An interview with B2B marketing guru Jonathan Winch
Michael Leander interviews Jonathan Winch, B2B marketing expert and a co-author of “The Death of Propaganda”, a new book that expounds a new strategic B2B marketing framework based on three “voices” – Voice of Company, Voice of Customer, and Voice of Industry. Released in just 500 copies to date, the book is already helping to re-focus the attention of top management on issues essential to marketing success.
Michael Leander: How would you describe the state of B2B marketing among your customers today?
Jonathan Winch: Our customers are typically medium-to-large-sized companies headquartered in Scandinavia. Most fall into the category of business-to-business (B2B), and the vast majority serve business customers in markets all over the globe. As far as marketing and communication practices go, almost all are lagging far behind their business-to-consumer (B2C) counterparts. And they are often out of touch with changes in the way their customers and prospects are behaving when it comes to information gathering and decision-making processes.
I think this current state can be attributed to a number of different factors. One is the difficulty, as I’ve touched on already, of gaining a strategic overview of what needs to be done and why – that’s something our new book tries to do. Another is the challenge of convincing top management of B2B companies – and many of them are headed up by engineers or accountants rather than marketers – that significant change is required.
And I would also point to what I see as a lack of skills among marketers in the B2B space. This last point isn’t an expression of incompetence or laziness on the part of corporate marketers, but probably reflects how busy they tend to be just trying to keep up with the number of meetings and administrative tasks that go along with the job. So the time they really need to spend keeping up with a very fast-moving strategic landscape outside their companies is pretty scarce.
Michael Leander: Can you sum up the basic idea of your book, The Death of Propaganda, for us?
Jonathan Winch: Sure. It starts with what some people are calling the new breed of B2B buyer – an important change in the way B2B buyers evaluate and purchase goods and services that means much of the information-gathering process and shortlisting decision now takes place without any dialog with a vendor.
More and more, buyers are consulting each other first and forming their opinions before coming into contact with vendor websites, marketing materials or the sales force. Yet most B2B suppliers still approach their markets with hyped-up, propaganda-like messages that lack the credibility today’s buyers are looking for.
The Death of Propaganda urges companies to move from spouting propaganda to establishing credibility, from acting like pushy salespeople to taking on the role of customer advocate, and from broadcasting self-recommendations toward a more appropriate model where B2B customers and prospects are stimulated to recommend the company and its products to their peers.
And it outlines what we call a “Three Voices strategic framework” for meeting this challenge via three distinct modes of stakeholder engagement.
Michael Leander: How do you define “propaganda” in a marketing context?
Jonathan Winch: The phenomenon my co-authors and I call propaganda in the marketing world isn’t hard to spot. It’s those carefully crafted messages designed to persuade the masses using superlatives such as “advanced”, “state-of-the-art”, “cutting edge” and so on. It’s the often ridiculous claims that try and turn some minor technical feature of a product into a compelling reason to buy.
And frankly, B2B buyers just don’t believe this stuff anymore – just as today’s consumers have become increasingly skeptical of promotional messages. Yet B2B companies, or most of them, I should say, are still doing this pushy style of communication. Often, the real problem isn’t the marketing and communication departments themselves, but the demands placed on corporate messages by top management who seem to be stuck with the idea that using impressive words to tell people you are the leader is still a valid means of persuasion.
Michael Leander: If propaganda is out, what do B2B companies need to replace it with?
Jonathan Winch: Credibility. If you’re in a knowledge-intensive industry like IT or engineering services, for example, then you should focus on showcasing and sharing your know-how, rather than on telling people how good you are at doing whatever it is you do. Make this knowledge available via survey reports, helpful checklists, white papers on industry issues, expert videos and so on.
And all the time, think about how you can create content that people are likely to share with others, effectively communicating that they like your company and what it does. Because that’s where all the credibility is these days – at the peer-to-peer, word-of-mouth level.
Michael Leander: Why did you decide to write the book – and why now?
Jonathan Winch: I guess you could say that the book is an attempt to solve two key issues. The first of these is that, for years, we’ve watched our clients struggling to get their minds (and budgets) around the principles and techniques of integrated marketing. We’ve seen them attempt – and often fail – to put together communication plans that combine offline with online activities.
Our problem was this: For all our strategic knowledge of how to work with offline and online marketing and communications, we still hadn’t found a sufficiently simple way to explain it all to people – not to our customers nor, for that matter, to ourselves. And we weren’t good enough at helping the marketing department convince top management of the need to invest in new ways of approaching the market.
The second key issue concerns an opportunity that a lot of our knowledge-intensive customers have woken up to: the strategic value of becoming perceived as a thought leader in their industries. So, along with pulling online and offline activities into a clearer structure, the book is also a recipe for achieving this comparatively new aim.
Michael Leander: Why has it been difficult for people to understand these perspectives before now?
Jonathan Winch: Over the years, like many communication agencies in the industry, we have created numerous PowerPoint presentations that laid out statistic after frightening statistic about the changes underway in the marketing landscape, before launching into descriptions of SEO/SEM, mobile marketing, behavioral targeting and so on.
Mostly, our audiences seemed to understand what we were saying. They came away with a vague notion of urgency and a better understanding of the specific techniques of online marketing. What we felt was lacking, however, was an “Aha! experience” – that moment of revelation where the clouds evaporate and all becomes crystal clear.
