How To Build A Strategic B2B Marketing Function

Once upon a time (and it may still be that time in your organization) the marketing function in business-to-business companies wasn’t marketing in the fullest sense.  It was, at best, sales support communications.

But as the B2B customer journey shifts away from one-to-one contact with a sales rep and toward an omnichannel path to purchase, marketers must shift, too.

To explore just how they’re changing, I spoke with Julie Springer, CMO of TransUnion, the global information and risk solutions provider.  She has recently reshaped her company’s brand, and also its approach to marketing, and she shared a number of insights that should help any B2B marketer.

Rachel Klein, for Brand Quarterly: Where should you start when creating a B2B marketing capability today?

Julie Springer: Start by thinking beyond marketing; consider the overall business strategy.  What does the organization need to achieve?  Answer that, and you’ll know what your marketing organization should look like.

Additionally, you must plan ahead.  Where is the company going?  How can marketing help it get there?  Think out 18-24 months, and start socializing your plan now to avoid surprises later.

And while it’s marketing’s responsibility to support the company strategy, you also need to push those who are responsible for P&L if you really want to help them achieve their goals.  For instance, it’s not unusual in B2B to simply be asked to fill requests: “This is my budget, and this is what I need from you.”  However, it’s marketing’s job to watch trends, interpret data and make recommendations based on that knowledge.

We may see engagement coming from a particular channel that the division leader doesn’t, or notice that social activities are driving unanticipated revenue, and therefore recommend a different strategy.  We must stay on top of what’s working, what’s changing, and have consultative conversations with business leaders.

BQ: So, how do you build a team of marketing consultants rather than order-takers?

JS: Every person on my team must understand business strategy and how it translates to marketing.

Along with strategic expertise, I look for an attribute that transcends marketing.  It’s an attitude, a sense of urgency and entrepreneurial passion.  I’ll tell my team, “Pretend that it’s just you and the division president you support.  You’re partners in a start-up.  You’re brainstorming in the kitchen, and you have ten bucks.  What the hell are you going to do with it?”

Marketing leaders need to be able to think that way.  If they have a passionate connection to the business and are conveying it, then they become a true strategic partner.

BQ: What other challenges does your team face?

JS: First, there’s the sheer number of channels and tools available to marketers (that’s not a negative, it’s exciting).  Along with that goes an unbelievable need for and expectation of speed.  Speed of execution, speed of results – those are huge challenges.

Then there’s the realization (finally) in B2B that the customer is human, just like the rest of us. They’re influenced by the magnificence of Apple or Netflix marketing and the like.  And because they don’t separate B2C expectations from their B2B lives, they won’t settle for dry, functional marketing anymore – they need to be engaged.  They expect the whole customer experience to be different.

BQ: In a large organization like TransUnion, how do you ensure marketing’s consistent, productive impact across the entire company?

JS: It helps when the organization is run via matrix, as ours is.  We have lines of business that own the P&L, but our centers of excellence, including marketing, support them across the board.  That prevents waste and, perhaps more importantly, ensures that the company has one voice, one sense of who it is.

BQ: Doesn’t “one sense of who it is” come down to brand?  How do you create a unified brand culture?

JS: You get brand synergy across the culture when you have a brand that resonates throughout it.  That resonance is a must; because without it, you’re left in a state of enforcement, which rarely works.

I’m in the enviable position of having relaunched a brand that is now adored internally.  If I never walked back in this door again, it wouldn’t matter because the brand is owned by all of our people, who feel as passionately about it as I do.

BQ: How did you get that passion to catch on?

JS: For starters, we didn’t invent a brand and serve it up to employees. We uncovered our brand, like in an archeological dig.  We teased it out of the bedrock, we dusted it off and helped package it for everybody at TransUnion.  But it’s what was already in their hearts, so they own it.

On top of that, our internal communications are scary good: prolific, consistent, and loud.

BQ: And people buy in?

JS: Do they buy in?  I have photos of employees mountain climbing while waving their TU badges, or flying video drones over birthday parties and having their kids hold up the TransUnion logo.  You can’t buy this sort of engagement.

And when your brand story completely resonates you can afford to be a little free with it, because people love it the way it is and don’t want to damage it.  It’s like leaving your children under the watch of your siblings – they may not do everything exactly they way you ask, but they try because they love your kids.

The same applies here; the key is unearthing a brand that your people love and want to protect.

Three Steps To Creating A More Strategic Marketing Function

After talking with Julie, and reflecting on my own experience in B2B, three factors stood out in terms of building a more strategic B2B marketing function.

1. You’re Not Building A Marketing Department – You’re Creating A Strategic, Cross-Functional Organizational Asset

Hiring for state-of-the-art capabilities is required today, but it also amounts to the new table stakes.  Marketing teams should excel first and foremost in business acumen and consultative skills, to ensure that marketing aligns with and contributes to business goals.

2. A Successful Marketing Function Requires A Solid Brand Foundation

You can hire for skills.  But you must inspire for performance.

That’s why discovering your true brand and nurturing a corporate culture around it is key to B2B marketing success , particularly among the new generation of movers and shakers (for more on this, see “Millennials and the New Push for Purpose in B2B Branding”).

3. It’s As Much About Passion As It Is Process

All the analytics, marketing automation, and one-to-one segmentation in the world aren’t going to supplant the very human, emotional dimension required to reach buyers in our consumerized B2B environment.

As a Google-sponsored study noted, while only 14% of B2B buyers “see enough difference between suppliers’ ability to provide business value,” most buyers can be moved to action when your marketing focuses “on moments of emotional intensity.”

In short, it takes passion – on top of a thorough command of current best practices – to get to the heart of today’s B2B buyer.