Home » Thought leadership blog » Beyond reason: the role of emotion in B2B marketing and thought leadership

Beyond reason: the role of emotion in B2B marketing and thought leadership

Rob Mitchell

B2B and B2C marketing have traditionally been seen as quite different beasts. After all, the purchasing dynamic is very different: rather than being all about the individual, B2B buying involves multiple stakeholders. Decisions are made over a period of time, with careful evaluation and input from finance, procurement, operations and the executive team. Features, benefits and pricing from competing providers are carefully assessed, and trade-offs are made to determine the ultimate decision.

All of this suggests that B2B purchasing is more rational than B2C. The reality, however, is that emotions and the subconscious play significant roles – whether B2B or B2C.

Harvard Business School’s Gerard Zaltman has shown that 95% of our decision-making takes place in the subconscious mind. So we aren’t nearly as logical as we like to think: when we purchase any product or service, it’s usually emotion that drives our decision, with rational thought bringing up the rear.

In fact, research from Google and CEB has found that B2B customers are significantly more emotionally connected with their vendors and service providers than consumers. And this makes sense. B2B purchases are usually complex, expensive and risky – and not just from a business perspective. Make the wrong choice, and you could be risking your job – an anxiety summed up over the past few decades by the saying ‘Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM’.

Emotion seals the deal

That phrase worked because it made an emotional connection with the B2B buyer. This is often lost in today’s B2B marketing, which tends to focus too much on products and features, thinking that this is what is most likely to impress procurement teams. Yet this is unlikely to create meaningful differentiation, let alone build an emotional bond.

The reality is that, even in complex sectors, features, benefits and pricing of competing vendors are often very similar. Your customers will usually have several similar choices from which to choose, so highlighting tiny benefits or cost savings compared with competitors is unlikely to be a winning marketing strategy. It’s an emotional connection with your brand that could be the deciding factor – even if your buyers think they are making a decision based on purely rational factors.

How do you make customers feel?

Successful B2B marketing appeals to the emotional as well as the rational side of the brain. In 2018, Bain consultants Eric Almquist, Jamie Cleghorn and Lori Sherer mapped 40 factors that matter to buyers into a pyramid based on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The objective basics of a deal – “meeting specifications at an acceptable price in compliance with regulations while abiding by ethical standards” – sit at the bottom, and more personal, subjective aspects, such as benefits to the buyer’s career and inspiration, sit at the top.

And it is these more subjective elements, such as reducing anxiety or providing hope and inspiration for the future, that really matter most to B2B buyers – not the features and benefits of the product.

This has important implications for thought leadership practitioners. Rational, robustly evidenced arguments that establish a need for a service – or, worse, dense information about a service’s features and benefits – will not fly.

Instead, marketers need to think about how they can form an emotional connection with their audience. In the B2B context, this means focusing on factors such as reassurance, optimism, confidence, vision for the future and empathy for the buyer’s business problems.

The thought leadership connection

How can companies use their thought leadership to connect emotionally with their audiences?

1. Remember that your audience are people, not just decision-makers

Senior executives are not robots. They are people with hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. Thought leadership that demonstrates an appreciation of these emotions is much more likely to resonate with them than something that talks in the abstract about business and management trends.EY’s DNA of the CFO is a great example of this. Instead of talking about the issues affecting the finance function, it focuses on the evolving role of the finance leader, and how these individuals can continue to develop personally and achieve in a fast-changing business environment.

2. Go beyond the sale to provide inspiration

Focusing on the immediate solution to a business problem is shortsighted. Instead, B2B brands need to demonstrate long-term vision and show buyers that they understand the wider industry and business dynamics. They should show that they can solve not just today’s challenges, but tomorrow’s as well.

Discussing the future world in which we’ll live and work is the core of this. Deloitte’s Future of Mobility programme compiles the firm’s intimate knowledge on the subject in an innovative future-looking blend of formats and platforms, helping to drive how the audience sees the Deloitte brand.

3. Appeal to their sense of pride – and inspire them

It can transform a business, but making a B2B purchase is risky. So the people who make buying decisions want to know that there are rewards to balance that risk.

Telling them that your product will generate cost savings, integrate seamlessly with other systems or comply with regulations is hardly inspiring. Instead, focus on how a relationship with your business will boost their careers, generate a sense of personal pride and ultimately transform the business, the entire industry or even society at large.

Cognizant’s 21 Jobs of the Future series examines the future of several industries, providing insight and inspiration along the way with no distraction from products or services.

4. Focus on emotional priming

Thought leadership is a powerful tool for building emotional connections with potential buyers long before they think about your products’ features and benefits. Demonstrate that you understand the wider business context and the challenges faced by B2B buyers, and you will lay the groundwork for a meaningful connection. When they come to choosing a potential vendor, they will already feel good about your brand.


Find out more about thought leadership in our step-by-step best practice guide

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About the author: Rob Mitchell

Rob leads FT Longitude’s strategic planning and sets the overall vision and priorities for the business. He manages the board-level relationship with FT Longitude’s parent company, the Financial Times group, and also oversees FT Longitude’s finances, people management and administration.

Prior to co-founding FT Longitude in 2011, Rob was an independent writer and editor. Between 2007 and 2010, he was a managing editor at the Economist Intelligence Unit and prior to that he was an editor at the Financial Times, where he was responsible for the newspaper’s sponsored reports, including the Mastering Management series.

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