Why We Need a New Formula for Creativity in B-to-B Advertising

Most ads are failing the likeability test, according to new research shared exclusively with Adweek

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B-to-b creative tends to follow a set formula: product features + disembodied voice-over + generic visuals.

You know what we’re talking about—stock images of professionals in gray suits sitting around a conference room table shaking hands. Text that describes your product in excruciating, quantitative detail. 111% ROI, 33% faster speeds, 77% reduction in costs. Generic attributes that could apply to any brand—“innovative,” “reliable.” And don’t forget the voice actor with the soothing baritone. And then, at the absolute last second, the big branding reveal.

The problem is that this formula for b-to-b creative does not work. And we know it doesn’t work because we’ve looked at the evidence.

At the B2B Institute, we recently partnered with System1, a global marketing research and effectiveness company, to measure more than 2,500 b-to-b ads from 2020 to 2022. We tested for ad likeability—and brand growth potential—using System1’s “five-star scale.” One star means the ad is unlikeable and unmemorable, while five stars means the ad is likeable and memorable. The more likeable the ad, the better chance it has of getting noticed and being remembered. More importantly, ad likeability is a useful predictor of sales growth.

Since 95% of b-to-b buyers are not currently in the market for your products and services, the primary job of b-to-b creative isn’t to generate an immediate sale (though some buyers will see the ad and purchase the product). Rather, the primary job of b-to-b creative is to build memories of the brand that make future purchases more likely.

So, how does b-to-b creative score on likeability?

More than two-thirds of b-to-b creative scored one star. In other words, those ads were forgettable. System1 recommends three stars as the minimum for an effective ad; fewer than 1 in 10 b-to-b ads pass the three-star standard. B-to-b substantially underperforms business-to-consumer ads on these metrics, and the gap has doubled since 2020.

System1 also tests for brand recognition using its “brand fluency” metric. Fluency is measured by determining what percentage of buyers can name the brand after watching the ad. For creative to work, the ad doesn’t just need to be likeable—it also needs to ensure that the right brand is remembered, and not a competitor’s brand.

So, how does b-to-b score on branding?

According to our research with System1, on average, b-to-b brand recognition is 76%. That means 24% of buyers cannot correctly identify the brand in the ad. And keep in mind this is a “forced exposure.” In the real world, where professionals are free to scroll by online or stroll by offline, actual brand recognition is almost certainly lower. According to our research, b-to-b lags b-to-c, where average brand recognition is 83%.

To be sure, b-to-b branding does seem to be getting better, with average fluency increasing from 71% to 76% over the past three years of the study. But even with those improvements, marketers could still benefit from better branding.

A new formula: ABLE

Our research and analysis paint a bleak picture of b-to-b marketing effectiveness. It also makes clear that better creative may be the single biggest opportunity in b-to-b.

Creativity is essential to getting ads noticed and remembered, but fewer than 10% of b-to-b ads are likeable enough to get noticed in the first place. And a significant percentage of those ads are not well branded enough to get linked back to the right brand. That means the total percentage of b-to-b creative that achieves both cut-through and attribution is likely in the single digits.

We need to abandon this formula and move to a new model.

To imagine what that new model could look like, we can start by analyzing how Disney makes movies. Disney studies the best-performing creative, identifies a formula and applies that formula year after year to generate consistent results: 90% of Disney’s movies are sequels or remakes; 90% include superpowered protagonists; and 50% come from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

B-to-b marketers should embrace the same ethos. Instead of getting depressed by the average scores, we need to be inspired by the best scores and replicate that formula.

The following ads can teach us what great b-to-b creativity looks like:

  • This Adobe ad scored 5.3 stars and achieved 78 on brand fluency due to great music, a heartwarming story and the consistent use of strong brand assets.

  • This Simply Business ad scored 3.2 stars and achieved 87 on brand fluency due to a clever script, colorful characters and excellent visual and verbal branding.

Simply Business
  • This Intuit ad scored 3.1 stars and achieved 77 on brand fluency due to a customer-centric story, creative polish and strong—albeit late—branding.


These creatives follow a formula that looks like this: Attention × Branding × Linkage = Equity. We call this the “ABLE” formula. Without this success formula, you will be un-ABLE to make money from your creative (hopefully we can all agree that joke is five-star creative!) The formula won’t guarantee success—even Disney has the occasional flop—but we believe that it can substantially improve your odds.

First, b-to-b creative needs to get attention. The brand that’s remembered is the brand that’s bought. And you cannot possibly remember something that you never paid attention to in the first place. This is why “17% faster processing speeds” rarely works as a message. Features are boring to most buyers, and boring is bad. The job of creative is to entertain, not to educate. Make b-to-b buyers laugh or cry: That means you need catchy music, like the country soundtrack in the Adobe ad. That means you need relatable characters, like the British small-business owners in the Simply Business ad. That means you need unique imagery, like the gigantic tax inspector chickens in the Intuit ad. To capture attention, you need to stand out, not blend in.

Second, b-to-b creative needs prominent branding. You want your brand to get remembered, not your competitor’s brand. Marketers act like magicians—waiting until the last two seconds to “reveal” the brand. But 99% of buyers have stopped paying attention by that time. Instead, you need to brand early, consistently and creatively. The Adobe ad has “Adobe” on the opening frame, and almost every other frame. The Simply Business spot similarly displays the brand name within the first two seconds. The Intuit ad is a bit underbranded, but pairing the attention-grabbing storyline with more heavy-handed branding would make that creative a box office hit.

Third, b-to-b creative needs category linkage. You want the right brand to be remembered in the right buying situations, so you should feature those situations in your creative. Too often, b-to-b creative is about the product, not about why, when or where people use those products. “When you’re having trouble keeping track of invoices and feeling totally overwhelmed, think of Quickbooks”—that’s the key message of the Intuit ad, and it’s delivered in a memorable way. The Simply Business and Adobe ads also link the brand to relevant situations. That’s better than linking to a fluffy brand attribute (“innovation”) or a rational product feature (“speeds”).

B-to-b marketers should think like Disney and stick to what works. Though some might think b-to-b is all about technology and targeting, our research suggests that creativity is where you can find the biggest competitive edge. Creative confidence is growing in b-to-b, as are top-of-funnel brand investments, and the establishment of a Creative B2B Lions last year will help draw top talent to b-to-b. B-to-b is not a niche—it’s a gold mine, representing more than 50% of the economy

Because rhymes are more likely to be remembered, we’ll leave you with the following advice: B-to-b marketers, if you want a seat at the table, your creative must be ABLE.

This story is part of Adweek’s Creativity x Culture digital features package, which spotlights the people, marketing strategies and creativity driving lasting cultural and societal change.