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Fostering Creativity in B2B Marketing

Carla Johnson says that businesses looking to encourage a creative environment need to engage in ‘perpetual innovation’.

US marketing expert Carla Johnson has a ready gauge to determine how prepared companies are to be creative and promote fresh ideas to help their customers.

“I think there are two kinds of companies,” Johnson says. “There are companies that innovate, which are very much B2B companies. They have an amazing product and amazing service. They focus on tweaking, iterating, and ensuring it’s the best product. Then, some companies are innovative. They look at how they can serve their customers better. How can we remove complexity?

Author and Speaker Carla Johnson

“If you’re in a company that innovates, and you ask somebody in marketing, IT or finance about doing something different to serve customers better, they stop and look at you and say, ‘we have a team for innovation’ or ‘that’s not my job’ or ‘I’m not smart enough to do it’. But in a truly innovative company, they believe everybody is responsible for new ideas.”

Johnson is a speaker and seven-time author, including Experiences: The 7th Era of Marketing, which she wrote with content expert Robert Rose. As Chief Experience Officer at Denver-based consultancy Type A Communications, she has worked with some of the world’s biggest brands, including American Express, Dell, Western Union and the US Army Corps of Engineers, to promote corporate storytelling and help clarify their collective purpose. One of her missions is to get large and small businesses – particularly their marketing teams – to become more creative and innovative.

“My background is all B2B marketing,” Johnson says. “When B2B marketers hear something about a consumer brand – a Lego, Nike, Apple and Amazon, the ones we always think of as being amazingly creative – they tend to say, ‘I could never do that. My boss would never go for it. We’re not that kind of industry. Everybody, at any level, even within super creative companies, tends to say, ‘That’ll never work’. We perceive creativity and innovative ideas as something risky.”

Innovation in Action

Johnson believes businesses must apply “perpetual innovation” principles to encourage creativity. The idea is based on people making the most of their innate curiosity and observational skills to adopt new ideas. Sometimes, it’s about looking at what other businesses are doing – perhaps those in other industries or B2C – to see what works for them and why and applying that to their situations.

This isn’t an easy process, of course … especially for those who work at risk-averse businesses. “If we can use a process that makes new ideas and creativity feel familiar, then it will start to feel safe,” she says. “People start to let their guards down and become more open to new ideas.”

Johnson says it’s not about marketers “cutting and pasting” ideas and applying them similarly. It’s about finding the essence of an idea and making it work in a different environment.

She cites the example of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, a global social media phenomenon in 2014 that raised awareness (and millions of dollars) for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or motor neuron disease. “I’m not saying this idea will work in a B2B environment,” Johnson says. “It’s about understanding the essence behind a great idea – the broader theme that worked. For ALS, it was about community and sharing. How do you take that idea as a B2B marketer and apply it in your world?”

Johnson says innovative companies understand that any group within the organization can generate successful ideas using this process. “I think we have such a tremendous opportunity as B2B marketers to bring more ideas into our work; customers drive that,” she says. “It’s just that we don’t know how to bring those ideas in-house.”

Johnson says that Success depends on whether employees feel they have the “right” to be idea generators. “How do we take an outside inspiration and put it into a familiar process to continually bring new ideas in? We need to learn how to understand the constraints within a particular environment that are a big part of whether a new idea will succeed. What are the things that can be so crushing and kill an idea?”

Teaching Curiosity

How can you teach marketers – or anyone in business – to be more curious?

“You know, curiosity, whether it’s on a small scale or a big scale, is something teachable,” Johnson says. “I would say curiosity starts with awareness. Think about young children. They’re extremely curious about the world around them. That’s why they continue to ask, ‘why? Why? Why? why?’ … it drives us crazy. It’s just something that happens to us as we grow up that kills that. A big part is that as you go through life, you can’t question everything and be interested in everything all the time because you’d never get anything done. You’d still be at that toddler level of productivity.” “It’s about understanding how to bring ideas from the outside that are truly inspirational and bringing them insight in a way that makes them palatable.”

Johnson says the problem is that we soon start filtering things according to our sense of their relevance. “But research shows the most innovative and creative people in the world don’t judge whether or not something has relevancy or importance,” she says. “They start by just being very good at observing the world around them. And the best way for us to do this as adults is to practice.”

Johnson admits practicing curiosity can be difficult in our fast-paced, data-driven business lives. But she says you can do it while queuing for your morning coffee. Why does the queue line up to the left? What are people doing to amuse themselves while waiting for their toast? How do the baristas do their latte art?

“It’s very much about raising our awareness and being present for 10 or 15 minutes daily,” she says. “We start to see patterns. Then we can start relating that to our world.”
Art of the pitch

Johnson believes getting our bosses to commit to an idea relies heavily on how well it’s pitched. “In B2B marketing, we’ve learned a lot of things,” Johnson says. “We learned the four Ps. We learned a lot of tactics. We learned many things as we’ve gone through school or our careers. But one thing that we’ve never learned is how to pitch an idea.

“The truth is that bad pitches kill even the best of ideas. So, if they aren’t presented correctly, it makes sense that your bosses would say no because it doesn’t have context for them. It doesn’t relate to their world. A big part of innovation is being able to pitch an idea so your boss has a vested interest in it.”

Johnson feels businesses in the Asia Pacific region may have an advantage over their US or European colleagues, creating an innovation mindset. “When you understand a process, you can bring inspiration in from anywhere,” she says. “For companies that may not be at the same level of sophistication or maturity as a European or American company, it can become a competitive advantage because they can leapfrog some learning steps. It can help them move forward at a much faster pace than maybe they expect they could.”

Arrow Straight

Johnson cites the example of US-based giant Arrow Electronics – a company founded in 1935 with 18,700 employees and US$24 billion in sales. “It’s just about as big as a B2B can be,” she says. “About seven years ago, they had high-quality products, but all of these different divisions, business units, and companies they acquired. A new CMO came in – Rich Kylberg – and asked ‘how do we stand up and become different?’

According to Johnson, Kylberg saw similarities between his company, its numerous product lines and business units, and entertainment giant Disney. “They have theme parks. They have movies. They have retail stores. They are probably just as big and complex as a B2B electronics company. But Kylberg said, ‘What’s the essence of what they’re doing?’ He saw it created a cohesive brand that people were excited about engaging in. It doesn’t matter where you enter the brand. It’s a consistent, seamless experience.”

Johnson said Kylberg learned about Disney’s success from the ground up. While Arrow continued to make substantial acquisitions, it unified its essential communications and messaging and became one of the world’s biggest electronics publishers. “They have been able to experience amazing growth, leading their industry,” she says. “They have incredible brand equity, brand value.

They see the difference between being a company that innovates and being truly innovative.

“It’s about understanding how to bring ideas from the outside that are truly inspirational and bringing them insight in a way that makes them palatable. It gets people excited.”