The Irreconcilable Differences Between B2B and B2C Marketing
Updated: Mar 10
Four reasons why pulling from B2C for B2B marketing isn’t just foolish, but unfeasible.
Table of Contents
Irreconcilable difference 1: The research
Irreconcilable difference 2: Bulletproof branding, messaging, and positioning
Irreconcilable difference 3: Cost, convenience, and stakes
Irreconcilable difference 4: Universal truths
In the span of a few short years, B2B marketers have gone from thinking people buy $50k per month software after reading an ebook, to posting pictures of Porsche ads with the caption: "B2B marketing should be more like this!", somehow forgetting that Porsche sells status symbols, and they sell CRMs.
One satiates an innate human desire as old as time, the other helps software sales teams organize their leads.
Different audience plus different pain points equals completely missing the point, once again.
The issue was never that B2B marketing didn’t make people feel something, it’s that most B2B marketing is not in line with how their customers buy.
If you honestly think the reason people aren’t purchasing a certain enterprise software is because they use the words “streamline” and “leverage” in their copy, or because they don’t know your "why,” that's concerning.
I previously broke down the difference between corporate jargon and corporate as a feeling, why writing simply can cost you, and why any of this matters in relation to effective B2B marketing.
This battle against corporate jargon is part of a larger war against “boring marketing” and a call to arms to pull from B2C marketing.
B2B and B2C marketing do have similarities.
Most people focus only on B2C elements of B2B, however, B2C marketing actually has many B2B elements.
Toy and snack companies market to children as well as the decision maker – parents. Restaurants must appeal to multiple decision makers as well.
But beyond budgets, number of stakeholders, and length of sales cycles, there are some irreconcilable differences between the two that impact their go-to-market strategy, how they’re marketed, and how their copy is written that prevent B2B from successfully pulling from B2C.
Four irreconcilable differences between B2B and B2C marketing
1. The research
I ended the last piece by stating that B2B marketers can be Don Draper. I meant that metaphorically, but I want to discuss him literally for a moment.
Don was a brilliant marketer. He made it look effortless and natural, but a lot more went into Don’s riffing than meets the eye. This is easy to overlook since Mad Men was an entertaining series.*
This is crucial though. Because if you overlook this piece, you’ll miss what’s happening now – B2B marketers thinking that creativity is fun and easy.
It can be those things, sometimes. But not without a lot of work involved.
Don was quite miserable and stressed most of the show. Part of this was because of his own decisions.
But much of his stress derived from the inevitable reality of being a creative who wasn’t just responsible for coming up with ideas, but bringing in business – and keeping it.
While Don may have had a "knack" for advertising and catchy campaigns, he also worked incredibly hard. He was a brilliant marketer because he did not skimp on research.
In the first episode of the first season, Don is tasked with coming up with a campaign for a product he doesn’t just use, but a campaign for the actual brand of his choice too: "I mean, you know I’m a Lucky Strike man from way back,” he says in the meeting with the Lucky Strike executives.
Was he just blowing smoke? Perhaps. Whether or not he’s always been a Lucky Strike customer cannot be confirmed. But as the viewer, we can assume he’s been smoking for several years.
Smoking isn’t a hobby or a nice-to-have. It’s an addiction – a physical, psychological, and emotional one. (As someone who used to smoke nearly a pack a day at one point, I can tell you that nicotine has very little to do with it.)
And yet, the very first scene of the very first episode of the very first season opens with Don doing primary customer research with the wait staff at a restaurant.
His second set of lines in the opening scene after asking for a light is, without so much as a pause in between: "Old Gold man, huh? Lucky Strike here. Can I ask you a question? Why do you smoke Old Gold?"
Unless you understand what goes into writing copy, you might not see why this matters.
The thing that people who don’t write copy don’t understand is that copy isn’t written. It’s assembled.
You need to make yourself a local to write effective or “clever” copy. The tagline that “just came to you?" You drew on data from your subconscious. There’s no way you didn’t; information has to come from somewhere.
