B2B marketing: a struggle between emotion and rational thought

"People who work in businesses are humans first." I've heard a variation on this theme at least a hundred times over my career. Of course creatives say this; they nearly always aim for emotional connection--mostly because they think it works, but also because emotion-filled creative work is more fun to do than B2B fact-fests. More surprising are the number of cautious-by-nature clients and account folks who've said pretty much the same thing.

Supposedly there's even quantitative research backing emotional B2B marketing, according to a white paper from B2B marketing agency Upshot. Their SVP of planning, Lionel Knight, says this about it:
"[Emotion] absolutely has an impact on [potential B2B customer] reactions to marketing messages. B2B marketers should work to inspire their audience with creativity, be it a conference event, a website, a sales presentation or advertising.” 
I swear I gave that spiel verbatim as a CD.

So then, why isn't there more emotion-based B2B advertising? First of all, I think it's hard to do, and even harder to do well. Emotional ties to something like infrastructure as a service aren't exactly self-evident. And you can only turn so many times to tear-jerker stories about a B2B product helping terminal patients or disadvantaged elementary students before sentimentality fails. Same with humor. There's a fine line between quirky and dorky.

Another reason to approach emotion with care: miss the mark with emotion and sentimentality and dorky could be the least of your problems. Being fake is nearly unforgivable for many business and technology folks. And fake happens when ads are done by agency teams who don't understand the technology they're selling--but who are dedicated to bringing emotion into the work.

And let's not forget the importance of rational thought. Yes, we humans are emotional, knee-jerk creatures. To use Jonathan Haight's excellent metaphor, the subconscious is the elephant part of the brain, going wherever fear, excitement, or lust directs it. But there's also the elephant rider, the tempered conscious brain that can, at times, take control of the situation and make thoughtful, well-reasoned decisions. And if a company is buying a multimillion dollar technology solution, chances are good that someone is making a good-faith effort to be a skilled elephant jockey.

It's a matter of leveraging emotion and reason, at the right times and in the right balance. Even Aristotle knew to hit both pathos and logos. A few examples of companies that know how to achieve the right mix:


I loved DraftFCB's "the human element" campaign. Even its tagline does the pathos/logos dance. And their "solutionism" work continues this blend, albeit with more emphasis on logos.  It's not as brilliant as human element, but still very good at speaking to both the emotional and rational.


Accenture's "high performance delivered" campaign uses text to deliver logos, imagery to serve up pathos. Although I will say that, in reality, phrases like "$7 billion in annual sales" are really emotional ploys dressed up as hard business numbers.


My obvious choice. I've loved the mix of smart and humane that they and Ogilvy have sustained for nearly two decades. Just go to their website. Or watch their 100th anniversary video. Stunning.


  1. Thumbs up guys your doing a really good job.
    local business to business

  2. Hi Kevin
    I'm an independent strategist struggling (alone/with my cat on my lap) with this very issue for one of my clients. Thank you for the inspiration. This post -- and the others on this blog -- are awesome. Please, please keep posting -- so much more helpful than my cat.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Jodi,

    Ah, I had all kinds of glitches on my response to your very kind comment. My apologies. Anyway, it put some fire under me to start writing again, so much appreciated.

    Talking about such things, your blog is fantastic! You write wonderfully. More importantly, you have the kind of insights that really matter in our world--and that are so, so rare. Looking forward to reading more.



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