Through these special blog postings, our goal is to offer advice and insights from top BtoB marketers. Recently, Jonathan Salem Baskin, a veteran BtoC and BtoB marketer with more than 20 years of experience and author of the book, Branding Only Works on Cattle: The New Way to Get Known (and drive your competitors crazy), responded to our questions. You'll learn why he thinks BtoB marketers have had it right all along. Also, he'll share some key insights into his career and offer solutions to many of the challenges facing BtoB marketers today.
1. How did you get started in the world of marketing?
I'd wanted to work in advertising since I was in college, as it seemed like the coolest combination of creativity and cultural relevance. So while my contemporaries were waiting tables during the summers, I interned at ad and PR firms. After graduation, I packed up and moved to NYC in search of a job, and found one four months later as an account exec at a PR firm called Edelman. My first client --a spin-off of Continental Grain called ContiCommodity-- was in the BtoB space.
2. Why do you think this current economic crisis heralds a renaissance for BtoB marketers?
The web has transformed every company into a service provider, as end-users of everything from automobiles to MP3 players expect to be supported and engaged, not just by their individual purchases, but consistently over time. Cars need GPS devices. Music players need songs. Often, the differentiator between branded offerings will be how creatively or well they partner with other businesses to provide said services. Sourcing itself is also emerging as a competitive differentiator, whether due to concerns about economic or environmental justice, or simply of quality.
The current economic crisis just accentuates the requirement that companies differentiate themselves in more compelling, substantive ways. BtoB marketers will find themselves competing for these new services partnerships, as well as displacing one another for sourcing contracts. It's the context for vibrant, creative competition of the likes that BtoB marketers haven't seen in a very long time.
3. You've been quoted stating that BtoB marketers are better positioned, better prepared and better armed to weather the downturn than BtoC marketers. Why is that?
First, because they've lived the business strategies we call "Web 2.0" since before the trend had a catchy label. BtoB marketing is based on principles of customer relationships, selling relevance to price and utility, and "designing in" input from customers for new products. These habits are all revelations for most BtoC marketers, and they're struggling with how to incorporate them into their top-down, brand-driven marketing strategies. The best BtoB marketers already know what works and how to deliver it.
Second, even if it's sometimes been uneasy, BtoB marketers have had close working relationships with sales. That means the metrics for much of that marketing are simple—sales and profits—instead of the made-up measures that BtoC marketers use to substantiate their efforts. BtoB marketers speak the financial language that the rest of the company uses, so it should be far easier to explain and defend budgets. Not easy, mind you, but just more effective. I think many of the BtoC folks and their mushy metrics of awareness and intent are in for a world of pain.
4. What was the inspiration behind "Branding Only Works for Cattle: The New Way to Get Known (And Drive Your Competitors Crazy)"?
Most people in the branding world spend their lives feeling misunderstood and unappreciated. Otherwise smart, capable execs just can't seem to get the importance of branding and are always in need of being educated (as the brand trades regularly declare). Brand and marketing are the first budgets to get cut in a downturn, which is the clearest evidence of this ongoing disconnect.
After 26 years fighting that good fight, it occurred to me that maybe all those operational execs weren't stupid; maybe it was we marketers who had the wrong idea about brands.
So I set out to come up with a model for what branding might be if it were the outcome of real, objective behaviors, and not the subjective mental states that are the exclusive domain of marketing. And I discovered a rich vein of thought that raises marvelous questions about how, what, where, when, and why organizations influence purchases.
5. You often say a tough market requires every corporate department to get involved in selling. How can this happen?
It already happens all the time. Customers don't follow orders, and there's no limit to the ways, media, contexts and reasons why and how they can make decisions that lead to purchase (or, conversely, to abandonment). Information sharing doesn't end with the work day and isn't limited to the channels chosen by your marketing department. And the content that factors into those decisions are often, if not mostly, outside of the purview of marketing and instead originate in other departments (sourcing, vendor relationships, prices, service and support, employee-relations issues, environmental practices).
Marketing can often put the patina of order on this chaos, but it's fleeting. Instead, these factors—all the result of behaviors of one sort or another—emerge within and from every department in your company. The substance of those behaviors is thus far more important to your brand than anything the marketers could create. Again, this impacts your selling right now, whether you're aware of it or not.
Getting proactive with this involvement requires a new starting point for the conversation: it's not about applying the branding to the departments, but rather allowing their actions themselves to be understood as drivers of the brand.
6. Other than your own, what business book would you recommend to BtoB marketers?
I really enjoyed "Ogilvy On Advertising," by David Ogilvy. It's been out for a long time, but Ogilvy understood the humanity inherent in purchase decisions, and that ultimately the business consumer is still a consumer. I think a lot of the distinctions we draw between the BtoB and BtoC practices are artificial and sometimes not even true. Getting people to buy things is a universal; it's only in the details that differences emerge.
7. What's the best advice you ever received, and or where did it come from?
One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was from my father when I was in high school. We had agreed to play golf together on a Sunday morning, but the Saturday prior I stayed at a friend's house and forgot the appointment. When I got home, far too late in the morning to make tee time, my Dad calmly explained to me that the worst thing I could do to another person is squander or waste their time. That has stuck with me personally and professionally, and it's an important adage for marketers to remember: be relevant, or be quiet.
8. What has been the biggest challenge in your professional career?
I'm living it right now: talking to marketers about truly changing the marketing paradigm.
For all the talk about new media and experimentation, most communications follow traditions and conceits that are decades old. Many smart, well-intentioned people are hell-bent on proving that the outdated concepts of branding—telling consumers what to think, believing we could ever know what they're thinking anyway, and even if we were able to, thinking that those ideas would be casually relevant to their purchase behavior—are still valid, only they're not. It would be easier if they were, but it's simply not the case.
Lots of marketers are so accustomed to talking about brands as these all-encompassing things, describable mostly by metaphor, that they have real trouble opening their minds to another possibility. So the challenge is to engage them in this discussion about brands as something more—as behavior—and work with them to redirect their creativity and initiative.
It's the biggest challenge I've faced, but also the most rewarding.
For more of Jonathan's news and updates, visit his blog at Dim Bulb.