Don Draper gets to pour himself a Scotch, put his feet up, and light a cigarette and still be good at his job because his customers are him.
He draws on decades of subconscious and qualitative insight, but that’s still research. (And yet there he is, in scene one of episode one of season one, still doing primary research. That is what makes him so brilliant at his job.)
B2B marketers typically don’t have or experience the same pain as their customers. The founder(s) might, but the employees most likely don’t.
And you cannot riff before you’ve researched.
Whether this research is done subconsciously through life experiences like being addicted to the product you’re writing copy for, or intentionally through reading through social media comments to learn the voice of the customer or conducting customer interviews, it must be done.
Writing any copy is not a casual endeavor. But writing conversational copy – what this new wave of B2B marketers are so obsessed with – is especially not a casual endeavor.
Effective conversational copy reads effortlessly but it actually requires more effort to write if you do not know the subject matter.
People treat it like a hook up when it’s really a marriage to get right.
It’s the guy in the basketball shorts who strolls into the five star restaurant without a reservation that the owner comes out to greet. He may look nonchalant and effortless, but he worked very hard to get there.
Actual copywriting, not social media writing, isn’t learning to write like you speak. It’s learning how to write how your client speaks. Copywriters are voice actors. They just use the written word instead of the spoken one.
To write like you speak from the perspective of a company that sells a product that you don’t use takes an enormous amount of effort that marketers – and many copywriters – don’t realize.
More work is required to get the insight required to write effective copy and develop a unique brand voice, and many B2B marketers and copywriters refuse to do get their hands dirty.
So they default to dumbed down, overly friendly copy and a verbal (and visual) identity that sounds and looks like everyone else in tech.
It’s nuances like knowing that Prescott is actually pronounced like Triscuit, and that anyone actually from Silicon Valley would never be caught dead calling it that. (It’s the Bay Area.)
It’s learning that a Vesper martini is stirred, not shaken, so even though shaking looks cooler for a video montage on the website, anyone who knows anything about cocktails is going to think you don’t.
You only pick up on these things if you’re immersed in it, if you’re in the trenches. That is much harder to do with a product that doesn’t solve a problem you personally have.
I recently finished a positioning, brand voice, and website copy for a sonic branding agency. The entire website is less than 1500 words. (For context, this piece is ~4100 words.)
Here’s what went into it:
Reading two books on sound design
Listening to several podcasts
Watching several YouTube videos
Exchanging thousands of Slack messages
Meeting in person for over a dozen hours
Listening/watching their work dozens of times
Studying 70+ pages of other sound design websites to see how and where my client could stand out
Writing 7+ drafts for the About page alone
Did I overdo it? Not in the slightest. I had no previous knowledge about sound design, an incredibly complex topic.
The only thing I had going for me was that my client’s customers buy the same way mine do. Neither of us want to rank number one on Google for our respective disciplines. We want our names coming up during a round of golf between CEOs or coffee between Creative Directors.
I didn’t just have to learn about sound design. I had to learn it so well I could speak casually yet intelligently about it, and in the voice of my client. I had to research before I could riff.
And that research was worth every second.
Brands are made in the small moments. And this is what most B2B marketers don’t understand.
Likewise, it’s the small moments that make effective copy.
Loud headlines can be effective, but unless your product or service has the same emotional impact as Apple or Nike, your loud headline will either fall on deaf ears – or blow out an eardrum.
Which means B2B companies need to win in the details, because it’s the details that shows you how well you know someone.
It’s the details that a target audience connects to. The thoughtful gift, the “aw, you shouldn’t have,” moments that build the trust that (hopefully) results in a purchase.
To write effective copy, you must become a local. It's not dissimilar to how people trying to learn English watch soap operas even if they don’t understand it. This tactic works because the dialogue seeps into their subconscious.
Certain pronunciations, annunciations, colloquial phrases and expressions – these require an enormous amount of repetition and immersion to understand, let alone be able to use at times deemed socially appropriate and relevant.
Anyone who disagrees either doesn’t write copy, or if they do, they don’t realize that they do this.
