Weathering Change and Other Lessons from this Year’s Masters of B2B Marketing Conference

June 9, 2023

B2B marketers are facing the accelerated impacts of changing economic realities, shifts in customer behaviors, and disruptive technologies that have emerged since the pandemic.

We attended this year’s 2023 ANA Masters of B2B Marketing conference to hear from the wider business marketing industry on how they’re navigating these dynamics and more. Below find a rundown of our biggest takeaways.

Can You Market Your Way Out of a Recession? Maybe Not, but You Can Market Through It

In many ways, the current state of the economy resembles the same uncertainty felt in 2020 and 2008. In some B2B industries, insecurity is causing buyers to pause or stop buying. But on the flip side, market hesitation doesn’t alleviate the pressure on marketers to deliver performance and drive business growth.

As demand for ROI persists, keep in mind the entire runway of a slowdown. The average economic recession is 11 months — shorter than the average B2B buying cycle (16 months). And during these seasons of cost-cuts, the 95-5 rule is further compressed, reducing the average 5% of B2B buyers typically in-market to as little as 1% of buyers.1

Presented by LinkedIn. Slide Source: Ehrenberg-Bass Institute and B2B Institute Research.

Your instinct may be to cut marketing spend (especially with reduced demand). But the reality is: the dollars you invest today influence future buyers and plant the seed for brighter markets.

Cutting Ad Spend Cuts Your Voice, and Might Be Unintentionally Amplifying Your Competitors’

Beyond the challenge of shrinking buyer pools, the consequences of slashing marketing spend are coming to light. Brands that cut back on ad spend during slowdowns not only see weakened sales, reduced market share, and diminished shareholder returns—they also must spend more to “catch up later” ($1.85 to every previous $1).2

There’s significant benefit to sustaining your presence in the market. If your share of voice stays consistent, but your competitors cut back in the same window, your net share of voice actually increases. That means your budget doesn’t change, but your overall effectiveness is boosted by staying vocal when others pull back.

Brands should consider the net cost of their immediate cuts to brand marketing spend. Are they really saving?

The War on Brand vs. Demand Wages On

Over the last few years, there’s a growing acceptance within the B2B community that the B-word (Brand) is not a bad word. But the struggle to advocate for investment in brand-related activities is complicated by ongoing commercial pressures to deliver leads. Even more so when overall marketing dollars and media budgets are being slashed. But the ship may slowly be turning.

To help marketers reframe this discussion with their leadership teams consider: Brand building is for out-of-market buyers; the future buyers for whom you’re working to drive both memorability and affinity with over time. It’s the long-term game worth playing, reinforced by the fact that 86% of buyers start their search with a “Day 1” list of brands in mind.3

Reduced in-market buyers today place an even greater necessity on brand building for the future. What does that balance look like during a season like this? The easy “rule of thumb” splits the investment 50/50 between brand efforts and demand generation. But for B2B categories that involve higher levels of customer research ahead of purchase, that ratio can shift as high as 70% on the brand side.1

The best advice for measuring brand efforts? Understand your share of voice, as it often correlates with a brand’s share of market.

To Stand Out, Use Bolder Creative Strategy and More Emotion

Fresh data shows that it’s harder for B2B brands to stand out — and even harder to win:4

  • Incumbents lose in over a third (34%) of decision journeys, meaning your customer retention isn’t as sure-fire as it once was
  • The number of brands considered has increased by 58% over the last two years
  • And the performance gap between selected and losing brands is narrowing

So how do you stand out? As B2B marketing merges with B2C in the modern era, customer-centric strategies emphasize the power of emotion. The brands that do outperform in their markets.

B2B commerce is rising as fast as eCommerce. In fact, B2B spend is forecasted to grow faster than B2C integrated spend.5

Tips to leverage emotion in B2B creative include:6

  • Lean authentically into alignment with customer values (e.g., DEIB, corporate citizenship, ESG, etc.)
  • Balance emotion and rationality in your content and creative: 61% emotion and 32% rational (2/3 of factors are emotion!). Plus, inspiring emotion was 7X more effective than delivering rational benefit alone.

Living and Breathing a Customer-Centric Strategy Starts with Better Customer Data

We all know that a customer-centric approach should be at the heart of every marketing and commercial effort. But this year’s conversation shifted from the proliferation of tools and technologies to investments in data infrastructure. This infrastructure ensures the underlying data is as strong as the tools that leverage it. Quality data infrastructure will also be key to unlock the full, future potential of AI.

We’re witnessing the maturation of the Customer Data Platform (CDP), which unifies first-party customer data to support marketing. Further, you can use CDPs to create cohorts that support more targeted efforts and deeper insights into customer trends, like repeat purchases and customer lifetime value. This tackles the ongoing debate on prioritizing and utilizing first-party data (given the 86% inaccuracy rate of third-party B2B data isn’t paying off). 

The industry needs first-party data that goes beyond email contacts to power other channels, like direct mail. As well as helps to integrate siloes (whether it’s teams or data) and head towards a more interconnected reality found in that of a true unified commerce engine.

Sweating Your Assets Has Never Been More Important

Until you’ve said it 1,000 times and you’re absolutely sick of it, your customers are just starting to recognize it. This sentiment was preached at the conference even by leaders of significant, well-recognized brands like GE and Mastercard, who talked about the importance of wearing in strong-performing campaigns, especially during seasons of uncertainty.

As you look to stretch your dollars in these tighter seasons, consider if your campaign or asset is truly worn in or if it can stand to get additional love.

Let’s Talk About the Generative AI Elephant in the Room

The topic of Generative AI and its impact on marketers and marketing was pervasive throughout discussions. While we are beginning to unlock its possibilities, much remains to explore. Cautionary tales remind marketers that AI not only holds ownership over the end-product, but is the subject of concerns around intellectual property, data privacy, accuracy and manipulation. Practical applications and increased education are essential at this stage.

Despite these challenges, the future looks promising as AI represents the third wave of leveraging technology and data to enhance B2B marketing and its effectiveness.

Overall, it was a thought-provoking week jam-packed with energy, encouragement, and consideration for the future. By staying ambitious and maintaining a focus on long- and short-term goals, marketing teams and partners can navigate fluctuating economic realities together — and pave the way for brighter opportunities ahead.

1 Ehrenberg Bass Institute and B2B Institute Research

2 BCG, January 2023. Don’t Cut Your Brand-Marketing Budget. Rethink It.

3 Google/Bain, B2B Discovery to Devotion Study

4 The 2023 B2B Superpower Index

5 The Outlook for B2B Marketing: A Market In Transformation

6 Inspire B2B Brands Study