By: Cliff Lewis
“B2B” stands for “business-to-business,” but what does it really mean?
B2B (or B to B) stands for “business-to-business.” More specifically, B2B marketing communications occurs in “a situation where one business makes a commercial transaction with another.” Compare this to business-to-consumer marketing (B2C), which involves selling goods and services to private individuals.
But any kid with an iPhone can tell you that.
You’re looking for more than a textbook definition. You want to know what B2B is really all about. Maybe that’s because you’re new to the field, just getting started. Or maybe you’ve already put a couple decades into the B2B space, and this is more of an existential question (“what’s it all about?...”).
Our agency has been doing B2B since 1977, so we’ve had plenty of time to ask the Big Question from every vantage point you can imagine. So let’s dive in.
NO, REALLY—WHAT IS B2B?
As a B2B marketing communications agency, Godfrey focuses on brands that make machines, components, chemistries, etc. (I believe “stuff” is the technical term.) But not all B2B companies manufacture a physical product. B2B can be about data, services, knowledge, financing or really anything that one business might sell to another. The product and marketing style will vary with each B2B industry, but a few defining realities make B2B special wherever you find it. Here are three you may not know:
1. B2B IS OLD
Don’t get me wrong: From VR to AI to marketing automation, B2B is positively brimming with today’s most advanced marketing technology. It’s an exciting space—just as it was from the very beginning. Because B2B marketing has been around for just as long as B2C. B2B has done just as much to shape today’s marketing landscape. Way back in 1897, John Deere was pioneering the craft of content marketing to sell farming equipment:
The John Deere marketing effort had all the hallmarks of a B2B marketing scenario. They were selling a (then) cutting-edge technology that promised to help businesses operate with higher productivity. And it wasn’t just John Deere. A look through this collection of turn-of-the-century farming ads shows that B2B marketing communications was already in full swing 117 years ago.
They used lifestyle imagery to show positive product outcomes—in this case, a hat full of cherries:
They used hero-shots of end users to cultivate brand affinity:
They even used surreal imagery to make a memorable brand impression:
Full disclosure: I have no earthly idea what brand attribute those elves are supposed to represent. But you can’t un-see that image, so… memorable!
2. B2B IS TOUGH
This isn’t about convincing a shopper to spend that extra $1.25 on the organic mac and cheese. B2B purchases are expensive, deeply considered and sometimes life-altering. (Just imagine what happens to your career if you make the wrong million-dollar purchase.) B2B purchasing decisions do not occur over the span of seconds; they can take months or even years.
And, with products this complex, every B2B marketer must become—at the very least—an armchair engineer. You can’t tell a good story about the industrial Internet of Things unless you understand what’s at stake for buyers in that industry.
3. B2B IS AWESOME
Did I mention that these incredibly complex technologies make the world work better? They do. Even as you read these words, many thousands of B2B technologies are making your life safer, easier and more productive. The building where you sit is a quilt work of advanced building materials, and your indoor climate is controlled by a system of components made by dozens of manufacturers. B2B improves the world around you in ways that you don’t even see.
A good B2B marketer doesn’t simply bring their own inspiration to the party; a good B2B marketer knows how to get their inspiration from B2B itself. Too often businesspeople thrive on metaphors from cinema or sports. But why can’t it be the other way around? By all rights, B2B could inspire even the toughest halftime pep-talk:
WHAT IS B2B?
Technically speaking, B2B refers to any engagement whereby “one business makes a commercial transaction with another.” But here’s what you really need to know about B2B marketing communications: It’s been around as long as advertising itself, it’s not for the faint of heart and it helps make the world work better. That’s B2B.