Even if they’re just spitballing a headline for a product they just heard of, they’re putting themselves in the shoes of the customer for just a split second.
And until you admit this, you will handicap your copy. Just like when you ban certain corporate words, you cannot use them when it’s appropriate. You will cut it off at the knees simply because you don’t “like” certain words.
In turn, you will miss out on reaching your ICP with whom corporate jargon resonates because corporate jargon is part of their language. (Again, corporate jargon is not the same as feeling corporate.)
2. Bulletproof branding, messaging, and positioning
B2C branding, positioning, and messaging is bulletproof. It has to be.
B2C companies, along with pretty much every industry besides tech, go out of business if they don’t get customers. The very real possibility of failure forces B2C companies to be good.
B2C companies fail all the time. The ones that are still in existence have already gotten this right (or are slowly dying).
For this reason, they put enormous amounts of money, time, and energy into customer research in order to craft the perfect brand, which they continue to refine.
They aren’t obsessed with the customer because it’s trendy or a “growth hack." They’re obsessed with the customer because that's Marketing 101.
Most B2B SaaS companies do not obsess over these things like B2C companies do.
For this reason, it's incredibly misguided to get inspiration from brands and companies who have worked much harder than baby B2B SaaS companies – most of which are just solutions in search of a problem – to refine these things.
B2B marketers looking at B2C ads for inspiration is also comparing apples to oranges when it comes to marketing deliverables.
B2C ad campaigns are just that: a campaign. It really is just a matter of a tagline and “idea.” Granted, this idea must be able to be iterated in a variety of ways.
Several OOH billboards or magazine print ads – the inspiration posted by many B2B marketers – are a much different story than an entire website and LinkedIn ads with a caption, micro copy, and creative.
The former are one off campaigns done by companies who have often decades of experience getting clear on who they are as a brand, along with the rest of their marketing assets locked down. The brand personality, visual and verbal identity are already clearly established. They know their customers deeply.
The latter requires proven positioning, a unique POV, consistent messaging, as well as channel-specific copy.
Few B2B SaaS companies have those first two things, which means the second two are poorly executed.
3. Cost, convenience, and stakes
Now, I’m sure you’re thinking of B2C companies who aren’t obsessed with their customers. That either don’t have great branding or don’t make very high quality products.
The majority of the products you're thinking of cost less than a thousand dollars, probably less than a hundred.
Price matters because lower cost items typically sell in much higher volumes – in bulk, many people buy one, or people buy them continuously.
And when your product is bought in high volume, it matters less whether or not your customers actually love it. The standards are lower or there’s always more customers in the sea (often both).
Native really doesn’t care that I think their deodorant is stupid because it gets white streaks on my black clothes, just like Starbucks really doesn’t care that many people think their coffee tastes like watered down battery acid.
Plenty of people are fine with Native deodorant because few people wear as much black clothing as me. Plenty of people are fine with Starbucks because they’ve become accustomed to the taste and because Starbucks is on every other block (i.e. it’s convenient).
Was it annoying to learn that Native, does in fact, leave white streaks despite their marketing saying otherwise? Yes. Did it cost me anything in the long run? Not more than $12 and another trip to Target.
Is it annoying to have one’s palate develop beyond Starbucks when it comes to coffee or to have a barista not make it correctly? Yes.
Does it cost people anything in the long run? Not more than $5 and perhaps walking or driving a few more minutes to find better coffee or asking them to remake it.
There is nothing cheap, convenient, or low stakes about buying B2B SaaS.
This is why the toothpaste example that several B2B marketers love to use as an example of a product for which demand didn’t previously exist is so thoughtless (despite their audience nodding along like lemmings every time one of them uses it).
The buying journey and stakes for purchasing the “wrong” toothpaste is not even in the same hemisphere as the cost (time, money, and energy) as buying the “wrong” enterprise software.
A business’s tech stack is directly connected to nearly every process and operation, which means that even in the most seamless of buying experiences, it’s still a major decision.
B2B SaaS companies cannot, nor will they ever be able to, finagle their way into business' lives the way Big Toothpaste did with consumers.
