Does B2B have a creativity problem?

Cannes Lions

It’s certainly not the first time this question has been asked. In fact, it feels very 2022. That was the year Cannes Lions launched the Creative B2B Lions, heralded as a major milestone at the time. This year, there are 13 awards for Creative B2B at the festival, ranging from brand building to disruption, challenger brands to effectiveness. With these accolades, there’s a willingness to believe the problem has been solved, that B2B has cracked creativity – but has it?

It is well understood that B2B marketers have traditionally concentrated on the bottom end of the funnel: sales activation. They are nearly twice as likely to depend on ‘rational’ product-centric creative compared to their B2C counterparts, while LinkedIn data reveals that B2B marketers allocate a mere 8% of their budgets to long-term brand awareness. Creativity can undoubtedly be used throughout the funnel, but it is arguably at its most effective towards the top: earning trust, becoming memorable and building brand.

For the last few years, weak economic growth, high inflation and rising interest rates have dented confidence and made it harder to found and grow profitable businesses. Now more than ever, marketers are having to think about the immediate, not the long term. Which begs the question, if we weren’t focusing on creativity and brand building when times were good, how can marketers be expected to do it now? We didn’t make brand hay when the sun was shining, and now things are considerably darker.

This brings us back to the perception of creativity within B2B, and whether time, money and effort should be funneled into long-term growth (brand) or short-term activation (product). We know the answer is both. They are not mutually exclusive. I am not telling anyone anything they don’t know. Unfortunately, we also know that the majority of B2B brands still take the short road when the going gets tough. The path of least resistance, sure, but the wrong one.

All too often, the mindset that brand is more useful for B2C than B2B prevails. All the things that good creativity and brand growth bring – long-term loyalty, trust, emotional attachment – are useful in one world, but not another. Surely we have to move beyond this, not just when we celebrate great creativity and brand growth at events like Cannes Lions, but back in the real world, in the day-to-day. 

Most of us are aware of the 95-5 rule, as outlined by Professor John Dawes. “Only 5% of potential B2B customers are in-market at any given time, meaning marketers need to deploy broad upper-funnel campaigns for the other 95%.” Combine this with ever-increasing targeting opportunities – it’s no coincidence that the one new B2B award up for grabs this year at Cannes is for influencer marketing – and it’s obvious that creativity needs to be at the heart of everything we do in B2B marketing. We need to build brand loyalty, and we need to be creative in how we do it. 

We’ve seen great examples in recent years of brands really getting it right in B2B, being useful and memorable without being product-led. The Audiencers and Hubspot spring to mind, and closer to home we’ve seen great initiatives on Raconteur from Salesforce and Mailchimp

While product-centric marketing definitely has its place, it’s not the ‘rational’ choice by default. That would suggest creative, brand-led marketing is ‘irrational’, when everything we know about effectiveness and loyalty suggests otherwise. B2B products change and evolve over time, as do brands, but while it’s easy to forget features, demos and price tiers, it’s a lot harder to forget true creativity when you come across it.