The Challenges of Global Business-to-Business Promotions

This month, Campaign magazine published its second Going Global supplement. A number of experts in the field of branding gave us their thoughts on the issues that face those tasked with international branding. One of those experts was B2B International’s very own Paul Hague, who provided some advice for business-to-business marketers taking their promotions to a global audience:

We have all heard of communication gaffes made by regionally focused consumer companies as they attack a wider market. If Rolls-Royce had gone ahead with the branding of their Silver Mist car in Germany, it would have found it was trying to sell Silver Sh*t. Such cultural and linguistic differences are a marketer’s nightmare and they indicate the importance of using research to understand the difference between customers throughout the world.

HSBC has made an effective campaign out of the way different people see the world. In a long-running and highly recognisable series of adverts (particularly noticeable in international airports), they humorously provide examples of how people’s interpretation of the same objects can be vastly different depending on their culture, heritage, education, etc. They demonstrate, if you like, how one man’s meat can be another man’s poison.



All the while, business-to-business marketers have been sitting on the sidelines. They do not have the huge marketing budgets that are required for global campaigns. In fact, $200,000 is likely to be a respectable budget for many an industrial company or division aiming at an international market. With such meagre funds to play with, their communication efforts have been much more targeted and therefore less visible for us to examine and critique.

With an emphasis on below-the-line advertising, business-to-business marketers have focused on anything that gets them close to shaking hands with a potential customer. High on the list are exhibitions, brochures and technical sheets translated into local languages, and, if you’re lucky, a website on which you may just have one or two language options. There is very little attempt made to understand the local culture and to design a promotional campaign that meets local needs.

If marketing budgets are really so small for business-to-business marketers, it may be hard to imagine how they could afford to spend $100,000 on a market research campaign aimed at testing different communications and finding out what works over a wide geographical area. Mind you, the investment in research to establish the principles of what works pays dividends – not only on the current campaign but on all future campaigns.

I encountered a good example a couple of years ago during the concept testing of an advert. Of the seven adverts being tested, the design agency had a clear favourite – a nicely designed ad showing two futuristic-looking heads. However, in what was a huge disappointment to the agency, this particular ad bombed dramatically when tested against the six others among an international group of target customers. Existing and potential customers actually found the ad confusing and felt it portrayed the company as two-faced. Adverts that tested much better were less stylish but they featured the product, or the product plus a person.

A good test for any b2b marketer is to lay out their promotions in front of customers and prospective customers, and ask the following questions:

  • What are first reactions to the promotions?
  • What are the key things that jump out of the promotions?
  • What are the promotions saying to you?
  • How would you rate the clarity of the message(s)?
  • What are the benefits that are communicated by the promotions?
  • How important are these benefits to you?
  • How effective are the promotions in terms of being compelling (“stop-ability”), relevance, links to the positioning of the advertiser, and clarity?
  • How successful are the promotions in “calling the customer to action”?
  • Do respondents think anything is missing from the promotions?
  • How clear is it what people should do next, having seen the advert (i.e. how effective are the response mechanisms and instructions)?

Market research isn’t the only measure that can be used to test the effectiveness of promotions. Additional indicators can be quite simple, such as:

  • The correlation between the sales of a product and a promotional campaign. However, the long lead times in business-to-business markets seldom show strong links between the two.
  • Response mechanisms built into adverts or literature that over time provide feedback on the effectiveness of campaigns.
  • Orders taken on an exhibition stand (or, more simply, the number of business cards collected on the stand).
  • Feedback to the sales team (and order takers) that a promotion has been seen.

In conclusion, here’s a checklist of questions that business-to-business marketers should consider when addressing global markets:

  1. Start with the views of locals – no one knows or understands the market better and their views are always worth listening to. However, be prepared to experiment and be bold, because the best promotions are those that break the mould.
  2. Promotions are most effective if they have a single, purposeful proposition. Many promotions are overloaded with too many propositions or they are too clever by half.
  3. Promotions that look authoritative, even editorial in style, will be eagerly read by a technical audience.
  4. Technicians love facts. Give them loads of them.
  5. The product may be boring to some people but it isn’t to the person who is buying or specifying it. Show them the product.
  6. Promotions that feature someone from the company are far more believable than those that use actors.
  7. People will give a fraction of a second to a promotion (a blink) as they make up their mind whether it is for them or not. Catch their attention with images and visuals at the top of the ad and use them boldly. Use them to draw people into the promotion.
  8. Make sure that the images are relevant otherwise the audience will quickly move on. The closer the relevance of the images to the industry and the text, the better.
  9. The headline of any promotion needs to be strong and powerful. Many headlines fail by being too long, too complicated or irrelevant. The headline should follow the visual or lead at the top of the ad.
  10. When developing a campaign, give it “legs”. Wherever possible, create a connection with parallel or previous campaigns so that there is a link that provides continuity for the audience.
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