In short, B2C can afford to lose customers, and yet, they still go to much farther lengths to research and retain their customers than B2B does.
B2B SaaS walks around like they’re the hot quarterback with endless options around who they should take to prom. The reality?
They’re the nerdy kid with headgear who should be rehearsing “Know You Better” by the Black Pumas to serenade their crush outside their house.
4. Universal truths
The brilliant B2C marketing that B2B marketers love to post as “inspiration” isn’t an accident.
Isaac Simpson is an attorney turned copywriter and strategist, as well as a former VICE journalist. He’s worked on campaigns for McDonald’s, Postmates, Uber Eats, Oatly, and was also responsible for the NFL’s first influencer campaign.
I reached out to him a few months back to chat with him about how advertising campaigns are made.
According to Isaac, they’re typically crafted using three different types of what’s called insights, or universal truths.
Data insight: Universal truth about customer and audience research
Customer insight: Universal truth about customer in relation to the data insight
Conceptual insight: Universal truth about customer insight
He explained to me how B2C campaigns come to be using the example of the Snickers “You’re Not You When You’re Hungry." I’ve summarized our conversation below:
Data insight: To make this campaign, they first gathered data – surveys, customer and purchasing behavior, etc. They found that people buy Snickers at odd, non-meal times, like 3PM.
Customer insight: What is universally true of people buying Snickers bars at 3PM? They’re hungry and need a quick snack to satisfy their hunger. What happens to people when they’re hungry?
Conceptual insight: They get short tempered. They reach for unhealthy snacks. They’re not their best self.
Then a copywriter encapsulates that. That births to ten years of commercials of a football player turning into Betty White because they’re not themselves when they’re hungry.
So tell me, what universal truths does your CRM address?
That’s what I thought.
“But what about that hilarious Wynter campaign?”
Wynter’s product actually does tap into a universal truth. Thanks so much for bringing up what is probably the only B2B SaaS to address this. Their “test your messaging *before* it gets out there” campaign was great and really drove home the importance of nailing your messaging.
You also have to understand that Wynter’s product actually solves a problem that people are interested in solving. A very important problem.
They’re what I would call a luxury commodity. Like a dishwasher or washing machine. Once you have one, it’s hard to imagine your life without it. But you can survive without it.
Likewise, there’s also no reason that other companies can’t pop up and do the exact same thing as Wynter, or that a research company couldn't include message testing in their services. They'd face an uphill battle on the brand front, but not an impossible one.
Let me ask you though: did you go out and buy Wynter’s product? Some of you might have. Or at least put it on your radar. Now you know to go to them when you’re ready to do message testing.
Most of you just admired from a distance. And that’s super neat.
But the point of B2B marketing is to drive revenue. Obviously, awareness of the brand is required to do this. But as mentioned in part one, B2B SaaS has so many other issues besides boring marketing.
Most B2B SaaS companies do not tap into universal truths because the problems that B2B SaaS solves are not universal. They are hyper-specific to a type of company, role, or business problem.
At the same time, small and hyper-personal moments do often reveal universal truths.
I do believe there are potential opportunities to find universal truths within their customers' world. But instead of trying to do this, many B2B marketers are seeking to apply out of reach ones or give their opinion on how they think their copy should sound.
They're not interested in those small moments. They want Big Bangs. They want Apple. They want Nike.
"But what about Gong?! What about Monday.com?!"
Gong’s target audience, salespeople, watches the Super Bowl. That was a sound marketing decision, and they could afford it. Monday.com caters to many creative teams, so yes, their marketing better slap.
It’s so interesting how people in B2B SaaS claim to be “data-driven” but refuse to look at the data.
Three companies, out of thirty thousand.
Wynter, Gong, and Monday.com aren’t examples – they’re exceptions to the rule.
A note on “emotional” marketing
You can’t make people feel something. Brilliant advertising that tugs at your heart strings isn’t making you feel something, it’s tapping into existing emotions.
