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The problem with playing it safe

James Trowman

The cost of living is rising, the value of the pound is uncertain and energy prices are skyrocketing. It’s not the first time we’ve been in this situation. 

In 2008 the Financial Times launched an ad campaign that asked the question "Global downturn. What's the first mistake businesses make?". The aim of the campaign was to encourage a conversation about why marketing budgets are often the first to be cut in times of economic uncertainty and highlight why they shouldn’t be. 

Today, this conversation is playing out again. Cutting or reducing marketing budgets is not an advisable strategy in the long run, as the Financial Times campaign effectively demonstrated. It also often results in more ‘vanilla’ campaigns when businesses really need to be bold. 

Low investment, low return

A direct line can be drawn between investing thoughtfully in marketing and improved business results. Marketing attracts new customers but it also retains current customers and can even encourage them to increase their budget. Good marketing shows that a business is active, engaged and thriving. There is a lot of potential for positive return from investment in marketing. 

Low investment is more likely to generate low returns. Unfortunately, a recent survey by The Frameworks found that under-investment in marketing is a common issue faced by B2B marketers (75% of respondents). This is both low financial investment and low creative investment. 

Indeed, a staggering 96% of respondents stated that pressure to deliver against specific goals stands in the way of original thinking. Meanwhile, 90% of firms say they’ll take the safe option, rather than strike out in search of something different.

A large problem with setting specific goals is that they’re often influenced by past success which means that previously effective campaigns become metrics for future success. This makes sense in theory but in reality it’s stifling. There are too many variables for the past to be used as a solid indicator of the future. Instead, to allow marketers to think creatively without being restricted by fear of failing to recreate the past, metrics should focus on the present and the specific aims for each campaign.

Take calculated risks

While it is understandable that businesses want to play it safe in times of crisis, that’s actually the most risky thing to do. Sticking with what you know won’t change anything. The best thing to do is to take some calculated risks. 

It’s not a case of convincing the board to throw out the rule book and launch campaigns that are entirely off-brand. Rather, it’s a process of delivering more bold campaigns, approaching ideas from a different angle and embracing creativity. These campaigns must be approached with an empathetic view of the audience, focussing on their specific challenges and needs. 

As an example, one of our clients, Siemens, had a series of technical reports that needed to engage a technical audience as well as business leaders. These two audiences had different levels of technical understanding and were approaching the value Siemens’s software provides from different angles. We had to find a bold way to capture both of their attention without alienating either group. 

We created an interactive web experience that brought the power of Siemens’s 3D software to life using easily navigable layered copy. Each user is able  to access the relevant level of understanding about the benefits Siemens’s software provides. This dynamic experience was a bold approach to a relatively common business challenge - appealing to a varied audience. It allowed Siemens to present itself as a forward-thinking organisation, not just through the technology it offers but as a whole.

Be inspired

Branching out into bold campaigns doesn’t have to feel like setting out into the unknown. Audience and industry research is an absolutely fundamental first step, it’s always important to fully understand the landscape before beginning the campaign journey. It’s also generally good practice for businesses to keep an eye on what other companies are doing, both within their industry and more broadly, whether B2B or B2C. Inspiration can come from anywhere. 

Referencing other successful campaigns can help convince the board that not only should the marketing budget not be cut, but it should be spent on more bold campaigns. While B2B marketing is typically less bold than B2C marketing, there are plenty of brilliant examples. For example the award winning Speaking in Color campaign from Sherwin-Williams that uses AI to create custom paint colours with your voice. 

Playing it safe can feel, well, safe but it carries the risk of looking stagnant and getting left behind. The much safer option is to be bold and take risks. When these risks have been carefully planned and budgeted for they’re not really risks anymore. And who knows, you might just be the next award winner. 

A version of this article previously appeared on Business Age in January 2023.