B2B Creativity No, it’s not an oxymoron—it’s a must

Steven Handmaker – CMO of Assurance

Steven Handmaker, CMO, Assurance, with Bob Domenz, CEO, Avenue

In a sector sometimes still called “industrial advertising,” is creativity really necessary? Can you get by on the nuts and bolts of product features and pricing (as so many have over the years), or do you need to raise the bar on how creatively you communicate?

B2B Brand Council member Steven Handmaker, CMO of Assurance, spoke to the issue when he was featured in Branding Magazine, as part of Bob Domenz’ column The B2B CMO. Here’s a little of what he had to say that wasn’t in the magazine, along with a few thoughts on what getting creative really looks like in business-to-business.

Bob Domenz: How important is creativity in B2B, particularly given what is often seen as an over emphasis on being strictly business-like?

Steven Handmaker: Creativity is extremely important where B2B is concerned. I’m a big believer in the Seth Godin philosophy of the Purple Cow. I think that it doesn’t matter who your customer is, or whether you’re thinking B2C or B2B—you’re still ultimately talking to an individual who’s being bombarded with a zillion messages a day coming from every which way. Whether its marketing a product they need or a product their company needs, you’re still talking to a person.

So finding a creative approach that allows you to break through the noise and get them to understand what it is you have to say is critical. Where creativity is concerned, from a B2B standpoint, differentiation more so than anything plays a huge role. We’re constantly looking for ways to make sure that we differentiate our story from that of our competitors, otherwise it’s just white noise, and B2B is no different than B2C in that respect.

Bob: Do you have a particular example of your own, something you’ve done that you feel has been particularly effective because of its creativity?

Steven: One of our strategies with respect to creativity has been the ability to infuse humor, and energy, and our people into an energetic workforce, something that our competitors weren’t really doing.

“Where creativity is concerned, from a B2B standpoint, differentiation plays a huge role.”

We looked out and tired to figure out what the story was that our competitors were telling and our competitors seemed to be focused on a low cost, outstanding service. They were focused on trying to say we’re the smartest. It was those three things almost universally that was everyone’s story.

What we realized was that our story is our people. We brought our people to life by infusing them into all of our creative. Now it’s our real people on our website. Our real people in our ads. Our real people in our videos.

By getting exposed to what the Assurance story is through our own people, really served as a great differentiation point from the rest of the industry. People would come and say, “Boy, you don’t look anything like the insurance brokers I’m use to. You don’t sound anything like the insurance brokers that I’m use to and it’s quite refreshing.” Well, that’s not enough to make somebody buy from you, but it’s absolutely enough to get you noticed, and on the radar screen, and then you can let the other things shine through. That’s how we’ve done it.

Two things to remember about B2B creativity, and one to forget

How you get creative in B2B may be different than how Steven does it at Assuranc—but keeping these three truths in mind should help, no matter what your category or company.

1. Remember, creative communication equals human communication.

As Steven notes above, business-to-business marketing is really people-to-people.

That may not seem like a shocking or new thought, but it is still one that is routinely
ignored in B2B. And it’s not enough to simply say “Our people our our difference!” (who doesn’t?), it’s something that has to be shown, to be made self-evident.

Assurance does this by letting their people speak for them. In the video below, the extremely straightforward, honest, just-regular-people delivery on camera (delivered by just-regular-employees) is perhaps the most convincing demonstration of the claim of personally minimizing risk and maximizing health.

2. Also remember that wacky does not automatically equal creative.

Perhaps because B2C brands go to such great lengths to create outlandish (and often irrelevant) advertising, marketing creativity has a reputation for being more wild and crazy than wildly effective. Being human, being honest, being straightforward can also cut through the communications clutter, especially when much of B2B advertising and marcom is so crushingly boring, either due to too much product-feature focus… or simple chest-beating.

3. Please forget about the Hollywood-blockbuster budgets.
The other point that the Assurance spot so nicely demonstrates is that you don’t need a huge budget to develop meaningful creative (notice the emphasis on “meaningful,” versus, say “award-winning”). By creating a real-people format, the personal video becomes absolutely acceptable. And by using a production design that made the most (or least) of sometimes questionable smartphone video quality (using insets of people along with motion graphics), Assurance produced a message that was both believable and arguably more engaging than your average insurance industry B2B pitch.

About Steven Handmaker: Steven is the Chief Marketing Officer for Assurance, one of the largest independent insurance brokerages in the U.S., where he is in charge of the company’s strategic marketing, communications and branding efforts. Steven is also a sought after speaker on workplace culture and employee engagement.

About Bob Domenz: Bob is CEO of Avenue, the B2B marketing strategy and activation firm. He is also the Founder and Executive Director of the B2B Brand Council.