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Swipe left: why B2B brands are failing to find love

To win hearts and minds, marketers need to be brave enough to do things differently

What’s the best way to find love? Lonely Hearts section? Speed dating? Pen sonnets? 

Not a chance. 

You’d fire up a dating app and get swiping. Because dating apps are to singles what Account Based Marketing (ABM) is to B2B marketers: a no-brainer. In a world where real life meets are hard to come by, trusting an algorithm is the easiest, safest way to build a pipeline of prospective dates from the comfort of your sofa. 

But what if you were determined to find real love - not just a bunch of leads? 

Well, you might want to take some inspiration from Malik, who, after struggling to get noticed on dating apps, took his search for a wife to out-of-home ad space in Birmingham and London earlier this year. Commuters on their way to Canary Wharf were treated to 29 year-old Malik in a David Brent-like pose, playfully inviting prospective partners to “save me from an arranged marriage”. He’s not the only one. There’s also Jeevan, who recently spent £2,000 to run his “best Indian you’ll takeaway” campaign on the Tube in London. Or Mark, whose “Date Mark” billboard in Manchester in 2020 proclaimed “this could be the sign you’ve been waiting for”.

Their messages were crude, but their bold tactics paid dividends. For instance, Malik’s stunt (backed by Muzmatch) generated “thousands” of responses from would-be-wives and won him vocal advocates all across the UK. 

RW_Blog2Swipe Left

Playing it safe

A willingness to be bold is something B2B brands have long lacked. But a recent survey published in Campaign earlier this year suggests this conservatism is escalating into a real problem. The research by Design Frameworks revealed that 90% of marketers from large B2B brands plan to ‘play it safe’ in 2022. This is a deeply alarming stat - because brands have never needed bold creative thinking more. 

Indeed, the same research reported that nearly three quarters (73%) of marketers believe it’s harder to cut through and win the attention of decision-makers now than it was a year ago. The main reasons cited were an increase in competition and a lack of investment. But there might be another reason: the creative instinct to play it safe means brands are all doing exactly the same things. And one of those things is ABM. 


For anyone who is yet to build their entire marketing world around it, ABM is (at a stretch) slightly like Tinder. You identify the most attractive prospects you’d like to match with, entice and engage them with highly original content, nurture them with carefully personalised (but exhaustively A-B-tested) messages until you receive intent signals - at which point you are ready to (ahem) ‘convert’. 

ABM is the surest way to match investment to target accounts and deliver results. Hence, everyone in B2B is at it. But, as a result, rivals in almost every category are targeting the same decision-makers across very similar sets of enterprise accounts with incredibly similar thought leadership content on almost exactly the same topics in exactly the same formats for every moment of the buying journey. Often they will be rolling out broadly the same messages too. 

As brands scale their ABM programmes, the problem is only getting worse. CMOs on a mission to turn marketing into a ‘growth engine’ are building content farms to churn out white papers, ebooks and articles to feed demand for verticalised multi-market content - and this is fuelling a paint-by-numbers creative approach. The result is akin to mass-impersonalisation-at-scale.

Getting ‘ghosted’

As in the dating world, once you’ve received the same pick-up line a few times, you switch-off. No surprise, then that decision-makers are starting to ‘ghost’ vendor content. According to Forrester, the majority of tech decision-makers believe that the quality of vendor content is falling year on year and 66% believe the content to lack substance or be biased. Which is another way of saying it is ignorable. 

Of course, the problem of timidity (and the resulting sameness) in B2B extends far beyond ABM campaigns and thought leadership. A B2B Institute study with System1 last year revealed the majority of ad creative underperforms. They showed more than 1,600 B2B ads to 6 million people and found that 75% of buyers couldn’t identify which brand created which ad (compared to 53% in B2C). If B2B ads were dating profiles, buyers would be swiping left.

Why is this the case? Once again, it comes down to an instinct to play it safe and do the same old thing. In this case the safe zone is rational product-centric creative. In B2B there is an extraordinary belief in the power of product benefit (rather than brand) to sell. No one has ever been fired for launching product campaigns. As a result, according to the B2B Institute, B2B ad creative over-indexes on rational (and often similar) reasons to buy rather than on emotional benefits which aid mental availability. Hence the ad creative is samey and ineffective.

The right kind of love

It’s hard not to conclude then, that this conservative, overly rational herd instinct is self-defeating. And also, more generally, that pressure to drive sales could be making it worse. B2B marketers are looking for the wrong type of love - short-term transactional encounters instead of longer, more meaningful brand connections.

So what’s the answer? 

Well, for starters, don’t be among the 90% of B2B marketers opting to play it safe in 2022. Strategically. Creatively. Or tactically. Because, when everyone is doing the same thing, there is a golden opportunity to stand out. You just need to be willing to put yourself (and your brand) out there. 

Breaking out of the B2B comfort zone will mean different things for different brands. For some it could mean pushing for more emotionally (rather than rationally) charged ad concepts - think Sage Accounting’s ‘Boss It’ platform, which they even extended to TikTok. For others it will mean mixing up the tactics and formats - for instance, targeting end-users as well as decision-makers as HP Z did for its brilliant ‘Unlocked’ interactive film with its challenge for data scientists (supported by an ABM campaign using Redwood thought leadership). Or it could mean taking more calculated risks, like staking your brand’s reputation on agenda-setting predictions about the future - think Gartner’s Hype Cycle. Or it could mean committing to do less; to resist producing a high volume of ignorable content and instead focus on really authoritatively ‘owning’ a few key topics - think Google’s ‘Decoding Decisions’ (brought to life by Redwood). 

In the words of the B2B Institute - which has long argued that marketers should take a ‘contrarian’ bet on brand building - “the greatest opportunities exist where every significant actor in a market segment all share the same set of self-limiting assumptions.” 

Yes, all marketing is brand-building. And it is hard to measure effectively in B2B. But, really, to be top-of-mind among buyers, you need to take a leaf out of the books of Malik, Jeevan and Mark and create a marquee moment that will turn heads and increase mental availability. This is something that cannot be achieved while playing it safe.

Be bold and swipe right with Redwood and we can define and deliver your ABM strategy together.

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