The COVID-19 pandemic has substantially impacted the B2B marketing industry. According to research, 78% of marketers believe that communicating value is an essential priority this year, making it absolutely crucial for leaders to innovate and come up with new approaches, in order to guide their businesses and employees through this difficult time and beyond.
So today, we’re joined by Stacey Danheiser and Dr. Simon Kelly, Principals of Shake Marketing Group, and co- authors of the book Value-ology and forthcoming book Stand Out Marketing. They’re here to share their expert advice on how B2B marketing leaders can support their teams and organisations to thrive in the new era of work.
(01:25) I’m Stacey Danheiser, I’m the founder and CEO of Shake Marketing Group. We help organisations become more customer focused through customer research value proposition development and customer centric marketing strategies. Prior to Shake Marketing, I spent 14 years in corporate marketing, working for several Fortune 500 companies in both B2B and B2C.
(01:57) Yes, I’m (Dr Simon Kelly) the Principal of Shake Marketing, where I help primarily B2B organisations grow by helping them develop more powerful value propositions that help them stand out for their customers and ahead of their competitors. I’m also a lecturer in marketing sales at the University of York so, I call myself a pracademic. I’ve got about 35 years’ experience in working in the industry and with businesses. In the past I’ve led B2B marketing at BT, and I’ve worked in the US, running North American marketing for a telecoms company there.
(02:47) Yes, that’s a great question. We started to contemplate this question around three or four weeks into the pandemic when we were getting bombarded with all this ‘new normal’. And we really wanted to understand more of what it really felt like for marketing and sales leaders in this COVID world and their thoughts about what the future might hold for B2B marketing and selling.
So, we went out to do some research. We did in-depth interviews with sales and marketing leaders, a survey, and we also talked to our clients and ex-colleagues and friends who are marketers and salespeople. To a large extent, our findings amplified the need to go back to marketing basics or marketing 101, because customers have become even more intolerant to irrelevant communications from companies. Everybody’s on Zoom calls or team calls the whole time, and it’s really amplified the need for companies to develop marketing communications, products and solutions that are relevant and differentiated, so that customers can easily see what’s going to help them. So, it means that marketers have got to deeply understand what it is that customers value and what they’re looking for.
During this time as well, I think we also witnessed the rise of Black Lives Matter and other movements. And marketeers that we spoke to really think that this has put a premium on authenticity, you must be able to walk the talk. For example, a Vice President of FinTech who we spoke to said, “You can’t just slap something on your website any longer and expect people to believe it, if you don’t live it.” And you may have seen this quite well-known case where a university Social Media Manager resigned his position, because he felt the university were putting images of their support for Black Lives Matter, which weren’t authentic. So, the days of greenwashing, claiming you’re green when you’re not, or claiming that you support a thing that you don’t are gone as far as the marketeers are concerned. So, it’s all about authenticity.
(05:20) Well, I think they’re still living through some of this, but the first thing that they’ve probably found out straight away is that different customers have got different fortunes. At one end of the extreme, you can talk about airline companies and you can contrast those with cloud communication, video communication companies, or even people that supply PPE whose fortunes really clearly were on the rise because of this misfortune.
The contrast is clearly mirrored on the supply side. So, if you’re a CMO for an airline company, the world looks very different to that of the CMO for a video communications company like Zoom. So, if you serve more than one different customer sector or segment, we think gone are the days of treating everybody the same, what’s sometimes called the ‘Spray and pray approach’.
And so again, we use this word amplifying, we think it’s amplified the need for better segmentation. So, I think this has really led to three main things that we’ve found marketers have focused on:
(07:30) Yes, well, we were really interested as Simon said, in figuring out how marketers were responding to this. And we found that there were three large buckets that marketers were focused on right from the beginning:
So, the first one as Simon alluded to was tone and messaging. So, 73% of the marketers that we talked to and surveyed said that they had updated their messaging to reflect new sentiments and customer themes. This is great, it basically forced B2B companies to think about the human side and individuals. Obviously, we were all going through this pandemic together and it made B2B brands a little more relatable during that time.
The second is the marketing and sales approach. So, the main driver of this was that we couldn’t meet in person. Sales suddenly weren’t in person meetings which forced marketing teams to be creative and drive customer engagement, conversations and more momentum on that side. We heard from marketers that suddenly, the sales team is calling them, responding to them and asking them for help in ways that they had never done before. Of course, on the marketing side, this largely meant that moving everything offline to online. So, we saw a huge spike in digital tactics, specifically marketing events that suddenly weren’t happening and then they all went to virtual webinars or online. So, the other piece to that was a lot of marketing websites were created landing pages, resource centres that addressed the COVID situation and just how the company was responding to that.
And then the third big area was around products and services. So, 40% of the B2B marketers that we surveyed said that they had developed a new pricing or packaging strategy. So, just taking an existing product and packaging it in a different way or being creative with customer service or financial terms. And only 33% said that they had launched a new product or repositioned an existing one. Largely the barrier was that the internal organisation got in the way, that the marketing team wanted to create something and respond to a customer demand or a customer need. But because of the complexities internally and having to work with so many different departments across the product organisation, it was difficult to get something launched. We saw this happen much quicker in B2C organisations with restaurants offering to-go food and beverages.
