Safety first? Tackling the fear epidemic in B2B brand creativity

By Transmission |
4 minute read

Safety first? Tackling the fear epidemic in B2B brand creativity

“B2B brands need to be seen as reliable above all else.” “We need to appeal to the rational business decision maker.” “No one ever got fired for buying IBM.”

What do these three statements have in common? Any takers? They’re all things we’ve probably heard time after time when discussing any brand marketing or B2B marketing programme. But the underlying theme beneath them all is the idea that safe brands sell in B2B.

At the end of the day, CMOs and CFOs are both looking to achieve the same thing: revenue growth. However, the differences lie in how they think their company should get there. In last year’s State of B2B Brand Building report, we found that 42% of the marketing leaders we surveyed were looking to put a renewed focus on improving creative stand out and creative identity in their brand marketing programmes.

And while it’s still one of CMOs’ top five challenges for brand in 2023, our 'Closing the CMO-CFO brand value gap in B2B' research has revealed the true extent to which organisational divides between CMOs and CFOs have been holding creativity back.

CMOs want to prioritise brand awareness, but CFOs are sceptical

In a paper published in partnership with The B2B Institute, Jenni Romaniuk of the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute found that a lack of brand awareness was the biggest barrier to growth in B2B industries. Likewise, our report suggests the same, with growing brand awareness as the top brand marketing objective for B2B CMOs over the next 12 months.

But while there’s plenty of willingness from the marketing function to focus on building mental availability in the mind of buyers, they also recognise the challenges that improving brand standout or differentiation in a crowded marketplace can bring. And we’ve found some of the biggest of which lies within the organisation.

Under pressure to improve brand standout and competitive differentiation, CMOs flagged that measuring ROI and creative effectiveness, insufficient budget, and a lack of immediate sales opportunities are key concerns with brand creativity in their company. Predictably, they’re all metrics linked to the commercial and financial yardsticks CFOs care about most – highlighting the finance department’s control over creative output.

What’s standing in the way of greater creativity?

Both CMOs and CFOs agree that difficulties in measuring creative effectiveness and ROI are the biggest roadblocks to more creativity in B2B brand building.

From a financial perspective, it makes sense. If we can’t demonstrate how creativity contributes to the business, then we can’t justify investment. But at this point, we should all (hopefully) know that you can’t put a price on creativity. At least, not in the metrics and timeframes finance departments are used to.

Then there’s the question of how CFOs think brand affects purchase decisions. B2B buyers want suppliers that are safe and reliable. However, being bought hinges on whether you’re known.

Unfortunately, we found that 76% believe that in B2B, it’s better to have a safe, reliable brand than a bold, disruptive one – suggesting senior Finance leaders may be conflating brand experience with customer experience. This finding also comes as a real surprise when considering that CFOs also ranked overly “risk-averse” organisational cultures in their top-five creative blockers.

Thankfully, that hasn’t seemed to have deterred CMOs from wanting to rise to the challenge. 71% think their creative marketing should be bolder and braver than it is today, and 62% believe it should be more emotional and human-centric. And they’re right for thinking so! Research from The B2B Institute found campaigns that put emotion at the heart of their strategy drove seven times the performance of their rational counterparts.

Moreover, 55% of CMOs disagree that being safe is better than being bold, proving that there’s still hope for greater creativity in B2B. That said, it would be too simplistic to lay the blame for creative blocks in B2B businesses solely on the shoulders of our Finance counterparts…

The call’s coming from inside the house

We’ve all likely heard of Professor John Dawes’ 95/5 rule at this point. It’s the view that businesses should avoid focusing on comms that shout about products and features to the 5% of in-market buyers in favour of building awareness and familiarity in the 95% of those out-of-market – an approach even CFOs should be able to get behind given that’s where future cash flow is to be found.

Focusing on reaching the vast majority of B2B decision makers who aren’t actively searching for a solution allows you to build the mental associations necessary to be recalled come RFP season. However, once again, our report points to a lack of recognition from CFOs regarding the role of reach in driving sales – 68% believe that B2B brands grow best through audience relevancy, not reach. Surprise, surprise.

What had us dropping our morning coffee was the fact that the majority of B2B CMOs agree! 54% believe brand relevance is more important than brand reach in growing businesses. While it’s great to see the two functions getting along, this is hardly where we wanted to see more aligned brand-building views.

For all the focus on strengthening brand awareness, there seems to be a disconnect between the emphasis senior Marketers put on producing more creative brand marketing and what they believe it should help them achieve. And to start getting the most out of B2B brand, it might be worth checking our closets for any other nasty surprises.

Explaining the creativity gap in B2B brand marketing

One potential justification for why there’s such a discrepancy between senior leaders’ creative brand goals and the importance they assign it could be that B2B Marketers are bombarded with messages emphasising the importance of hyper-personalisation and account-based targeting. The thing is, in brand marketing, both CMOs and CFOs in B2B need to understand that going broader is better.

Creative brand marketing that holds its own in today’s hyper-competitive landscape is a great and seemingly underappreciated way for B2B brands to stand out. The launch and further development of the B2B Creative Lion category at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity shows just how much weight the industry is putting on creating blockbuster creative campaigns.

However, we found that any hope of doing so should be tempered as it makes more than three-quarters of CFOs uncomfortable – reflecting the industry-old view that standing out from the crowd can be dangerous in B2B industries. If senior Marketers want to push the creative brand agenda forwards, they need to convince their CFO counterparts that the biggest risk in the current B2B landscape is not taking a risk and becoming yet another piece of wallpaper on the wall of B2B brand.

This could be a tall order given, when asked where they felt creative marketing added the most value to their organisation, CFOs felt it was in “building greater customer loyalty and trust” (despite research showing the ineffectiveness of loyalty strategies in B2B). CMOs, on the other hand, feel it’s in “helping us stand out in market and to differentiate ourselves from competitors”.

In essence, creativity in the eyes of the CMO is a weapon for brand reach and distinctiveness in the early stages of the buying cycle. For CFOs, it’s a way to help convince customers to stick with the brand post-sale. And for practitioners working in B2B, it’s yet another illustrative example of the cost and severity of this fractured relationship on their brand’s potential.

Unravel the complex relationship between CMOs and CFOs, and their views around creativity in brand marketing in our Closing the CMO-CFO brand value gap in B2B report.