Michael Leander: So you had an “Aha!” experience and decided to write a book about it?
Jonathan Winch: Discovering our “Aha!” experience made us keen to get the message out to as many people as possible as quickly as possible. And that’s where this book comes in – to bring this revelation of the Three Voices framework to many more people than those we’ve been able to help to date.
Michael Leander: What does this mean for the way in which B2B companies design their corporate websites?
Jonathan Winch: Companies need to make sure that, when a potential customer finally comes to their corporate website or in contact with other marketing materials, there isn’t a significant disconnect between the opinions people have formed when they were doing their pre-purchase information gathering, and the messages they encounter when they turn to the companies on the resulting shortlists.
And marketers need to think through the customer experience on their sites in terms of continued credibility and a new role as a customer advocate – someone who helps people to make intelligent and appropriate buying decisions. So the content on sites will often need to be adapted for this new approach. Most B2B companies could also do with taking a good, hard look at the power of their brand, too.
Here I’m primarily thinking about the need to create some sort of emotional connection instead of simply focusing on dry facts. That’s something that can really bond customers to your company and make you stand out in the B2B crowd.
Michael Leander: If you were to name just one thing, what would you say is the most useful contribution the book makes to business strategy?
Jonathan Winch: Without a doubt, I’d say it’s the ability of the Three Voices strategic framework to educate and convince top management to set a new strategy for the way their companies approach the market. One of the biggest barriers to updating the sales and marketing strategies of B2B companies has long been the inability of marketing departments to secure the funding and commitment that’s needed.
It takes a powerful argument to convince the CEO, particularly in these economic crisis times, to make an investment that goes beyond the agreed annual marketing budget to create a new foundation. What we’ve found is that first, the book’s message opens the door to top management and board-level presentation of its principles, and second, management is quick to adopt those principles and seriously consider what needs to be done.
Michael Leander: So the Three Voices framework is a tool that marketing directors can use to convince their CEO to think beyond the status quo?
Jonathan Winch: Absolutely. I recently spent an hour presenting Three Voices thinking to a group of managers at an energy industry client. The sales and marketing director told me later that already that afternoon, management had met again to discuss the insights they had received and agreed to launch a project that would upgrade the company’s entire marketing approach to achieve a position as the industry’s thought leader. In all my years of advising clients on such issues, I have seldom seen such a quick and decisive reaction.
Michael Leander: I’ve heard you call the Three Voices framework “old wine in new bottles”. What do you mean by that?
Jonathan Winch: (Laughs) That’s an expression I picked up from Denmark where I’m based these days. What I mean to say is that many of the basic ideas behind the Three Voices are nothing new to those who have kept up to date with what’s happening these days in B2B buyer behavior and modern marketing approaches.
But its power lies in the way it pulls these developments together, its imagery, and its ability to bring clarity and structure to the rather confusing world of integrated marketing. And that’s why, these days, we’re urging the CEOs, marketing vice presidents and communications vice presidents we meet to get their minds around the framework and use it to convince others in their organizations of the need to significantly re-think and re-organize their market approaches.
Michael Leander: Do you expect B2B companies to widely adopt the Three Voices framework?
Jonathan Winch: That’s our hope, of course. Because we know it’s an idea that works. We’ve seen its effect on client after client. We’ve seen them literally jump out of their chairs and walk excitedly around the room, energized by their new understanding and its implications for how they can reach and engage their B2B audiences.
I like to point to the experience that, once you have placed the word “propaganda” in a manager’s mind as a way of describing the way his or her company is currently marketing its products, it has a tremendous motivating effect. After all, who wants to think that what they are doing is essentially disseminating propaganda?
Michael Leander: How has the “discovery” of the Three Voices framework affected the way you and your colleagues approach your work with clients?
Jonathan Winch: We’ve been energized by it. In fact, it’s enabled us to discover new opportunities among our clients and caused us to build new capabilities and platforms for both ourselves and our clients.
Michael Leander: You’re calling this first version of the book a “co-creation” edition. Why is that?
Jonathan Winch: While my co-authors and I are the originators of the Three Voices framework, we don’t claim to have all the answers to how the full potential of this framework can be unlocked by B2B companies. So, in keeping with the more open, sharing nature of know-how in today’s business world, we have chosen to self-publish a limited number of books to begin with – and we are encouraging our clients, partners and other participants in the business arena to contribute their perspectives and learnings to help develop the framework further.
In fact, that’s what we’ve seen already happening with those who have helped us to form our ideas and through the feedback from communication professionals and business strategists who have read the pre-release edition. Now we’re gathering those comments and feedback and will incorporate them into the official release of the book in the first half of 2012.
About Jonathan Winch
Jonathan Winch is a partner and co-founder of Copenhagen-based strategic communications agency Eye for Image. His career spans over 25 years, making contributions to the strategies and communications of companies of all sizes, the best known of which include Cisco, Hewlett-Packard, Danisco, GN ReSound, Hempel, Nokia Siemens Networks, LEGO, Coloplast, and Johnson & Johnson.
Jonathan’s focus is on assisting knowledge-intensive B2B companies to become perceived as thought leaders within their industries.
Share this article with your friends and work colleagues