Should B2B Marketers Explain “Why” or “What?”

As a product manager at Demandbase, I focus on bringing life to technology that’s purpose-built for B2B, which often means thinking extensively about the differences between B2B and B2C marketing.

However, I can’t help but notice that many of the conversations happening about B2B and B2C encourage B2B marketers to behave more like their B2C counterparts. This can create some confusion: Do we want to be more like B2C, or less

When it comes to technology and strategy, I argue that that while B2C and B2B are different and we therefore cannot blindly copy one another, we can learn from each other. Personally, I’m not a marketer so I can’t say for sure, but as a product manager, one thing I notice is that B2B marketers (and companies as a whole) tend to be more focused on features and benefits than storytelling. And as a consumer of both B2B and B2C products, I know that good storytelling is often a big influence in my own purchasing decisions.

Along these lines, a highly respected and widely viewed Ted Talk by Simon Sinek called “Start With Why” asserts that “people don’t buy what you do…they buy why you do it.” We might believe that this is a bias that vision-centric people have and not always one that seller and builder-centric people share. Visionaries easily imagine what something might look like and have fuzzier views of exactly what it will do and even fuzzier still ideas of exactly how their idea is supposed to work. Whereas a person who sells or builds, never questions why they build or sell…they get satisfaction purely from the sale itself, from taking things apart, in reverse-engineering how someone did what they did and are driven to sell or build something that someone else will be amazed by and might want to take apart. Or just use.

Because we in B2B land frequently distinguish ourselves from B2C, we often don’t focus on why we do what we do and why we believe what we believe. You might ask then, where is the harm in only building the what? It’s more real isn’t it? The problem is that if you only have a “what,” you actually hurt your ability to innovate and build deep customer relationships. You put implicit limits on the value of your product by suggesting that it just these few material things. You offer no hints at what motivates you and your teams, and therefore might fail to convince your customers why they should sign up for a long, fun, profitable, and meaningful journey together. With only a “what,” there is no long-term vision for you or them. Without this core of message of “why”, we lose the ability to tell great stories and we perpetuate the myth that we are faceless, Magritte-esque, business types, not real people with cares beyond raw profit.

That said, I don’t believe it’s an either/or choice. In B2B, you must deliver the both “what” and “why.” With just the “why” you have a powerful, yet too traditional marketing message, one that only sells the promise of an idea. Anyone who needs to do things now needs more than that. They have spreadsheets to finish, people to onboard, meetings to arrange and deals to close. They have kids to pick up, dinners to cook, laundry to do. They need tools that are real, that deliver actual value. Anything too vague frustrates them. To those people, you must sell both vision and goods.

In conclusion, there is something we can learn from B2C marketing, and it’s how to tell the “why” part of your story. The “why” focuses and attracts others to you. It allows you collectively to run a sustainable company and plan a series of meaningful products that promise value to your customers. But don’t let it end there. Never forget that it is ultimately building, delivering, and selling the “what” that allows you and your customers to realize the benefits of your vision. To help you achieve these ends, we need to think about aligning technology and strategy, and about innovation inspired by a deep understanding of key business goals.

For me, this means developing products that serve both needs. We need both the concrete features and benefits that help us define the “what” intertwined with the vision that helps tell the story of “why.” While signing up for more is always more challenging, the rewards of weaving meaning into our deliverables, threading the why in with the what, seem well worth the additional effort.