Let’s all stop pretending that B2B should play by a different set of rules.
Three lessons from this year’s Cannes Lions winners.
For some time now, B2B has occupied a sleepy corner of marketing, notorious for a kind of risk-averse pragmatism that favors “what [x product] does” over “why you should care in the first place.” Think: whitepapers, feature lists, and product-pushing banner ads (or what my colleague Gerald Lewis calls, “the toilet paper of the Internet”).
As you might imagine, this doesn’t make for award-winning work — because it is, in many ways, designed to be forgettable. In fact, recent research shows that the majority of B2B creative is “ineffective,” contributing zero in terms of long-term market share growth. But if this year’s Cannes Lions winners tell us anything, it’s that the tide may be, finally, turning.
B2B is a new category for the advertising awards, and one thing stood out among the winners: the best B2B marketing is really B2H. In other words, it recognizes that there’s a human on the receiving end, and strives to respect their time and attention. Not by talking at them, but by engaging with them — in a way that’s emotional, meaningful, and relevant. If that sounds a lot like B2C marketing, well… that’s because it is.
So, if you’re a B2B marketer stuck making digital toilet paper, here are a few lessons that might inspire you to throw out that dusty old playbook and take a creative risk:
Lesson 1: Additive beats disruptive.
Engagement starts with knowing your audience — not just as a collective, but as individuals. Spotify intuited this, working with creative agency FCB New York to custom-write songs for 14 high-profile CMOs, based on their unique listening preferences. The campaign, “A Song for Every CMO,” drove $1B in ad revenue, proving that a high-touch, personal activation can far exceed spray-and-pray tactics when done right.
The Grand Prix winner of the B2B category, Sherwin-Williams worked alongside Wonderman-Thompson to deploy conversational AI, which helped architects, designers and DIYers find their perfect palette. Not only was “Speaking in Color” simple and smart, but it reinvented the legacy brand for a digital world, and reinforced its value through a highly engaging — and highly useful — experience.
Lesson 2: Let your product speak for itself.
Sometimes the best “ads” aren’t the creative messages you make about your product, but rather the statement that comes from your product. Dole Sunshine Company’s partnership with Ananas Anam turned agricultural waste from pineapple harvesting into a vegan leather alternative that’s been used by 1000 global brands — generating over $100M in revenue for the agri-giant.
Strahl’s “Handle with I Don’t Care” campaign sent their durable drinkware in the mail — sans packaging — to bars across Norway. Not only did each one arrive intact, but every single recipient placed an order for their business. Know your product, show how it solves a real problem, rinse and repeat.
Lesson 3: Purpose is a verb.
By now, “purpose-driven” is a buzzword that can describe any company with an ESG initiative (see: every company). But this year’s B2B winners showed that true purpose is about walking the walk — not just talking the talk. Be it buying back 250,000 kegs from bars to power a local community, or harnessing the influence of hip-hop hype culture to promote black-owned businesses, or developing a coat that produces as much oxygen as an oak tree, Heineken, Mercado Livre, and Azgard 9 show that taking real action can make a world of difference for people, businesses and your bottom line.
To summarize: in B2B, the head doesn’t have to compete with the heart.
Just because you’re building a B2B brand doesn’t mean you have to park your “personhood.” When we market to business people as people (and not just “decision makers”), the work gets better — and works harder.