Not my trends, I hasten to add. The trends of Trevor Hardy, CEO, The Future Laboratory, who spoke at an event a couple of weeks ago.

In an inspiring session, Trevor ran through five trends that are shaping quality communications and marketing:

  1. Radical transparency
  2. Embrace uncertainty
  3. Emotional economy
  4. Brands as educators
  5. Think long and slow

This is my attempt to apply them in a B2B context.

1. Radical transparency

The decline in trust is a rapidly growing, frequently charted trend. This is driven by systemic distrust (reducing trust in authority) and systemic collapse (reducing trust in institutions).

B2B marketers and communication professionals should shift to a model that demonstrates ‘radical transparency’. This is about brutal honesty – publishing everything in an attempt to make clear the organisation has nothing to hide. This could even go so far as to publish profit margins and costs related to products.

As we found with a recent Aperture fintech client, customers working in high jeopardy fields – where the area for which they are responsible is intrinsically linked to the viability of their organisation – want a strong sense of control. Transparency is psychologically critical to giving customers that sense of control.

It doesn’t stop there. Audience analysis reveals that an organisation’s past success is less interesting and resonant than an organisation’s future vision and its people, which drive more trust. B2B organisations need to think and communicate more about how they will act in the future, and who those actors are. Being good is not good enough – audiences will judge companies on their deficiencies, not their areas of greatness. The challenge for marketers and PRs is to proactively manage any deficiencies in a transparent manner.

2. Embrace uncertainty

Brexit, then Trump – whatever’s next? The world is a less certain place than it used to be. And it doesn’t look like it’s going to get better any time soon. The American Military would describe this as a ‘VUCA world’ (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous).

B2B marketers and communication professionals have always focused on certainty – pushing messages around solidity, simplicity and reassurance. But now it’s time to get comfortable with uncertainty, complexity and randomness.

Part of this means accepting and reconciling many opposing points of view. It means killing off reductionist thinking and understanding that positive complexity has more currency than simplicity. At its core, it means investing more than ever in strategic planning – and making sure that strategy is nimble and flexible. Companies who under-invest in this area are going to struggle.

3. The emotional economy

2016 was a watershed year. It writ large the importance of emotional over rational thinking. The election of Trump and the referendum for Brexit are excellent examples of where data-driven, rational arguments foundered. Pollsters have been widely criticised for not foreseeing the result of these votes. But then, given the complexities around emotions and the fundamental problems with bias in traditional market research methodologies, is it any wonder?

If 95% of our thinking is driven by the non-conscious parts of our brain, then most B2B marketers are guilty of only targeting the conscious and rational (much like those beleaguered pollsters). In essence, billions of B2B marketing dollars a year are focused on influencing the 5% of buyer thinking that focuses on the rational. Wasted opportunities don’t get any bigger than that.

The challenge is to become a more emotional business. This means being more in tune with the emotions of buyers and other stakeholders. This isn’t psychobabble. The use of archetypes in B2B marketing is becoming established, and their use by more innovative companies more prevalent. Any organisation adopting the brilliant Challenger Sale methodology will ‘get’ the importance of understanding and playing on the ‘emotional impact’ of a buyer decision – or indecision. As Trevor said, it’s time that businesses “make more investments in emotional data”. As the guy who set up Aperture last year, I couldn’t agree more!

4. Brands as educators

Let’s be clear – this doesn’t mean that buyers want to be educated about your brand or product. That’s just nonsense and should never be a campaign objective. Instead, people are increasingly interested in optimising themselves.

Lifelong learning has become a hot trend and maybe ‘education’ is not the right word. It’s really more about ‘development’ of skills and capabilities within categories. Trevor pointed to the excellent example of a company partnering with academia in Italy to establish the country’s first Masters programme in digital business.

Just think about the clamour in telecoms for mobile operators to embrace digital transformation. What if a company with an interest in part of this space were to offer development opportunities in this context? This kind of approach creates new social contracts between an organisation and its audiences – a supplier could become part of a buyer’s personal growth. This entire area goes to CSR – and not CSR in the whitewash sense, but CSR in the sense of ‘you will be judged on how you do business’.

5. Think long and slow.

Trevor believes the business world is facing a crisis of anxiety. Short termism has become a damaging obsession, and that the focus on today (or this month, or quarter or financial year) is causing longer term problems.

Most of us in business have an inability to overcome our own short-term bias. That means some things – big things – just don’t get the attention that they need and deserve. The age of the MVP (minimum viable product) is coming under attack and being increasingly rejected.

Trevor talks of ‘cathedral challenges’ – long-term, critical challenges that take more than a quarter (or a year, or a lifetime in some cases) to fix. The challenge for B2B marketers and communications professionals is to strike the balance between planning for the long term, while acting in the short term.

At CCgroup, we’re wrestling with some cathedral challenges. Aperture has already been four years in the making, and it’ll be several more years before it can be considered a true success. But that’s OK – because we have the time. Next up, we’re working on the automation of PR – another four or five-year journey that’s going to require significant investment. However, the long-standing issues that it will empower us (and the PR industry as a whole) to address are enormous. The wait will be worth it.

The trick is to maintain a focus on the short-term needs of the business and its clients whilst addressing these longer-term challenges. We’ve adopted a balanced scorecard approach, which seems to be working well.

 

There are some fascinating ideas in Trevor’s speech. Some will strike fear in to B2B marketers, not to mention their bosses (transparent pricing and stripping out omnipresent ‘simplicity’ messages stick out in this context). But many savvy marketers are striving to develop a more ‘emotional’ connection with customers, exploring the value in supporting the development of their audiences and adopting ‘balanced scorecard’ approaches to support longer term planning.

Twenty minutes with Trevor opened a gateway to many hours, days and weeks of critical thinking. I hope this has given you some food for thought. I’d love to hear your views.

 

Richard Fogg

Richard Fogg

Richard Fogg is CEO of Aperture, a consulting and advisory firm for B2B organisations seeking to transform sales and marketing performance. The firm offers two things. The first is disruptive insights into buyers and markets. The second is practical advice about how to turn those insights into action.
Richard Fogg