The history of B2B marketing is a murky one, with few clear dates or milestones to track its development. By enabling highly targeted communications for the first time, it was the data revolution from the ’60s to the ’80s that really created B2B as we know it, and continues to transform the industry to this day.
It is unclear when B2B – or business-to-business – marketing really came into being as a stand-alone discipline. Human beings have been ‘selling’ things to one another in the broadest sense of the word since the dawn of time, but things moved up a gear in the industrial revolution. Marketing really came into its own at the beginning of the 20th century with the development of mass-produced consumer products, aimed at the mass market. It’s fair to say that these new methods of communication were subsequently adapted for the business world, some sooner than others.
While traditional or print techniques looked dead and buried 18 months ago, there are growing signs of a renaissance
In the mid-20th century, however, marketing was still very much in its infancy and the means and methods available to communicate with potential business customers were pretty limited – newspapers, printed business directories or billboards were the primary techniques. Exhibitions had been on the agenda for at least a century, with the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace of 1851 an early example, but they had yet to emerge as a mass communications technique.
The emergence of broadcast media from the 1930s did very little to change the situation, with commercial services far more limited than today, and the cost of using them was prohibitive for B2B brands with a niche appeal.
Things really began to change in the ’60s and ’70s, with the emergence of new and more sophisticated data techniques, and cheaper and better printing. These developments enabled both the launch and management of niche business magazines and periodicals (produced on a weekly or monthly basis and distributed by post), better exhibitions and events, telemarketing, and – most important of all – direct mail.
The impact of these developments cannot be overstated; effectively they created B2B marketing as we know it, allowing brands to communicate for the first time with highly targeted audiences in a measurable way. Although consumer brands were using these techniques, they had arguably more impact on the B2B world, allowing B2B brands, at last, to emerge as serious marketing players, and B2B for the first time to become recognised as a distinct discipline with its own set of challenges. It also enabled the first dedicated B2B agencies and service providers to emerge.
In the 1980s and ’90s, direct marketing techniques were honed further, and were applied to email marketing, which arrived with the Internet, and together with the first websites marked the start of the digital transformation. Digital techniques were relatively slow to catch on, but in the later years, the pace of change quickened exponentially, changing the way brands and marketers engage beyond recognition. Developments such as search marketing, social media, video, mobile etc have increasingly become the mainstay of B2B marketing, drawing spend and focus away from the likes of direct mail and print advertising, which marketers had come to believe were the core disciplines in B2B.
So what’s the future? The only thing we can say for certain is that the pace of change shows no sign of abating – digital channels continue to evolve at a frightening pace, as does buyer behaviour. Many of the old rules and certainties of marketing have been swept away – today, there is increasing onus on ‘pull’ rather than ‘push’ techniques as the fundamentals of marketing. However, marketing is, after all, a fashion industry, and just as hem lines go up and down, so do different philosophies and techniques go in and out of fashion. While traditional or print techniques looked dead and buried eighteen months ago, there are growing signs of a renaissance, and media buyers are starting to question whether so-called demand generation techniques really are a panacea, or whether they would be better off focusing on branding instead. The exciting thing for marketers is that our industry will continue to evolve, creating opportunities and rewards for those willing and able to keep abreast of new developments, and adapt their strategies accordingly.