Winning in a World Where Business Culture Is Culture. Four Ways to Make This New Reality Work for You and Your Brand

By Ric Marshall-Nicholls, Head of Planning, Iris NA

I can recall a time when business culture and culture culture were not only separate, but uninterested in each other.

Boundaries were present. Just like oil and water. Church and state. Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise.

But today, business culture is culture. And it’s about time we recognize it.

Here’s what I mean.

The CEO of Tesla hosts Saturday Night Live. Social media stars are billion-dollar businesses in themselves. Work and home life blend like never before. Business events like Google I/O are cultural events, too. Nearly half of all Americans claimed to operate a side-hustle in 2021, in fact—which is all at once amazing and inspiring.

All these truths—combined with a greater realization in the marketing community that B2B buyers are, in fact, people—gives B2B brands all kinds of opportunities to grow by impacting culture in broader and deeper ways than ever before.

How might they go about accomplishing that, you ask? Here are a few thoughts, but this list is far from exhaustive because in reality, the potential for overlap is immense.

First—in the words of renowned marketer Wayne Gretsky—don’t skate where the puck is, skate to where it’s going. It’s a sentiment quoted approvingly in all kinds of business contexts – HBR articles by business gurus, LinkedIn Thought Leaders, and a thousand agency sell-in decks. Hell, even Steve Jobs loved it.

Or, to use an analogy more common in the advertising world, in order to remain culturally relevant, you must first shoot ahead of a moving target in order to hit it.

While that’s pretty well established in B2C circles, it’s less so in B2B. Staid cultural references abound in advertising and beyond (want the attention of the C-Suite? A golf celeb should do it) despite the fact that most B2B buyers are Millennial or younger. With research showing that those B2B buyers’ lives – and content feeds – are much more blended than previous generations, shooting ahead at this new insurgent buyer in ways that speak to them isn’t a creative indulgence, it’s smart strategy.

Slack got this way back in 2014—check out their Parks-and-Rec-style-mocumentary here for a fresher and more culturally relevant approach to marketing. For a more modern take, I’m very much enjoying Helen Edwards’ new book From Marginal To Mainstream on how businesses should look to the margins for the next opportunity or cultural wave to ride.

Another idea: Find the sweet spot where business and life connect. In a previous life I worked on LinkedIn’s ‘New Professionals’ campaign was based on the truth that behavior on the platform was mimicking the broader breakdown of the walls between work and life we can all recognize at this point. Being professional didn’t mean leaving the personal at the door.

That blurring of the lines wasn’t just true of the advertising, as it was also an increasingly valuable business-driver. Case in point: The platform now makes money from content and advertising than it does from job postings.

For another damn-I-wish-I-did that example, check out Spotify’s A Song For Every CMO campaign, blending business benefits with very personal insight into the music tastes of a hard-to-reach audience through the medium of personalized songs.

Suggestion No. 3: Bring business and consumer campaigns closer together—intentionally. So many of the businesses we work with are in some way two-sided, speaking to businesses on the one hand and consumers on the other. And while often there’s a kind of church-and-state separation between the two, smart businesses realize that those two sides aren’t as different as they seem. I worked on TV station advertising in the UK years ago (don’t make me count the years…,) and unfortunately, as much of my time was spent packaging up audiences to advertisers as it was getting audiences to tune in at 7 p.m. Creating B2B campaigns built from the consumer creative was always the most compelling way to get advertisers on board.

A more recent example? Check out Zoom’s partnership with the very B2C Good American fashion brand to sell some B2B features like Zoom Events. Or ask our clients at PayPal who are more than aware that most small business owners who use PayPal were consumer users first.

And finally, don’t forget internal culture, too. Not only are employees the best advocates (and, let’s be honest, very occasionally detractors) of a brand, but a solid, supportive internal culture is attractive to potential clients and customers for all of the obvious reasons, too. Happy milk comes from happy cows, right? Bottling and growing that culture—and linking it to the external brand perception in a logical way—is a smart alternative way to drive culture.