Why B2B marketing needs emotional storytelling | B2B Marketing

Despite resistance to more emotionally driven forms of marketing, evidence suggests that B2B businesses could benefit hugely from a more humanised approach to brand building. Here’s a look at the power of emotional marketing compared to more rational logical appeals, and what differentiates its application in B2B from brand storytelling in B2C.

Emotional tugs versus logical pushes

There have been numerous studies on the power emotion exerts over our decision-making, from both a marketing and non-marketing perspective.

A 2012 study from Brain Juicer Labs

looked at a number of psychological studies and survey data on emotional responses to different types of advertising from the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA). It concluded that:

“Emotion-into-action strongly outperformed persuasion, brand linkage, and cut-through measures—and even message delivery. In fact, far from predicting success, these industry-standard measures actually mislead when it comes to predicting the effectiveness of ads, discriminating against advertisements that generated greater numbers of business effects in


, therefore supporting our hypothesis.”

The results are compelling and suggest that the traditional evaluative measures on cut-through, persuasion and brand linkage may be misleading and aren’t replicated in the market.

To understand the forces at play here, we need to understand the way our brains make decisions based on any number of given stimuli. Behavioural psychologists have broken this process down into two distinct systems.

– System 1 (fast)

System one decision-making is intuitive, perceptual and very fast. It is also mainly subconscious, which means it is entirely involuntary. Unlike the more rational system two thinking, system one works on generating associative impressions, feelings and emotions in our brains that cause us to react to certain things in certain ways.

– System 2 (slow)

System two is an analytical, rule-governed part of our decision-making and the one we like to think we all exclusively use. This is the rational side of our brain that helps us make sense and circumvent the everyday problems and dilemmas of the world around us. System two thinking helps us justify our decisions but increasingly research suggests that system one has far more influence on how we make decisions.

Let’s look more closely then at how the ability to influence system one thinking could hold the key to crafting powerful and highly effective B2B marketing.

How emotion plays in B2B decision-making

When it comes to B2B marketing, it’s often assumed that system two thinking will prevail when it comes to influencing customers or clients. Unlike B2C marketing – which has long embraced the concept of building brand identity through emotionally evocative content – B2B has always tended towards a more rational and ‘business-like’ approach. But evidence seems to suggest this may not be the most effective tactic.

Research from CEB’s Marketing Leadership Council and Google has shown quite conclusively that

emotionally-led marketing is more effective at driving decision-making in B2B

. These emotional connections between B2B businesses and customers were far stronger when compared to B2C businesses studies. The report found that:

  • Of the hundreds of B2C brands studied, emotional connections with consumers tended between 10% and 40%. Seven of the nine B2B brands studied surpassed the 50% mark.
  • B2B purchasers are almost 50% more likely to buy a product or service when they see personal value (i.e. opportunity for career advancement or confidence and pride in their choice).
  • When asked “do you see a real difference between suppliers and value the difference enough to pay for it?” just 14% of B2B businesses answered yes (suggesting perceived business value is only a small part of the decision-making process)

There are numerous other studies into, and examples of, 

B2B brands benefiting from more emotionally driven marketing

 but, you get the idea. Of course, it’s not as easy as that and trying to transplant a strategy of brand building that works for B2C into the B2B realm, clearly, is doomed to fail.

We can see why this is, as well as the issues that arise from presenting B2B brands with the idea of a more emotionally-driven marketing style, when we examine the buying cycles of B2B compared to B2C.

Why B2B marketing needs emotional storytelling

As you can see, the B2B buying cycle is lengthier and more considered due to high costs and the consequences of getting it wrong, such as brand damage and poor ROI. This seems to discourage a more emotional approach to brand marketing. If anything, corporate pressures like these would seem to preclude it entirely.

Evoking the right emotions

Comparing emotionally-driven brand marketing in B2C with its equivalent in B2B is like trying to compare apples with pears. While the overall objectives may be very similar, the methodology employed varies considerably. This largely comes down to tone. Put another way, you need to evoke a completely different set of emotions in B2B marketing than you do in B2C.

Emotions such as nostalgia, sadness and humour might work well in B2C, where the emphasis is on individual lifestyle, but they tend to fall flat when used in a more corporate B2B environment. Here, the emotional content needs to evoke feelings of trust, reliability, credibility and a sense of partnership.

“As a B2B Marketer with extensive experience in B2C, I can say that both are emotional – they just appeal to a different set of emotions. If you are pushing something creative – regardless of whether you’re B2B or B2C, it will invoke excitement. However, B2B emotions tend to focus on feeling safe, confident, etc.”

– Nicc Lewis, VP marketing, Leverate

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Emotional appeals in B2B marketing do present risks though, which is perhaps why some B2B brands still stay clear of them. Overplaying the emotional appeal can backfire and feel like manipulation, which will erode the sense of trust and reliability you are trying to create. Getting viewers excited with a clever piece of brand marketing such as the Caterpillar video above is fine, but as soon as you start straying outside your industry sector to find those thrills, you risk losing your audience.

Get it right though and you’re on the path to creating content that your prospects will actively seek out, establishing you as a complete authority in what you do. Now that’s got to be worth a giant game of Jenga.

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