(10:18) Yes, definitely, I think that’s been an exciting outcome. For a long-time marketing has been largely focused on tactics and execution. So, we’ve started to see the shift toward more strategic activities. At the beginning it was all about creating this messaging; “We’re here for you or we’re in it together”, but there’s still a lot of room for improvement. So, for example, only 22% of the marketers that we talked to said that they had done any real customer research. This really has led to what Simon already called the sea of sameness problem, where everyone is saying the same things about working from home, we’re in this together and we’re here for you.
So as a customer of B2B and B2C, this has led to a lot of fatigue with messaging and a lot of starting to ignore it and tune it out as it relates to messaging. And the same thing is happening on the tactical side. So digital fatigue is real, both customers and employees are really just tired of being on video calls all day which hasn’t really made anybody excited to sit through an eight-hour virtual event or concert. So, this all in all is forcing marketers to be more strategic, creative, and more in tune with ways to cut through the noise there.
(11:47) So this is a question we were really interested in when we talked to marketing leaders. No surprise, but about 74% said that there was a negative impact short term to their marketing budget. So, budgets were frozen, some of them were cut, some of them operated in an environment where they had to get approval for everything, but it’s not so bleak on the long-term outlook. 66% said that they believe there’s going to be a neutral or positive outlook in the long term, which is great. So, I think we’ll start to see the shift to more useful and higher quality content.
For example, one of the trends that we’ve seen in marketing over the past several years is around this soundbite marketer, where we all have extremely short attention spans. And so, marketing has been getting shorter and shorter, but what we’ve found during this time is that while that’s initially true to grab somebody’s attention, people want the option to dive deeper.
So, producing longer forms of content, for example, podcasts have spiked during this time and whitepapers where there’s more in-depth knowledge. People are looking to get educated and that’s something that we think will continue that will allow companies to stand out and demonstrate their expertise.
And then the other piece is more on the tactical side, that marketers have told us that they’ve seen their organisations finally see value in some of the programs that they had been trying to get approval on for years. So for example, marketing automation, social media, or doing a social selling program, all of a sudden the rest of the organisation is finally seeing the value in that, and is now approving those budgets to do those programs that will start to continue.
(13:49) Well, yes, if you can claim there to have been any upside for COVID, it’s the fact that it’s elevated the role of marketing in B2B organisations. And I think Stacey mentioned that 62% of our survey respondents said that their role is now perceived to be more important. We’ve always felt that marketing is about much more than just marketing communications or increasingly as it’s been seen, digital communications, but it really surprised us in some of our interviews, the organisations that were still saying, we’re now seeing much more than just events because we can’t have face to face events anymore.
Real-life blue-chip companies where the B2B marketeers were still feeling that they were the events guys. So now’s the time to elevate yourselves if you’re a marketing leader, if you’re a CMO or if you are leading a team of both, with collateral and events to become more than that feigned colouring in department, which B2B marketing teams are sometimes known to be. So go beyond tactical execution, as Stacey said to a much more strategic place, because after all it’s the CMO and the marketing teams that are supposed to drive the decisions around which customers you serve, in which marketplaces with which products and services and with what competitive advantage.
So, that’s the strategic place they need to get to. And many marketeers have said, yes, we’re getting much more engagement from our senior leadership team and much more attention to what it is we do beyond the basic tactical things. So, good news from that respect.
(15:45) I don’t think it’s necessarily changed. If we would fundamentally look at what the role of a B2B marketer is, it’s identifying which customers should be served, helping to clarify which offers and products should be served up to them and then how to communicate and deliver that value. Marketing has historically had to fight for a seat at the table and so, as Simon just mentioned, all of a sudden, it’s now being elevated, and the perceptions internally have changed.
So, this is all really good news for the B2B marketing leader. COVID has amplified the need for marketing to have a pulse on the customer, the changing needs of the customer and what they value. And what we found working with clients over the years is the number one way to get a seat at that table is to have an understanding of customers based on first-hand knowledge. Not on calling through data or looking at websites statistics, or hearing about it from the sales team, but really having authentic conversations with customers and trying to understand what their world is and what’s happening, so that they can ultimately connect better and create programs and content that will resonate with that customer.
So, the biggest thing that’s obviously changed with the role is just managing and engaging both employees and customers that aren’t in the same room and connecting with customers in a whole new way. So, we’ll continue to see that evolve. But I think fundamentally as Simon alluded to, it’s back to the basics for the B2B marketing leader, and it really does start with that deep customer understanding.
(17:33) As Stacey said earlier, I think we’re all very familiar with lots of great B2C instances now from gin distillers that flipped to produce hand sanitiser, clothing companies that have moved towards face mask production. And there’s this funky service I’ve seen where there’s a pen which you can touch to your wall and use it for colour matching services to deal with a spike in demand for home decorating. So, some of the things we’ve seen there have been very innovative and responded to big changes in the market.
