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Emotive vs rational marketing messages in high-end interior B2B

Wayne McMaster

14 November 2014

You might assume that in the world of business-to-business marketing, emotion has little part to play. 

The business-to-business (B2B) brand’s job is to prise open the fingers of the hands holding the purse-strings on behalf of an entire company, sometimes this is a single designer or specifier, at the other times a board, shareholders and a finance department. The hopes, dreams and personal beliefs of any one individual surely holds no sway.

Or so you thought. In fact, research by CEB , a member-based advisory company, found that B2B brands fare better with customers when they use emotive rather than rational marketing messages. Although B2B buying is often treated as an activity influenced solely by logical factors such as cost-benefit analyses, risk assessments and feasibility studies, in reality the process is determined by the same complex mix of gut instinct, emotion, reason and post-rationalisation that drives all human decisions.


The rational approach usually sees B2B brands market themselves according to values that appeal to the business brain, for example the ability of the product or service to achieve objectives or improve performance, such as 'return on investment'.

But CEB’s findings, made up of results from a survey of 3,000 B2B buyers and interviews with 50 B2B marketing organisations, show that customers favour brands that demonstrate personal value through emotional appeals.

These include promises of increased confidence, self-image improvements, and professional benefits available to the buyer in choosing the brand.

Personal value vs Business value

B2B customers are more than twice as likely to consider a brand that shows personal value over business value, because buyers perceive little difference in the business value that the different suppliers can offer. Only 14 per cent of buyers perceive enough differentiation in this area to be willing to pay extra for it.

CEB says that many of its members in the B2B sector showed initial scepticism and resistance to marketing themselves as emotional brands in terms of commercial relationships. However, CEB looked at the emotional factors involved in B2B buying and the report shows that trust and risk are key in that relationship with suppliers.

The study shows that B2B purchases entail personal risk, not just corporate. Buyers fear losing time and effort if a purchase decision goes wrong, losing credibility if they make a recommendation for an unsuccessful purchase, and losing their job if they are responsible for a failure.

The difference

CEB says: “The one fundamental difference that we experience in a B2B purchase compared to B2C [business-to-consumer], is the role others you work with play in your decision-making process.” 

For example, if a consumer buys a tablet, that purchase is an individual decision with no effect on others. “Our survey results indicate that our customers feel a tremendous amount of risk in making those similar types of purchases in their professional world,

There is also an argument, backed by CEB’s research, for marketing messages that encourage both rational and emotive responses from buyers, each at key times in the purchase journey. 

Just as consumers research products and services before making a purchase, the same can be said for B2B customers. A B2B brand needs to establish a relationship with a potential buyer in the early stages, when there isn’t necessarily intent – just awareness and consideration. When you are establishing a relationship with that individual, you have to be helpful, you can’t sell them a product or service that they do not need. Deliver them content that is going to be an addition to their professional experience.

It seems B2B brands have recognised the need to move away from their traditional marketing approach. Clearly, customers must be aware of the business value of the brand, but an emotional connection with the buyer is also required.

Three focus points for B2B marketers

  1. A B2B brand first needs to understand the personal and professional needs of its users and buyers, and the diversity of its market.
  2. Once B2B brands have that understanding, they must ensure the offer is differentiated from those of competitors.
  3. The third element is communication and how businesses get their target customers to embrace the personal value that is on offer.


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