What can B2B Marketing Learn from Covid-19? Is this a ‘new normal’?

As we emerge, blinking in the light, from several weeks of enforced lock-down in our homes, we are already seeing a number of claims for how the ‘new normal’ of B2B Marketing will be – and one thing they generally agree on is: it will be different.

But have we been here before?

While the purist answer to this question is ‘no’ – we haven’t experienced a worldwide pandemic of this kind in our lifetimes –we are still in danger of projecting all of our wishes for how B2B Marketing ‘should be’ in future on what we have come to recognise during this unique event.

I think it is worth taking a step back and examining, in the cold light of day, what we can learn from the history of similar events – and how realistic it is that our post-pandemic reality will be significantly different. And – if we believe it will – why?

Disruptive Change Events

Practising business to business marketing for over 25 years, I have seen a number of macro and micro events that forecasters – because this is what we are talking about – have claimed will fundamentally change the B2B marketing experience. These are ‘change events’ primarily driven by technology innovation (micro) or political/ economic occurrences (macro).

If I think which of these are similar to Covid-19 in terms of their cultural and economic impact, I would include the following:

While these are all very different types of events, apart from Covid-19 they have three things in common:

  1. Technology break-throughs/ evolutions (e.g. price/ performance) drove the change that was then commercialised
  2. Negative impacts were man-made problems created inadvertently – or with questionable ethics – by commercial enterprises with an eye on the bottom line
  3. They precipitated significant investments by Government and industry, creating change in political, legal, financial and commercial frameworks to create a ‘new normal’. This ‘normal’ was then culturally appropriated, despite the fact that the change was relatively recent. – witness Instagram: can we now think of a time when it wasn’t ‘normal’?

At their core, these change events can be thought of as simply man’s inevitable progress. Take Instagram, which launched in 2010, as an example: can we now think of a time when it wasn’t ‘normal’?

Significant as all this evolutionary change is, in what way could we call it a ‘new normal’ for B2B Marketing?

B2B Marketing: what are the claims for a new normal?

There are some major shifts in B2B Marketing that have been happening for some time and that are reflected in the change events mentioned above. First, digital transformation of markets and organisations has required a complete overhaul in thinking about customer journeys and customer experience with many marketing organisations taking a digital first approach to planning and talking about data driven marketing. Second, trust in organisations and institutions is at an all-time low – precipitated in the UK not only by the financial crises above, but also by the Government expenses scandal, Brexit, Windrush and Facebook’s mishandling of personal data. This has put brand tone and messaging under the microscope. Third, the penetration of marketing technology (Martech), an inevitable consequence of the move online, into every aspect of marketing will continue.

These are changes that preceded Covid and will accelerate, if only because everyone is online and experiencing the world digitally – filtered through intermediary channels – rather than mediated by peer groups and face to face social or work situations. I would contend, however, that the primary questions that drive B2B Marketing decisions remain financial:

  • how successfully can our market/ company weather this storm?;
  • Is Marketing solely as a cost to be cut, or can it make the case for being considered an investment in growth?
  • How well have we already adapted to the new realities?
  • Have we implemented formal change management programs, invested in competency development, changed the operation of marketing? Or are we simply trying to adapt incrementally?

If we are wondering if our jobs will still exist, because marketing budgets are cut and we are unable to demonstrate the impact that this cost cutting will have on the company’s ability to recover / grow then this talk of a new normal will be merely about marketing tactics. We will run fewer/ no in-person events (meaning we’re all competing for attention online!); we will reduce media spend and increase ‘free’ blogs, email and social posting.

We have made all of these adjustments before, following previous disruptive change events. But have we really changed? This recent article suggests the future belongs to authenticity, (surely the word of the moment) agility and customer-driven insights, concluding:

‘Regardless of how long the crisis actually lasts, COVID-19 will forever change the consumer landscape.’

While the evidence for this remains to be found, it is clear that there will be winners and losers. Every organisation has to reexamine its strategy and determine whether it is still fit for purpose. Marketing strategy will be a significant piece of this and it should encompass all aspects of go-to-market plans, from brand messaging to channels to digital strategy and operations.

The ‘new normal’ is going to look a lot like the old normal – but with some of ‘known knowns’ taken a little more seriously, with proper plans and investment, because that is what is needed to survive. A lot of companies will not make it from the old to the new normal!

What we have learned from history, is that the effect of a global pandemic on business is likely to be Darwinian in nature. The fittest in B2B marketing, who will survive and thrive, are those who have adapted successfully to market realities since 2008. This requires leadership and must be the primary responsibility of the CMO. A learning culture of change and agility, that enables the business to weather storms and continue to delight customers, can not be developed overnight. It has to be in the DNA of a CMO in the ‘new normal’

It is time for CMOs in B2B marketing to stand up and be counted.