B2B advertising and marketing for a right-brain world

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Ads that give you clear facts, straight up; that focus on price and performance; that feature a lot of words on-screen; that present a single, logical view of things; that empower an audience to succeed and remind them how talented and smart they are.

If this sounds like a pretty good description of most B2B advertising to you, then there are few observers that would disagree. However, if the last decade has convinced you that this is the only way for B2B brands to communicate, then it might be time for a rethink.

Recent research suggests that ads with these characteristics are becoming less engaging and less effective as a result of the pandemic. However, ads that present the world as a less certain place, that make fewer claims to be 100% rational and right, that don’t just aim to convince with a flurry of facts – these have performed noticeably better. The data shows this isn’t a time to give up on advertising, but it’s a very good time to explore different areas of creativity and communication. If we’re to support our businesses effectively over the coming months and years, we might need to take a broader approach – and engage different parts of the brain.

Orlando Wood is the Chief Innovation Officer at System1, an agency that researches and monitors how different styles of advertising correlate with effectiveness. He’s also a contributor to the B2B Institute’s recent series of essays on how to market effectively in difficult times. Orlando argues that, for the best part of a decade, advertising as a whole has been adopting a left-brain view of the world that’s overly rational and confident, wants to find the simple, single truth of any matter, and has little room for metaphor, poetry, humour or alternative ways of seeing things. The System1 data though, suggests that the COVID-19 pandemic is bringing about a sudden ‘right-brain reset’. It’s an idea that has some big implications for how we go about building brands and competing for our audiences’ attention. And if you’re a creative-minded B2B marketer, that’s a challenge you’ll be ready to respond to.

The idea of the right and left brain comes from the work of the psychologist, Dr. Iain McGilchrist, in his book The Master and His Emissary. According to McGilchrist, the left brain is narrow, goal-oriented and focused on detail. It likes to categorise and control; to separate things into right and wrong, black and white, superior or inferior. When it comes to business, the left brain is drawn to productivity, efficiency and getting things done. When it comes to culture, it values authenticity above everything, and wants to strip everything back to its essence. The left brain loves a good process chart. It admires movies that follow repeatable formulas, enjoys TV shows about making things, and sees little difference between two versions of the same song. When it comes to advertising, it’s the core content or message that matters to it. Soundtrack, images and how a message is delivered are just decoration – it doesn’t really matter how they’re done.

The right brain experiences the world in a far more complete way. Its role is gathering information and understanding the world around us, not focusing on doing one specific thing. It’s interested in everything: exploring connections, open to new experiences – and new ways of seeing the world. It’s occupied with intangibles like emotion, community, relationships and it’s intuitive about others’ feelings. The right brain embraces complexity and ambiguity. It can see why two opposing points of view and perspectives might be true at the same time. It isn’t motivated to reduce everything down to a clear answer and move on.

The right brain delegates the nuts and bolts of repeatable, narrow tasks to the left brain and concentrates on putting those tasks in context. This is why the left brain is great at using language – but has no sense of humour. The right brain has delegated the nuts and bolts of communicating to the left, which leaves the right brain free to understand and enjoy a joke.

Given all this, it’s easy to understand why the left brain has become such an attractive audience for B2B marketers. When we engage it, we’re talking to the part of the brain that wants to be convinced there’s a clear and simple course of action – and will take it once we’ve given it a good reason. And the left brain has plenty of attractive features. It’s confident and optimistic. It likes things to be concise and straightforward – it’s easy to do business with.

What makes the left brain even more attractive as an audience is the fact that it’s increasingly in control – a classic B2B decision-maker. Human beings need both left and right brain to operate – but the left brain doesn’t see it that way. It gets carried away with its own narrow definition of success and keeps control rather than sharing it. Crucially, although the right brain is usually aware of what the left brain is doing, the reverse isn’t true. The left brain thinks it understands everything it needs to about the world. Until something happens to prove that it doesn’t.

If the current pandemic is bringing about a right-brain reset then it won’t be the first time it’s happened. Orlando Wood argues that, at several points in history, plagues and epidemics have brought about flourishings of art and culture informed by a new sense of perspective. The Renaissance and the Baroque periods were both the results of right-brain resets in the face of scary diseases.

It’s easy to understand why this might be happening again now. Across the world, people are reporting feeling mentally drained as they try to come to terms with fast-changing and contradictory information. Certainties keep changing in the face of a threat we can’t see or fully understand. The left brain is suddenly feeling overwhelmed by events it couldn’t predict, and its narrow view of the world has become oppressive and depressing. It’s time to call for help from the side of the brain that puts our place in perspective, that’s comfortable with not being the centre of everything, and which recognises the preciousness of life, relationships and experiences. The right brain is our mental escape valve.

We can see the right-brain reset playing out on several levels. System 1’s data has tracked changing TV habits, with growing popularity for drama, comedy and other forms of entertainment over news. This includes old shows that take us back through time and space. The right brain has a sense of history and nostalgia – it’s not just obsessed with the now.

We can see more evidence of the right-brain reset in the social media trends and general behaviour. Standing outside and clapping for health workers makes little sense to the left brain. It makes even less sense for a couple who own a costume shop to dress up in different period outfits each day and walk around their village to entertain the neighbours. The popularity of the Getty Museum Challenge inviting people to recreate classic works of art using objects they can find at home owes everything to the right-brain reset. It’s got no obvious purpose beyond creativity, self-expression and connecting to others – yet people respond to it on many different levels.

Thanks to System1’s rolling analysis, we can also see the right-brain reset taking place in how audiences respond to ads. Over the months of the pandemic, System1 tracked a decline in effectiveness for ads that focus on things or price rather than people, that make aggressive claims about performance or that flatter the audience by telling them how great they are. On the other hand, it tracked an uptick in performance for those with elements of humour – or which focused on relationships and a sense of community. Crucially, these ads were often not focused on the reality of right now. They dealt in escapism: nostalgic views of history, silly scenarios that occur in alternative realities, and ridiculously over-the-top brand characters.

Working with these types of creative elements can feel daunting in B2B. After all, we’ve got on so well with the left brain and had so much success doing business with it. However, a marketing strategy that can engage both sides of the brain has a lot more going for it over the coming months and years. Not only does it fit the way that people are responding to ads today, but it also enables us to balance brand and demand in a way that leads to more profitable long-term growth.

The creative elements that the right brain responds to tend to produce deeper emotion and more influential long-term memories. Research from the B2B Institute shows that emotional B2B strategies are 7x more effective at driving long-term sales, profits and revenue than those just delivering rational messaging. When we engage both modes of thinking, we don’t just prompt people to take action – we give them a deeper reason why that action still matters. It makes for more complete marketing.

So what should B2B advertising look like in a right-brain world? Here’s some inspiration based on the characteristics of ads that are increasing in effectiveness according to the System1 data:

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