Every month David Willan interviews leading experts from the world of marketing and B2B. This month David spoke with Jaakko Alanko, one of the true doyens of B2B communications.
Jaakko shares insights learned during 40 years in marketing, discusses the B2B brands he admires and shares his vision for the future of B2B marketing: the era of the enterprise brand.
In a career spanning over 40 years you’ve obviously seen lots of changes in B2B communications. What are the biggest?
Many of the changes we’ve seen have been pretty wide-ranging.
We’ve seen a clear move away from product marketing to service and solution marketing; there’s been less focus on the technical or physical item, but a much stronger emphasis on the expertise, skills and knowledge of the organisation that is doing the selling. So, we’ve moved from techy marketing to knowledge marketing, if you like.
Another major evolution has been the change from one-way to two-way interactive communications which in turn encompasses a much more personalised form of relationship marketing.
We’ve seen a scaling-up or ‘industrialisation’ of the whole process of customer relationship management. Technology enables us to do this.
Vertically-based segmentation – which typically covers large corporates, medium-sized companies, small enterprises and micros – has become increasingly important. And of course this gives us the opportunity to align the communications approach with the behaviours and needs of those types of company.
Typically, one always starts the whole communications planning process from these four levels.
What are the particular lessons that you’ve learnt about B2B marketing over the years?
Ultimately B2B marketing is about knowing the seller and knowing the buyer. You can call it search for customer insight or target audience analysis, or any other techy term we use in our industry. But it boils down to knowing who buys, knowing why he buys, how he buys and who else is involved. And the same on selling.
But it’s not just customer insight, it’s also seller insight. That’s why I always say, start by going on the road with the sales guys. Because you not only find out about them but you also find out about the buyers, what makes them tick. That’s very down to earth. In marketing we often want to be high falutin’ and very strategic. But keep it simple – go out on the road and everything will be revealed to you!
What role does research play in B2B communications; how do you use research?
It’s three words – insight, insight, insight.
It means understanding the business motivators, decision drivers and purchasing criteria. It’s whatever enhances your understanding of these and helps you get into true insight, which then drives the operation creatively and strategically and tactically. That’s what research is there for.
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You refer a lot to enterprise marketing in your work. What do you mean by this?
If I was to summarise what’s happening now and what will happen increasingly in the future, the marketing focus will be on enterprise branding. By enterprise branding I mean looking at the totality of the enterprise, not just its individual parts as used to be the case. The totality means all the assets that belong to an enterprise – its people, products, its capabilities and also the potential to form partnerships with customers. It’s no longer about product or service brands, but the totality of the enterprise brand in the broadest possible sense.
We’re seeing a real change from brand marketing to brand management. But it raises an important question about who is the brand manager. Under this scenario it is clearly the CEO because only the CEO has the total view of the company and all of its capabilities. The CEO becomes the superior brand manager; the enterprise brand is no longer just a marketing tool but a critical strategic management tool.
What does the evolution of the enterprise brand mean for B2B marketers?
Marketing through this approach is a challenge, but also an opportunity.
The challenge is to market the totality of the enterprise’s capabilities in a situation where current infrastructures have been designed and built for product marketing. The challenge is to create a new environment, a new infrastructure and ecosystem, if you like, which embraces and supports enterprise marketing. Organisational structures need to change to accommodate enterprise marketing which is absolutely central to the company’s success going forward.
Does this mean that there will be a change in how B2B or enterprise brands will create value?
In a sense B2B is a bit old hat now because it is so tied up and associated with pushing product into the market. Now we live in a world that is totally integrated, networked and connected. In this environment value is created jointly by close collaboration between buyer and seller. Solutions are the result of a dialogue between the buyer and the seller and the two sets of capabilities, knowledge banks and expertise in applications. Joint value creation is the name of the game and the enterprise brand is an enabler in the process.
From your perspective, what makes a strong B2B brand?
I think only two or three things really matter.
Firstly, a unified enterprise. The ultimate goal for a B2B brand is to have all employees emotionally connected to the higher purpose of the enterprise. In other words, behaviours are fully aligned throughout the organisation.
Secondly, it’s a business that should be based on customer insight-based marketing, not customer observation-based marketing. It’s a critical distinction that you’ll know very well yourself.
Thirdly, sustainability, but in a much broader sense than just whether the product is sustainable or made in a sustainable way. I mean how the enterprise views the world, how it operates and how it ensures that it leaves more for the generation behind us.
Are there B2B brands that you personally admire?
Yes, there are several. Despite having some problems on the aero engine side, Rolls-Royce is a fantastic brand. It is a genuinely unified brand and encompasses their knowledge, engineering skills, history, heritage, pride as well as very close customer relationships.
And I always admire The Economist. It has so much customer insight. They keep producing that amazing book every week. And what I also admire is that they use that front page as a brand builder. In other words, it is so creative, it is so unexpected, right from the world of news and nothing kind of flirtatious or stupid. It is always right on the money but the creative execution is great on the front page. But then you delve into the guts of the paper and it is such quality writing. It exhausts me every time, how they can produce so much quality in one week?
If I look at the mega corporate world I really admire GE as a company. Everyone has been saying that the days of these big corporates are numbered. They’re widely criticised for being unable to realise value because they’re so diverse and would realise more value if they were split. But the brand holds it together in a remarkable way. I know people who work there and who talk about how well the brand is managed throughout the organisation. It’s so well aligned from beginning to end.
If I was to think about emerging brands I’d go for Vestas, the Danish brand. They’re highly specialist; they’ve made clear choices on strategy and are becoming a global leader in the wind energy market.
If you were to choose one client or campaign that has given you the greatest satisfaction, what would it be?
Without doubt the Huawei campaign. When we went to China we couldn’t believe it when the client said, “we want to be China’s first globally-known B2B brand”. We thought, “what on earth have we got involved with!” It’s a brief you never forget, but it’s also a creative solution that you never forget. Because we had to dare to be faithful to the company’s roots – it comes from China, it comes from a one party country, it comes from a red country and it comes with everything that that entails, positive and negative. We had to stay truthful and loyal to that yet also make it attractive for the Westerners. Looking back, we really did feel at the time that we were part of history.
What does the future hold for you, personally?
Let me tell you my mission statement. I want to do fun projects with fun people in fun companies!
The fun element is a big part of it. But I also want to help companies service and look after their customers better with appropriate offerings, better sales people and the right behaviours. When I see appalling examples of poor customer relationships and poor behaviours, I feel motivated to go and sort them out!
Is there any advice that you would give to a young Jaakko?
Always keep the human being at the centre of your thinking – whether its buyers, sales people, decision-makers, influencers, top managers, middle managers – no matter what. Don’t get too excited about the mechanics of communications, keep the human being at the centre of your thoughts. Irrespective of the situation, just accept that human beings are what they are with all their foibles and everything else. Be sympathetic to that. Don’t turn them into either mechanical dolls that you imagine will behave as you dictate, or that they’re perfect optimisers of everything, or that they’re totally rational at all times. They never are and never will be.
About Jaakko Alanko: Jaakko started his professional career with McCann-Erickson holding a number of positions in the organisation, latterly as Executive Vice President. He subsequently ran Andersen & Lembke – one of the first specialists in B2B communications – before returning to McCann-Erickson as Chairman of McCann Enterprise. Jaakko now runs his one man band, Alanko Consulting, focusing on enterprise brand development and communications.