From Hidden to Holistic: B2B Communications Come of Age


Pattie Sullivan, Senior Vice President, B2B Practice Head, North America, Red Havas

It’s true. I once gave a lecture at my alma mater titled “B2B: The Hidden World of Public Relations.” At that time business-to-business communications was, indeed, hidden away — invisible to the average consumer. Practical and transactional in tone and purpose, these comms were tucked away and separate from the other internal and external communications streams. 

It’s safe to say B2B communications has finally come of age. 

My colleagues and I described the transformation in the B2B space roughly a year ago in a white paper — “Rethinking B2B and B2C: A Case for Person-to-Person (P2P) Communications.” The premise is straightforward: Engage with your audiences as people, not as job descriptions — e.g., procurement, sales manager, account executive, and so on. This shift in approach provides new opportunities for brands (particularly B2B) to enter a more human and relatable territory to engage a wider audience.

And my conviction of the value of P2P has been reinforced by an article in MITSloan Management Review, advocating that businesses reframe their mindset from B2B to B4B. It’s similar and complementary to P2P, calling on businesses to put themselves in their customers’ shoes. This holistic approach requires moving from purely transactional interactions to truly understanding the customers’ needs and working collaboratively to solve their challenges. Doing so not only promotes business growth for both parties, but also can create more sustainable businesses by “delivering value for all—other businesses, our customers, and our communities.”

On the surface, the concept of P2P or B4B, or however you prefer to describe it, seems deceptively simple. But like most things, the devil’s in the details, and the path is more serpentine than straightforward.

Taking an outside-in approach

The first hurdle is often internal — particularly in complex, global organizations. Here, we often find the communications function split … corporate, marcom, social, internal, and so on. And while there is typically recognition that these segments should complement each other to tell a holistic brand story, the actual day-to-day realities of busy communications pros means this does not always happen, despite the best of intentions. 

It’s the story, stupid 

At Red Havas, we believe the way to solve for that is by adopting an approach that we like to call One Story, Many Shapes. This redefined communications model starts with the story rather than the channel, which maximizes storytelling opportunities and limits silos by design. By connecting the dots between stories and channels, we’re shaping one cohesive experience for the (human) audience. 

 Breaking out of the B2Box

Organizations also need to look at the entire brand experience from a holistic perspective — everything from product design to customer experience and all other touchpoints. After all, since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, how we interact with everyone in our personal and professional lives has changed. Very quickly, we adapted to the new ways in which we communicate. And, we’ve set the bar high. We no longer silo our expectations; we expect the same, seamless experience across the board.

The rules of engagement are changing, which provides new opportunities for brands (particularly those that would describe themselves as B2B) to engage a wider audience and, ultimately transform their business. And for communicators, the purpose of everything we do is no longer hidden. We’ve brought it into the light where it belongs. Our purpose is humankind — understanding and meeting their needs, speaking their language, and anticipating what’s next for them, and for us. 

Pattie WhiteAbout the Author: Pattie is a  strategy, PR and communications specialist. She has 20+ years of experience working primarily with global B2B brands in materials, life science, infrastructure and other vital industries. A storyteller at heart, she applies her background as a business reporter and technical editor to ensure her clients’ communications resonate and are relevant. You can find her here on LinkedIn.