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They're the three most dangerous words in B2B marketing

If you’ve ever worked in B2B marketing, you’ve heard someone in sales (or even marketing — yikes!) utter a version of this sentence: “Everyone knows us.” Typically, this idea is expressed as a rebuke to a proposed marketing program designed to elevate brand awareness or create demand for a brand’s products or services. The good intentions of a B2B marketer are unfairly quashed by an experienced sales leader or long-tenured marketing team member who, for whatever reason, believes their brand, value proposition and offering portfolio are comprehensively well-known and understood by the servable universe of decision makers. That’s quite an assumption. (And you know what your parents always said about making assumptions…)

Unless you serve a very niche market, there are so many reasons why the “everyone knows us” concept is flawed, naive and dangerous. For simplicity, let’s focus on three reasons:

  • It assumes a static audience ecosystem.
  • It assumes your competition is equally complacent.
  • It assumes your value proposition is permanently relevant.

Your audience is bigger and more dynamic than you think

Let’s start with your audience. First, if you’re hearing the above comments from sales and believe they know everyone there is to know in their served territories, you’re being naive. I supported a technical sales team previously in my career, and I witnessed how territorial they could be with their accounts. They didn’t want people meddling in their account management affairs; that’s understandable to a point. Reflecting on this behavior, I’m quite certain they wouldn’t have wanted anyone to audit the depth and breadth of their account penetration efforts. So let’s assume a pretty significant percentage of sales engineers and leaders are similar in that regard.

Secondly, if there’s one thing many salespeople struggle with, it’s establishing new relationships when there is turnover. And turnover happens. Consider the turnover rate in the tech industry, which hovers around 13%, with software engineers having a turnover rate of nearly 22%, according to Forbes. New influencers and decision makers are emerging all the time. And many come from other environments where your company and offering were a complete mystery (or worse, where your competition was the preferred choice). Relying on older or retiring decision makers to pass along what they know about you to newer decision makers is risky. And in the off chance it does happen, can you be sure what they are communicating about you is accurate? Does it reflect what you want the new decision maker to know about your company? Your company’s value proposition will likely evolve as market dynamics and technologies change, but we’ll discuss this more later on. It’s best to be proactive as a professional B2B marketer and help keep that up-to-date message front and center at all times. Right?

Finally, the messages a marketer delivered three, five or even 10 years ago may have been perfect for the decision makers in the past — by relevance and communication channel. But with so many decision makers emerging constantly, preferences for information and messaging could be quite different for this audience set. It was six years ago that IBM Institute for Business Value documented the emerging role of the millennial in their important report, To Buy or Not to Buy. In it, they noted that younger decision makers:

  • Seek vendor contact at their own convenience (and thus perform more research on their own) 
  • Are more likely to rely on analytics in making decisions than older colleagues
  • Are more concerned with ease of doing business, convenience and collaboration

The report includes dozens of other comparisons between younger and older decision makers. Some are quite stark — and that’s the point. They are different. If you don’t know them and don’t know how they’re different, your marketing message and the channels you’re delivering it through run the risk of being less relevant. And remember: 60 to 90% of the decision making process is undertaken before a prospect reaches out! If you’re relying on your sales team to deliver your message to all the people they know (and not at all to those they don’t), you need to reassess how you conduct marketing. 

A donkey disrupts a market

Is your competition sitting still? If so, you’re lucky. Not too many companies have the luxury of resting comfortably on their laurels and enjoying the lion’s share of the market spoils. And even if you think your competition is applying similar urgency and importance to marketing, beware the disruptor. Yes, even in industrial B2B, disruptors exist.

Ever heard of Big Ass Fans? Neither had the old stodgy air movement industry until around 2000. Before that, the air movement industry was comprised of a familiar group of major players who made industrial and commercial blowers (reliable; trusted for centuries; quality first; best performing; blah, blah, blah). They all looked and sounded the same and held on to comfortable market shares. Then along came a company with a cool idea related to "high-volume, low-speed” (HVLS) fans. A donkey’s butt ends up in a marketing campaign, one thing leads to another, and a company called Big Ass Fans emerges. Their message was brash and bold, but also backed by a different way to move air. By 2016, they were recognized as a Top 25 Best Small Company in America by Forbes. And that small company now has more than 700 employees and revenues estimated at more than $250 million. The industry stalwarts got their “big asses” kicked by assuming everyone was happy with the status quo.

In another recent example, a better idea for ultra-low temperature (ULT) freezing in life sciences came to market-disrupting fruition when an upstart company took the vaccine storage and transportation industry by storm. As a result of the COVID pandemic, the life sciences industry needed a complete provider who could meet the very low-temperature requirements for vaccines. Stirling Ultracold, with their novel Stirling engine, was more than ready with a strong positioning platform and marketing presence. When the opportunity presented itself, they dominated the category with an idea and solution set that the bigger, established brands couldn’t match. They made national news seemingly on a nightly basis and were purchased by a major player in the life sciences industry.

Marketing spend in B2B ranges quite a bit, typically from 0.5 to 5%. The range disparity is representative of two types of companies: those who see marketing as a necessary task (“everyone knows us”) and those who see marketing as an investment in customer retention and new opportunities. If you find your budget on the lower end, beware competitors who view the marketing world — and their budgets — differently. 

You may not be as relevant as you used to be

Finally, it’s important to consider whether the message “everyone knows us” matters as much as it used to. We’ve established that there are likely new and younger decision makers emerging who you don’t know, even inside your best accounts. Numerous research reports cite evidence indicating younger decision makers are applying more value to corporate social responsibility (CSR) as they evaluate providers. Does your old message reflect this changing dynamic?

And what about sustainability and the closely related energy transition to renewable sources? It’s happening all around us — in North America and nearly every global region. As businesses make energy transition a bigger part of their priorities, the suppliers they partner with will be required to demonstrate how they can help make the transition happen more effectively and faster than alternatives. Are you considering how to reframe your offerings in the context of energy transition? If not, it might be necessary to ensure long-term relevance. But be sure to do it authentically, communicating the real ways you can help customers do this important work. Greenwashing is dangerous and will be sniffed out by savvy decision makers, harming your brand.

CSR and energy transition are just two dynamics that might cause you to consider whether your message is still relevant. You may also find other factors like the emergence of the industrial internet of things (IIoT) and workforce skills gaps are having huge impacts upon your served markets. Changing market dynamics are everyone’s reality. Assuming you’re known by everyone — and by extension, understood by and relevant to everyone — ignores the need for constant vigilance as it relates to your message.

Stand out from the noise

No matter how big or popular your brand, the need for changes to your messaging and constant evaluation of current market communications and strategies will never go out of style. Keep hitting the refresh button on your marketing. New decision makers hit the block every day; it’s your duty to consistently reach them in a compelling way.

If you need a hand in figuring all this out, feel free to reach out. After all, everyone knows us.