caused a stir at the event.

On another occasion, Hiscox attached a server to key outdoor sites in London and had a counter rack up how often the server experienced a cyber attack.

“You can do really creative things and it doesn’t need to cost a fortune,” Venner added. “Once you build the confidence internally, start small, get small wins. They’ll see it and start loving it, and then the door is open in terms of what you can do in the future.”