24th February 2019
A few years ago I attended a marketing conference and a presentation by Maria Burpee, who was a senior marketing director in a global B2B technology business at the time. She gave a presentation called ‘Slow B2B Marketing’ and this was my first introduction to what is now known more widely as the Slow Movement.
The Slow Movement started with Slow Food in Italy in the 1980s, in response to a McDonald’s opening near the Spanish Steps in Rome, promoting the use of local food and traditional cooking, and expanding to encompass the enjoyment of food that is good for people, those who grow it and the planet. This slow philosophy has since since grown to embrace cities, travel, design and even photography, among many others.
Maria’s main premise in her presentation was that we in B2B marketing need to slow down and put quality over quantity. And she asked a very provocative, key question: is it possible that slowing down might actually drive better quality marketing, better engagement with our customers and better results for our companies?
I admit that at the time I thought that Slow Marketing was a quirky and interesting idea but I promptly forgot about it. However, it’s clearly been bubbling away in my subconscious for some time. One of the main messages of my book on B2B Marketing Strategy is that we in B2B marketing simply must slow down. We must stop running around like headless chickens chasing that latest and greatest new tech, tool or platform and take the time to think about what we’re trying to achieve – not just clicks and likes or even revenue (because not all revenue is good revenue). Not just for marketing but for our businesses. This means deliberately and consciously taking the time necessary to develop our marketing strategy instead of rushing headlong into executing tactics. In my book I questioned whether we in B2B marketing even fully understand what strategy is and is not, and I introduced a simpler way of thinking deeply about and developing our B2B marketing strategy.
In hindsight, I see that I was, in fact, advocating a Slow Marketing approach.
Yet in the time since that book, not much has changed in the way that B2B marketers approach our profession. Indeed, it seems as if the pace of our tactical focus has done nothing but increase and we continue to moan that our organisations still don’t see the value in what we do. Further, we are under more and more pressure to measure the impact of our marketing activity. So, we turn to what we can measure – invariably a digital channel – without even understanding what we should be measuring. And we are continually surprised when our businesses don’t value these metrics. We then blame our inability to ‘prove’ our marketing value to our organisations on the political and economic climate, the size of our marketing budgets, or the dearth of proper talent. Without even considering that we might actually be measuring the wrong things, things that have nothing at all to do with the wider goals and objectives of our businesses.
The result of all this pressure is that there is an inordinate amount of time, budget and energy going into our short-term tactical activity, with little or – in many cases – no thinking whatsoever about what marketing needs to be doing for the long-term.
Simon McEvoy, the UK strategy director for B2B agency Omobono, wrote a fantastic piece last year about the under-investment in B2B brand building.
As an example, he used a wonderful illustration from the late 1950s, when the publisher McGraw-Hill created a B2B ad that ran for decades, well into the 1980s. Its purpose was to persuade B2B organisations to advertise in their various vertical business, professional and technical publications, and it remains a classic in the annals of B2B marketing. I think it just may be the best B2B ad ever, demonstrating a simple truth about the power of brand for our B2B organisations.
For those of you unfamiliar with the Man in the Chair, it’s a deceptively simple ad. A grumpy-looking ‘buyer’ is sitting in what looks like an awfully uncomfortable chair, looking directly out at us (the ‘seller’ of ‘something’). The ad copy alongside the grumpy buyer reads:
I don’t know who you are.
I don’t know your company.
I don’t know your company’s product.
I don’t know what your company stands for.
I don’t know your company’s customers.
I don’t know your company’s record.
I don’t know your company’s reputation.
Now – what was it you wanted to sell me?
And the bottom of the ad reads:
MORAL: Sales start before your salesman calls – with business publication advertising.
This ad is now just over 60 years old, yet its message remains timeless. Because while technology continues to change – and many of our tactics change along with it – the marketing fundamentals remain the same. If our buyers don’t know who we are or what we sell, what reason do they have to talk to us in the first place?
In his article, Simon also discussed Les Binet and Peter Field’s work for the IPA called The Long and the Short of It. Their research looked at the case studies for almost 1,000 effectiveness award-winning campaigns in the IPA’s databank to explore which factors impacted short- and long-term business outcomes such as growth, price premium, and market share. What they found is that an over-reliance on short-term tactics can actually have a harmful effect on both brands and their longer-term business success.
I can just hear some of you exclaiming that most of these case studies are B2C ones. And they are. But B2B is just not that fundamentally different to B2C. Further, those elements that make B2B uniquely different to B2C – longer sales cycles, greater complexity in decision-making, etc – are precisely those that benefit from a greater investment in developing a strong brand over time.
As Simon wrote:
‘This same IPA data suggests that brands in ‘high consideration’ categories (where purchases have high price tags and are slow, complicated and deliberate) rely on strong brands even more than in low consideration categories (where purchases have lower price tags and are quicker and more instinctive).’
Still, as B2B marketers, we are constantly pushed to do more and do it faster. We’re continually exhorted to be more agile marketers with leaner teams, pushing out more content, more programmes, more campaigns, more ‘stuff’, more often. Quantity has become the measure of what we do and we’ve become convinced that MORE is always BETTER.
What would happen if we just slowed down? Perhaps even stopped for a minute? And gave some thought to what we are actually doing and more importantly, why?
What if we built a ‘slow’ element into our day-to-day marketing lives by doing far less but with far more thought and purpose? If we understood how our marketing efforts impacted our organisations beyond our immediate outputs? If we looked at our customers over time, instead of the duration of a single campaign? If we became better at inter-linking and integrating our marketing activity into a seamless narrative that lasted beyond a single quarter or even a year?
There seems to be such a huge imbalance in focus in current B2B marketing practice. We’re addicted to fast marketing and there’s no let-up in sight. Despite Field and Binet’s findings – that our marketing activity and investment should be weighted at roughly 60% for long-term brand building and 40% for short-term response activity – in B2B that short/long-term split is way out of balance, weighted heavily towards the short term.
I’m not saying that we should reject fast, I’m saying that B2B marketing needs a balance. We need to apply more of our marketing efforts and investment towards building the future of our companies – irrespective of the current political or economic climate – as well as generating leads and revenue.
Ultimately, that means giving a whole lot more thought to understanding where and when we need to move at speed and what we need to do more slowly.
What are your thoughts? Is it time to start a Slow Marketing movement within B2B?
Heidi Taylor is an award-winning senior marketing strategist with 25 years' experience of helping organisations engage with their customers, creating impact and differentiation. She is a sought-after speaker at marketing conferences in the UK and internationally, and regularly contributes articles to marketing journals in print and online. You can follow her on Twitter @TaylorMadeInKew.