Theme-Based Marketing: The Art Of B2B Brand Relevance

You’re the head of marketing for a $100 million B2B company.  Your engineers have worked day and night for months to perfect the design, features, and functionality of the latest cloud platform.  You’ve hired advertising and PR agencies to tell your story to the world, and you’ve prepared your bank for an onslaught of cash rolling in from customers.

If that describes you or others in your organization, here are some cold-water facts you need to know.

FACT 1: No one cares about your product or service. FACT 2: No one wants to be marketed to. And, FACT 3: As Theodore Roosevelt said: “No one cares how much you know until you show how much you care.”

Facts 1 and 2 are harsh but true.  But fact 3 is something we can work with.

Welcome to theme-based marketing.

What Is Theme-Based Marketing?

First, theme-based marketing is not the same as marketing themes. defines marketing themes “a central marketing idea or message, or a product benefit or feature, that is known (or is likely) to have maximum appeal to a targeted market segment.”  It’s focused on the brand.

On the other hand, theme-based marketing attempts to identify issues or trends impacting customers and develops long-term marketing campaigns.  It’s aimed at helping customers navigate change and difficult challenges, building trust with customers, and giving them a reason to believe you are best suited to help them.

Here’s an example.  At Avanade – a joint venture IT consulting company formed by Microsoft and Accenture – I created the company’s thought leadership marketing program, which focused on key issues facing our customers.  Top of mind topics for companies included cost reduction, greater efficiency, higher employee productivity, agility, and so on.  We developed theme-based programming to address those issues.

One theme we developed dealt with how companies were trying to exploit digital technologies to improve how work got done.  This included mobility innovations and the growth of the consumerization of IT.  Our competitors were aggressively positioning themselves as thought leaders in this space, but Avanade was nowhere in the conversation.

Working with several marketing colleagues, executive leadership, and industry analysts, we created a way to inject ourselves meaningfully into the conversation.  We called it Work Redesigned.  After vetting the topic with customers and analysts to make sure we were unique and differentiated, we built a long-term campaign, which became the basis of our content strategy for the next two years.

How To Start Identifying Theme Topics

(Clearly, you need to know the customer personas you are targeting.  Content Marketing Institute has some great resources, and I urge you to build out your personas first before proceeding.)

There are many sources of information that can aid your theme development:

Start At The Source – Customers.  Include a cross-section or geography of your business to find out what they are dealing with now, and what’s on their radar.

Pick Customer-Facing Brains  If you can’t go to the source, talk with senior leadership, a few of your top sales staff, and channel partners.  Ask them what is top of mind, and what topics are beginning to surface.

Tap Local Market Minds  What’s important in the United States may not be important in France, South Africa or China.  Speak with regional leads and listen for local nuances and differences.

Follow The Trends  Track industry analysts’ forecasts and trend reports (e.g. Gartner Hype Cycle) to uncover emerging and potential topics.  And, if you have a contractual relationship with analyst firms, schedule inquiry time and ask them what hot topics clients are requesting, what competitors are addressing those issues well, and what space your company should insert itself into.

Gain Social Enlightenment – Use social listening tools to determine what conversations are happening that are relevant to your business.  Also, identify the long-tail queries people are searching for.  This will shed light on how they are thinking about these issues, and searching for answers.

Map Media Trend Coverage – Look at what trends news outlets are writing about.  Also, as trends become adoptions, look at issues the media are covering around implementation challenges, or investment levels, or cultural hurdles, as topical fodder.

Know Thy Competitors – As noted, Avanade’s competitors were all over the digital workplace discussion.  So, we identified fresh ways to address the issue.

Now that you’ve done your market research, ask yourself, “In two years from now, what topics are going to be most important to our customers that we must be strongly associated with?”  As you identify these topics, make sure your perspective on the issue, and the guidance and recommendations you’re providing, are differentiated and true to your business.

I find two to four themes to be ideal to pursue at a time.  More than four themes may create market confusion.  But also, I have found it’s hard to scale effectively on a global level.  Teams in other markets often don’t have the staff or budget to truly localize the story to be effective.

Next, develop an abstract for each theme.  It should cover the audience you’re trying to reach, what you want them to know, what your perspective is, and the action you want the audience to take.  It becomes a True North guide for all campaigns and teams.

Finally, vet your theme concepts with select customers and analysts to make sure they resonate and are unique.

Pulling Your Themes Together

Now it’s time to put it into action.  As an integrated marketing program, when you plan together, execute together and report together, you create a multiplier effect that produces results far greater than the sum of their parts.

So start by assigning a senior theme lead to drive planning and integration.  Pull together a cross-functional marketing team comprised of demand generation, web, social media, communications, product/services marketing, partner marketing, and other relevant functions.

After you’ve outlined your objectives, audience and goals for a theme, start building your campaigns over the next 12 months.  Map out known corporate events, commercial/industry events, product/service roadmaps, speaking engagements, and so on, that align with each theme.  Once complete, this plan will provide a full end-to-end integrated marketing approach by theme, and will become the basis for your content strategy.

How Will It Help Me Be More Effective As A Marketer?

Business is not altruistic, but neither should it be egotistic and self-serving.  Theme-based marketing forces your business to put your audience’s needs and their challenges at the center of your marketing.

Done right, theme-based marketing provides several benefits:

  • It builds trust and demonstrates relevance by showing you understand your customer’s situation.  And you, as a business, have a perspective on how to address it with concrete guidance on how to navigate it.
  • It helps your audience self-educate, and learn more about what your company offers that can help them ease their pain.
  • And it strategically aligns your content to campaigns that support themes, and gives you a filter by which you say yes to content that aligns to those themes – and no to content that doesn’t.

Theme-based marketing isn’t new.  But it is a different approach that frankly few companies do well.  And I believe it is the best foundation for building long-term brand awareness, trust with customers, and desired customer action.