The power of provocation

Michael Richards is CEO and chief growth officer marketing agency alan. He can be reached at

Business-to-business marketing is boring.

This isn’t new information. So why aren’t B2B marketers doing something about it?

Accenture Strategy’s B2B Customer Experience 2017 study fired a warning shot to the industry when it revealed that 71% of B2B customers increasingly want a B2C-like experience, with 49% of B2B executives admitting their failure to deliver the experience their customers desired most. In the six years since the report, discontent amongst B2B’s audience has only grown.

A recent report, The Power of Provocation, by B2B marketing agency alan., conducted with U.K.-based B2B business leaders, reveals that 82% find B2B marketing boring, predictable and repetitive, with 88% yearning for marketers to take a bolder, contrarian and more provocative approach to their work. 

Historically, marketers might have argued that the barriers to more vibrant and emotionally-driven B2B marketing were harder to cross. Stakeholder fear meant that the B2B industry adopted a conservative and risk-averse culture in which brand-building exercises were frowned upon, believing it was all about the transaction and closing the sale rather than about eliciting an emotional response. But our report reveals that times have changed.

The surveyed business leaders acknowledge the risk aversion and the brand-building hesitancy but believe that it’s marketing’s responsibility to push those boundaries. Some 91% want marketers to become accountable for educating businesses on brand-building and 90% want marketers to step up and tackle the stagnant culture of risk aversion themselves. The ball is in marketers’ court to kick-start a business-to-business marketing revolution. So what strategies can be implemented to rectify the situation?

Lessons from B2C

The lessons can be learned from B2C. Business-to-consumer marketing is known for gaining deep insights into both audiences and potential audiences, creating subgroups on demographics such as location or gender identity to ensure that any marketing delivered has a tailored message to build a stronger connection with the brand.

The same isn’t often said for B2B marketing, with a concerning amount of survey respondents (82%) stating that B2B brands fail to personalize for their target audience. And 56% feeling that B2B brands talk to them as if they are anonymous automatons defined by their job title. 

The Power of Provocation report found that 70% of U.K. business leaders will identify with brands tailored to them, rather than a homogenous bunch who share the same job title or sector. Meaning B2B marketers just need to find their tribe.

Taking the report’s findings into account it seems that B2B marketing decisions rely on outdated assumptions – and frankly stereotypes – of who buyers are. By adopting B2C strategies, like relying on robust insights and research, B2B marketers can better understand their customers’ needs, beliefs and attitudes to find out what they want to achieve. From there, marketers can review and identify exactly who they can serve best.

This means they should focus on attracting the customers who matter, catering to their needs with both marketing and the offering and ensuring that what the business stands for is reflected in every touchpoint. Much like a B2C brand. 

Harnessing emotion

With targeting being more streamlined, what about the content itself? Now regarded as B2C’s boring sibling, B2B marketing techniques were once at the forefront, being implemented almost 100 years before the B2C boom of the late 1990s. When thinking about B2C brands that stand out, many may come to mind – Apple, Spotify, Nike – each of which generates debate, polarizes opinion and boasts not just loyal customers but advocates who passionately defend the brand. And while the same cannot be said for B2B yet, the first step to unlocking such affection is harnessing emotion in marketing. 

Of the surveyed U.K. business leaders, 98% don't think that business brands connect with people on an emotional level, with 74% of business leaders calling for B2B marketing to connect with its customers in a more meaningful way. 

B2C marketing has emotion at its heart. Brands like Coca-Cola or Dove don’t communicate their products and pricing so much as they communicate emotions to connect to the feelings of consumers. A stark comparison to B2B’s campaigns that sell a product with industry jargon and expect their complex audience of decision makers to keep up. B2B products should adopt the same practices by using a vocabulary of emotional marketing. Communicating to their audience with a personality relevant to how businesses think and connect.

B2B buyers are just as susceptible to emotional brand triggers as B2C customers and are significantly more connected with vendors and service providers than consumers are, given that B2B purchases are expensive and can carry risk for the business. And yet the power of inciting strong, visceral emotions is often overlooked in B2B marketing efforts.

Sixty-two percent of alan.’s respondents from the C-suite said that they have to feel fear, or worse, for them to take action on a problem facing the business. More than a third of the buyers (38%) stated that they needed to feel intense anger, bordering on rage, to take action. And yet a measly 7% have had this degree of emotion set off by B2B marketing. 

And while fear, anger and anxiety may feel extreme, they are the emotions required to create the much-needed tipping point for action. But the depth and quality of the emotion, and how they are mixed and matched, can have a grand impact on the customer’s buying journey.

Robert Plutchik’s wheel of emotion sheds some light on how customer emotions lead to purchasing decisions by providing a formula for mixing and matching emotions. Beginning with eight emotions in four pairs of opposites, the closer the emotion is to the center of the wheel, the more extreme the emotion is. For example, at the center – rage or admiration – and at its furthest – annoyance or acceptance. Blending the wheel provides even more emotions; for example, joy and trust make love while trust and fear create submission.

With 43% of B2B buyers in the survey claiming that they need to feel intense fear, bordering on anxiety, to take action, we should use Plutchik’s wheel to understand that fear stems from a threat, whether that be the fear of falling behind or being exposed to risk, and the natural reaction to fear is to find safety. B2B marketers should utilize this, not by scaring potential customers into purchasing a product or service but instead controlling the level of fear by evoking the elements of association. In eliciting the required emotions, marketers can build a powerful brand message. 

Of course, there is a fine line between sparking fear and inciting a riot, but by approaching it correctly B2B marketers could ignite some life back into their campaigns. The key is ensuring that any criticism or fear-striking statement is truthful. 

Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions.Recognize the humans

To ensure success in connecting with customers on an emotional level, it’s important to recognize the humans behind the business. Business customers are consumers too and half of all CFOs and CIOs surveyed for our report want brands to demonstrate an understanding of their experience as human beings.

B2B often prioritizes product truths over human truths, the opposite of how it should be. The business audience needs to know first that the product will ease their anxiety or resolve their fear. Only then will they be open to being told about how the product works. By giving a product or service a purpose or soul, the customer will then make room in their minds for it on a more human, emotional level. And at a time when only 1% of the decision makers surveyed believe that B2B marketing shows a meaningful understanding of the human experience, it’s time for B2B to up its game.

Eighty-nine percent of The Power of Provocation participants think that the majority of B2B brands take a mainstream and generic position on the state of the industry at best. It’s up to B2B marketers to rectify this reputation.

The B2B arena lacks bravery, and by borrowing a few key strategies from B2C, businesses can inject provocative and inspiring stories into their brands – with intelligence, imagination and emotion. 

The biggest mistake B2B marketers make is thinking that they are appealing to other companies, when in fact it’s the people who work for those companies that they must speak to; people full of emotions, feelings and thoughts who make purchasing decisions on behalf of the business.

And the second biggest mistake is thinking that one size fits all. Research by B2B media brand Raconteur recently revealed that in 94% of cases, more than six people are involved in the decision-making process, each from different departments and of varying seniorities, which makes for one very complex buying committee.

Engage and incite

Targeting decision makers as a homogeneous blob will fall flat. Connecting with the humans behind the job roles with emotional and honest storytelling is the best method to engage and incite action. Ninety-one percent of our survey respondents are calling for B2B brands to show provocative, challenging and forward-thinking perspectives. The business audience is screaming for a braver B2B and by just taking a leaf out of B2C’s book, B2B brands can stand out in a sea of beige.