But we’ve seen some things in B2B, which does show that there’s not always a direct correlation between size and agility. For example, we know that IBM quickly developed six key offers out of their massive portfolio that would stand out as being most relevant in the COVID world. And this included helping turn up services for some organisations who, believe it or not, have never worked remotely before this thing kicked in.
Organisations like Palo Alto Networks who by their own admission, because they provide cloud services, were very fortunate because people are talking on a video and wanted to do it on a big scale. So, people needed their services even more, but they quickly set up a resource centre to help customers easily interact with Palo Alto and find out how they could help them move into this new environment. And I also like the US company that we spoke to who their prime business was tracking people into big events with QR codes. So they know who’s in an event, who’s moving around and they changed the offer and quickly developed a solution for a Boston construction company to help them keep track of employees who are coming in and out of the construction site to keep it COVID safe. So, some good examples from different sectors in B2B we’ve seen.
(19:58) Well, I don’t think the qualities have changed. I think I’d say some of it has been amplified and I think some have needed to shape to fit the COVID context. For example, and this sounds trite in some ways, but leaders should lead the company, not just manage it. So, in the context of COVID, this certainly to me includes having a vision for how things going forward could change, how these changes could then be used to the advantage of the company or could affect the customer or your own organisation. And then going beyond that, providing direction on which opportunities your organisation needs to exploit and where to change focus, like in some of the examples that we’ve heard already. I think if you’re a marketing and sales leader, then the responsibility to be the voice of the customer has been heightened because certainly on the sales side at the beginning, there were less face-to-face interactions.
So, now it’s up to sales and marketing leaders to bring the voice of the customer back inside the organisation and make sure that the organisation is not just too internally focused or obsessed with their internal world. And we’ve had some companies that we spoke to lately who have been very honest and admitted that they feel they’ve turned a little back inwardly and have been a bit internally focused.
Finally, authenticity. The thing we talked about authenticity earlier applies to leaders and to organisations. You’ve got to have empathy with a customer, as a whole person in this current climate and for the teams that are working in your organisations. So, this has been brought to the fore, so this authenticity looks like to me having empathy about how COVID has affected the customer’s business, and offering real help, not just buzzwords on your website.
So, if you’ve got a customer sector that’s struggling, then you might want to relieve the payment terms or do something flexible on that side. And then you need to take account of how customers employees have had to live their lives during COVID. We spoke to one organisation that gave us really great insight to the fact that in upstate New York, where quite a few of the people were working from home, in a high rise apartment block in this very small room were having lots of discussions on video.
So, empathy and authenticity, walking the talk as well is really what it’s all about by not just communicating things, but showing through your behaviours. That’s important in this environment and they’re the three for me in truly leading the company, the voice of the customer and authenticity or empathy wrapped into one.
(23:10) First of all, I don’t think the qualities have really changed. I think to Simon’s point, these have all just been amplified. They’ve maybe been in the background as a need for a long time. And now it’s finally coming to the front that this is really needed to help lead in this new era.
But I would say first and foremost is courage. This is something, especially in the marketing function, that the marketing teams need to have the courage to be bold, creative, and do something different. We’ve seen this sea of sameness problem happening in a lot of different industries. We’ve seen it now with COVID and really it’s a result of the fact that marketing teams are not feeling courageous, that they can do something different and that they’re willing to take a stand and try something or suggest something that might be out of the norm for that industry or for that company.
The second I would say is clarity. So again, it’s marketing’s job really to set the vision for the organisation and to help set the stage for strategy. And this includes prioritisation that not all customer segments are created equal. So, it’s really marketing’s job to help get the company focused on a set of customer targets. And, we joke that the Seth Godin quote, “Everyone is not your customer” but we see this over and over in organisations where they are actually operating that everyone is their customer. They’re so nervous to exclude somebody or to declare that they only work with certain industries or certain types of companies. And this really needs to be addressed from a marketing standpoint because when the content, programs or conversations are happening and they’re not really addressed to a specific person, then it doesn’t feel authentic, it doesn’t feel like the marketing team or the sales team really understand the customer. And so, this goes back to just having real clarity on who that customer profile is, the ideal customer and prioritising that.
And then third, I would say context. This is again the marketing function understanding the business. This is something that marketing can have a stronger seat at the table by understanding on the one hand the customer, but also the connection to the business and how they can help create strategies that will take somebody from that 50,000 foot level, all the way down to connecting at the customer level and making it relevant to their world. And so, this is marketing spending more time, understanding the financials, and what the business is trying to achieve. We’ve had conversations with marketers, asking what the profitability is of certain customer segments or what the revenue stats are for certain products. And the marketing team just doesn’t know the answer to that. And so, I would say context there and just understanding the businesses is critical. So, my three are courage, clarity, and context.
About the authors
Stacey Danheiser is CEO and founder of Shake Marketing. She is also CEO and Course Creator for Customer Value Link.
Dr Simon Kelly is President of Shake Marketing, and was formerly Marketing Director (SVP) of British Telecom. He is also Senior Lecturer in Marketing at Sheffield Business School, and Lecturer in Marketing and Sales at University of York.
Both Stacey and Simon are co-authors of the book Value-ology and forthcoming book Stand Out Marketing.
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