The Nike Ad of the chubby kid running down the dirt road in a white t-shirt does not all of a sudden make me feel the pain and shame of being overweight as a child. It tapped into that feeling I already experienced of being “the fat kid” and trying to do whatever it took to lose weight.
Like copy, emotional marketing crafts something from existing materials.
In B2B, those emotional materials are not as readily available, but B2B marketers refuse to even forage for any type of materials.
B2B marketers and copywriters are chasing a byproduct that only comes from understanding something deeply, and something that often isn’t possible with B2B SaaS.
They’re providing their own diagnosis of what they think is wrong with B2B marketing based on their own dissatisfaction with the coolness (or lack thereof) of their company’s product or service.
People do not, and never will, buy $50K/month software that takes weeks to train people on based on emotion. I don’t care what any LinkedIn report says they do. The decision may produce emotions (e.g., stress, anxiety, frustration). That does not mean the decision is based on emotion.
Does it help if the SDR is likable? Yes, but a likable SDR will not win over every single decision maker. Being likable or physically attractive gets you leads, it does not close deals.
Emotion does not get the CFO to sign on the dotted line for software that costs tens of thousands of dollars and a dozen weeks to train one’s team on. If it does, that’s not a CFO. That’s a gambler.
B2B marketers want to take everything from B2C except the two things they should – the intense customer research and incredible delivery.
The bar is on the floor, yet many B2B marketers insist on swinging for the fences. They want to build a movie theater in their home before finalizing plumbing and electricity, or invest in crypto when they still have credit card debt and no emergency fund.
If B2B SaaS marketing is too boring for any of you, then go work in advertising. They’re not held accountable for driving revenue either, so I’m sure a lot of you would fit right in.
Except, you can’t take your cushy tech salary with you.
And you actually have to bring ideas to the table and execute them instead of just complaining and curating other people’s content.
(On second thought, maybe that’s not the right move.)
There is enormous potential for more creativity in B2B. But creative marketing that converts requires a deep understanding of one’s customers and rock solid positioning and messaging.
Many of you possess none of the above. You’re trying to run before you can walk and you’re going to trip.
If you actually respected creativity instead of just fetishizing it, you’d know this.
Coming Soon: The Fetishization of Creativity in B2B Marketing
*This episode has an important scene with regards to positioning and differentiation.
As I’ve touched on in a previous post, if you cannot explain how your product or service is better or different than another one or not taking action (i.e. differentiation), that means you either shouldn’t be in business or you must pursue a brand play.
In this case, there’s clearly demand for cigarettes, so Lucky Strike will need to pursue a brand play (which they do via the “It’s Toasted” campaign).
There’s only one problem: after a ruling by the Department of Health, Lucky Strike, nor their competitors, can no longer advertise that cigarettes are safe.
Sterling Cooper’s Head of Research, Greta Guttman, presents surveys proving that people consider cigarettes are a key part of American life and “too good to give up.” As a campaign idea, she suggests leaning on Freud’s belief that people have a “death wish,” a phenomena as strong as people’s desire to procreate and need for physical sustenance.
Don throws her report in the garbage and calls her strategy perverse. It’s unclear whether he’s calling her actual strategy perverse (leaning on Freud’s philosophy that many people have a subconscious death wish) or her strategy for her research in general (i.e. studies, surveys, etc. versus actually talking to people).
I would argue it was a bit of both. Don may not have an outright death wish, but self destruction, particularly with his health and personal relationships, is a common thread throughout the series.
But Don didn’t reject her suggestion (i.e. refused to take it) because he found it “perverse.” He rejected her suggestion because it lacked differentiation.
“Psychology might be great at cocktail parties. But it just so happens that people were buying cigarettes before Freud was born. The issue isn’t ‘why should people smoke’, it’s ‘why should people smoke Lucky Strike?’”
Even if people do have a death wish, it didn’t matter in this instance. Because it didn’t explain why they should die with Lucky Strike.
B2B SaaS companies: if you cannot clearly explain why your ICP should die with you versus another company (or with inaction, the competition for category creators), your positioning belongs in the garbage as well.