Balancing Utility with Magic in B2B marketing

Dom Hawes | July 8, 2021


Last week, Robert Senior delivered one of the keynote talks on the opening day of the Ignite B2B marketing conference. His speech, Balancing Utility with Magic, invited business-to-business marketers to think beyond the utility of KPIs and maths and to embrace marketing’s ability to perform magic in the mind. In a marketing discipline where everything has a tendency to be reduced to numbers, Robert’s opening shot at the show was an invitation to think bigger. 

Stories have a beginning, a middle and an end. 

In the comments following his talk, one of the hosts said: “Not many of us need convincing of the importance of storytelling”. But, that’s not what I see. The B2B sector talks a lot about storytelling, but talk is all it is. They just go straight for the utility, the rational, the middle bit. Every story has a beginning, a middle and an end. Without context and conclusion, the middle isn’t interesting. 

B2B Practitioners talk about brand purpose but immediately ask for short term evidence that a “new brand purpose is working”. It doesn’t work like that, at least not where I come from. So, when innovators like Sage’s Kirsty Walker, who showed us how Sage had used TikTok to reach young business owners, was asked: “How many sales did that generate?”, my face gets another plant.  

The reductionist urge of maths-led marketers is never far from the surface. But magic isn’t about maths, statistics, data or KPIs. Magic is about the unexplainable, the impossible, the astounding.  

It’s all about the magic 

[Spoiler alert] Of course, real magic doesn’t exist. Magicians’ performances look unexplainable, impossible and astounding, but they’re not. In Christopher Nolan’s movie, The Prestige, he even describes the three essential components or formula of magic: the pledge, the turn and the prestige. Each part of a performance contributes to the appearance of a magic result, when actually, it’s nothing more than a well-practiced and well-rehearsed process. So it is with marketing.  

The magic part of marketing isn’t magic at all. But, making the work look like magic requires a superior knowledge and understanding of behavioural psychology and the principles of influence (among other things). Changing a customer’s opinion, creating an affinity, brand love or even brand liking (thank you Paul Cash) is a ‘magic’ not a rational practice. You can’t utility yourself to love. 

I second that emotion 

At this and all other B2B marketing conferences, practitioners talk a lot about emotion. The debate usually runs along these lines (this is edited, but is a snippet from a real conversation):  

Person A:  “People think B2B is a rational sell, whereas B2C is an emotional sell, but B2B is more emotional than B2C, because the stakes are frequently so much higher.” 

 Person B: “I agree! The wrong decision on a tube of toothpaste has far smaller consequences than on a new tech platform/ wrong insurance etc.” 

Face plant. 

The issue isn’t about *being* emotional, it’s about *what* emotion is at play and how that affects the marketing approach. Whether B2B is more or less ‘emotional’ than B2C is a fallacious argument. It’s the middle of a story without context or conclusion. It’s how non-marketers might look at a problem. 

The thing that should differentiate us marketers from our peers is our ability to understand the drivers behind an emotional reaction. We use those drivers to create the thread through our stories. That is our magic. 

As I look back over the two days of Ignite, I reflect on my favourite sessions at the conference. I loved hearing about TikTok and Sage. I loved watching how Charlie Nicholson and Jefferson Lynch melded a story from two angles into one to illustrate with mastery how data drives B2B value. I marvelled at how Karla Wentworth used a football metaphor to drive home how important marketing operations is. All of these things taught me loads. All of these were exemplars of utility. How to do things.  

Robert told us in his opening talk that our job is to balance utility with magic. So, while I gratefully took a good dose of utility, I made it my business to find magic. It was a great deal harder to find than utility, but it was there for those that looked.  

Here are my top 4 doses of magic from Ignite 2021

Imagine if creativity wasn’t considered outside the norm? 

Lemn Sissay ended day one with a simply stunning session espousing the importance of creativity. “Everything comes from imagination”, he said. “So, who told us that we weren’t creative? Who told us there are only five senses? Dreaming, faith and deja vu are all senses.”  

Lemn uttered no utility in his lyrical lesson that creativity is the heart of who we are. If you watch one session from this year’s Ignite, please watch Lemn. It is pure magic. 

An interesting insurance company? Surely not. 

In a day two keynote titled Exploring Bravery, Mark Choueke and Annabel Venner explored what it takes in B2B to think beyond utility. Annabel Venner left B2C leviathan Coca-Cola to join Hiscox in 2012 in a move seen as bravery verging on madness at the time. I mean, who leaves Coke to do B2B marketing for an insurance company? Annabel does. And thank God she did. Look through the  Hiscox channel on YouTube and revel in the magic. Annabel, I salute you. 

Show me the love 

An hour later, B2B Punk, Paul Cash, talked about love; brand love to be precise. In a wonderfully thought provoking, session, Paul made the case that if a B2C goal is to achieve brand love, the B2B equivalent should be brand liking. Of course, the utilitarians in the audience took issue with the notion that real people might not function like robots when it comes to decision making. But here was a piece of pure magic. Of course people buy from people and companies they like, it’s basic behavioural psychology. Understand that, use it and you can perform magic. Thank you Paul. 

It’s not what you think… any more. 

To close day two and the event, Doug Kessler treated us to a masterclass in balancing utility and magic. I haven’t seen Doug speak before, but I will look for him in future.  

Doug talked about the interesting subject of brand pivots: what do you do when you create a brand around what you do, then stop doing that thing? In SurveyMonkey’s case, you become Momentive. “What are you going to do when you’ve spent 20 years building a brand in tech?” he said. “Well, they started a 14-month survey with 10 research streams and decided that the name was an issue in enterprise, so they needed a new name.” 

Then Doug followed with 30 minutes of pure gold, as he explained eight-ish ways that B2B brands can change perceptions. I don’t want to spoil your enjoyment by listing to them here but please go and watch them as it’s utility and magic in perfect harmony.

Industry conferences often present difficult choices when they operate multiple streams. Ignite was recorded and you can see many of the sessions for free on the B2B Marketing website.

I urge you to look for magic but balance it with utility; not the other way around.