Are You Brave Enough to Criticize Your Clients?

By Benedict Buckland, Chief Creative Officer, alan.

Client and agency relationships aren’t always smooth sailing. And as B2B marketers, navigating an industry rife with lifelessness, risk aversion, and a distaste for breaking the mould isn’t easy.

B2B marketing techniques were the first to be implemented, nearly a century before we saw the boom of B2C in the 90s I might add, and despite this we can’t seem to break from the ‘playing it safe’ reputation.

They say that the sign of a good friend is someone who can tell you the truth even when you don’t want to hear it. But could this be true of the company and business customer relationship, and could taking a more direct approach, when necessary, improve it?

Our recent report The Power of Provocation revealed that fear and anxiety are the emotions needed to create a tipping point, one that will push business decision-makers to take action. And 62% of C-Suite participants would go so far to say that they have to feel fear, or worse to make them take action on a problem facing the business.

There is a fine line between sparking fear and inciting outrage, but by approaching it correctly B2B marketers could ignite some life back into their campaigns.

With 88% of CEOs saying marketers need to take a bolder, more contrarian or more provocative approach, now is the time for B2B brands to consider a more radical approach to marketing.

It’s been proven that taking a stance will elicit strong emotions from B2B audiences and drive action. But the question is how far can you push an audience before they turn from engaged and ready for action, to enraged and ready to step away?

Here, we will explore the art of the insult, including when to do it, how to do it and why now is the right time.

The art of the insult

One of the key considerations when creating a critical marketing campaign is whether the criticism or provocation is true. Considering this will help find the line between tongue-in-cheek constructive messaging that will spark action or an insult that could cause outrage with a detrimental impact.

Making provocative claims in your marketing may spark outrage in your audience, but their ire can’t be directed at your brand if the point being made is honest and valid. If it’s not truthful, then it runs the risk of being offensive.

By implementing a campaign that disrupts the ‘normal’ thinking of B2B audiences, they are more inclined to change their behaviour and do something new.

Provide next steps

In the same way that teasing a dog with a ball will generate excitement but never throwing it will lead to annoyance, it is the responsibility of the brand to throw the proverbial ball and provide a satisfying outcome to the provocation being made.

Provocation for provocation’s sake is a dangerous game. While it may be effective in grabbing attention, it could negatively impact an audience’s receptiveness to the brand message, leaving the audience in a difficult situation. The most important thing is striking the right balance.

Shock is a handy tool to grab attention, but to successfully use provocation in a marketing campaign it must also offer the audience the tools to solve the problem.

alan. put this into play for B2B media company, and sister agency Raconteur. Using our recent research into decision making as a jumping off point, we created the ‘Hey Imposter’ campaign. As individuals enter the C-Suite, they feel thrown into the deep end now responsible for decisions across a variety of departments as well as their own.

The campaign was a tongue-in-cheek approach to play on the anxiety imposter syndrome creates – capturing attention and positioning Raconteur as the solution by offering the tools needed to overcome the feeling.

Time is up

B2B marketing is failing to elicit the emotions needed for business decision-makers to take action. 96% of CMOs want the majority of brands to be provocative, stimulating and have a forward-thinking perspective. And 100% of CEOs and COOs surveyed say marketers need to tackle risk aversion. The demand is there.

It can be daunting to take a critical approach, but marketers need to have confidence in their work. By combining passion and pragmatism, and keeping the business’ best interest at heart, a critical marketing campaign can make a business stand out amongst a sea of beige, extract action from B2B decision makers and inject a little bit of life back into the industry.

B2B has the potential to be electrifying, and can no longer be paralysed by a culture of conservatism.

It’s time for B2B to be brave and lean into provocation.