Qualitative perspectives about business to business marketing

Qualitative Market Research

ISSN: 1352-2752

Article publication date: 13 June 2008



Williams, P. (2008), "Qualitative perspectives about business to business marketing", Qualitative Market Research, Vol. 11 No. 3. https://doi.org/10.1108/qmr.2008.21611caf.001



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Qualitative perspectives about business to business marketing

Article Type: Practitioner perspectives From: Qualitative Market Research: An International Journal, Volume 11, Issue 3

Marketing in the Business to Business (B2B) sector receives comparatively little attention from academics. Recent presentations at the B2B Marketing Masterclass at Leicester Business School, De Montfort University in the UK explored the relationship between academics active in the B2B sector and practitioners seeking to apply marketing concepts in business organisations. With larger organisations seeking to reduce their supplier base and the growing importance of key accounts and strategic customer management, practitioners can benefit from involvement with academics researching these key areas. However, academics need to ensure that their research becomes accessible to both in-company marketers and marketing consultants.

The evidence from recent research (Rudolph and Williams, 2007) indicates that B2B marketing remains “both ubiquitous and unloved” (Brennan, 2000). Few courses in higher education (HE) institutions offer their students modules which are specifically focused on business markets and the particular requirements of the sector. This, despite the high proportion of marketing jobs which require substantial interaction with the business community, whether concerned with the supply of business industrially or with specific products and services or marketing of consumer goods to intermediaries for resale.

The reality is that relatively few products are sold direct to the consumer by the manufacturer. Most reach the consumer having first been marketed to business customers either as semi-processed materials, as components or in multiple quantities of finished goods for individual onward sale. Creating an appropriate value proposal to a large retailer is a somewhat different proposition to marketing a fast moving consumer product to consumers. While the principles of brand value and need-satisfaction are consistent, specific issues of, say, negotiation of terms of supply assurance and promotional activity may be quite distinct. In particular, the roles of sales team and key account management require particular understanding.

Practitioners have long recognised these distinctives and frequently specialise in either consumer or B2B marketing or, create specialist teams within full spectrum organisations. The opportunities for HE institutions to provide more extensive specialist B2B marketing input for their students has been recognised by the development of the Academy of Marketing B2B Marketing Special Interest Group (SIG). This group seeks to encourage academics to develop research and teaching that focuses on this important area and to recognise that future graduates are ever more likely to be employed in marketing within the business and organisational sectors.

In recognition of this, a “B2B Marketing Masterclass”, was organised during December 2007 by Professor Len Tiu Wright and her team at Leicester Business School in conjunction with the Academy of Marketing B2B Marketing SIG and supported by Emerald and the Global Marketing Network. This allowed academics and practitioners to interact and explore areas of mutual interest and potential collaboration. Campbell Keegan Ltd and Pearson Publishing also provided input. The major part of the Masterclass consisted of four presentations by renowned academics and practitioners, Professors Malcolm McDonald of Cranfield University and Nigel Piercy of Warwick Business School and marketing consultants Paul Parmenter and Richard Alsopp.

The presentations focussed on three main concepts: the creation of customer value, strategic customer management, the importance of academics providing accessible practical knowledge to practitioners.

Professor McDonald emphasised the continuing trend in larger organisations to reduce their supplier base leading to their emphasis on retaining suppliers who could offer the greatest value as partners. However, this meant that suppliers needed to measure profitability by customer and project contribution through the measurement of the creation of value to ensure that overall profitability was not put at risk. While key accounts are important, often mid-range customers made an important profit contribution and therefore maintaining an appropriate customer portfolio became paramount. Marketers needed to be able to measure their contribution and therefore the establishment of valid metrics had become increasingly important. Based on research at Cranfield, he developed the theme of the importance of identifying and actively managing the real elements of the internal value chain within the manufacturing and supply organisation.

“Is sales the new marketing?” was the question posed by Professor Piercy. He suggested that the sales process and effective management of the sales function had returned to the boardroom agenda. He discussed the development of the concept of “Strategic Customer Management” through the selection of customers for whom the supplier can genuinely create value as an area of renewed focus. He went on to show how, in the B2B sector especially, the sales function can drive the customer orientated supplier to seek growth by creating interaction between numerous functional areas across business boundaries. Professor Piercy also suggested that there was a lack of research being undertaken into the strategic role of the sales function.

Taking a practitioner perspective, the presentation by Paul Parmenter discussed the similarities and differences between consumer and B2B marketing. While suggesting that many of the strategic elements are the same, factors such as the complexity of both business products themselves and the organisational purchasing process, the application of the communications mix with its emphasis on the role of personal selling and the influence of multiple customer relationships meant that B2B practitioners required a somewhat different skill set than those focusing primarily on consumers. He observed that B2B marketing was often regarded as the poor relation by academics, students and practitioners, despite the massive requirement for effective marketing in the business world.

In considering the question of how practitioners – both those working within organisations and as consultants – can learn from academics (and vice versa) Mr Parmenter, citing his own experience, suggested that it was difficult for practitioners, to benefit from the work undertaken by academic researchers and theorists since the sheer need for survival, competitive pressure and day-to-day time constraints often inhibit access to what are perceived as “academic” publications. He indicated that while academic books were of limited attraction, academics writing with a more applied focus – the “how to translate new theory into improved marketing techniques in real life” orientation – could offer practitioners meaningful guidance through a variety of attractive formats if academics would think creatively. He suggested that articles in practitioner magazines, the use of blogs, web sites and white papers could prove valuable. While academic resources may be rarely called upon by smaller organisations, the opportunities for building relationships and networking for both practitioners and academics through events such as the Masterclass had real potential for the transfer of knowledge. He suggested that the formation of on-going partnerships across the practitioner-academic divide offered real benefits to both parties.

In his presentation, Richard Allsop, a main board trustee of the Chartered Institute of Marketing, who has been working mainly with SMEs, stated that in his experience, few such organisations employed specialist “marketers” but that their need to understand their markets and how to reach their target segments effectively was no less than for larger businesses. With many SMEs serving the business sector, their need for practical knowledge was great and, while often served through the use of consultants, many would welcome input from academics, whether through direct involvement or through the availability of “accessible” knowledge. Therefore, taking marketing concepts and packaging them into a usable form could offer mutual benefit for practitioners and academics, with the potential for partnerships to be developed. Making events such as the Masterclass available at a local level should be considered.

B2B marketing differs from consumer marketing in areas such as the importance of personal selling and key account management, the complexity of multiple relationships between suppliers and customers, differing marketing communication methodologies, the roles of product specification, buying systems and the role of branding. The importance of the development of the B2B marketing skills set by academics in conjunction with marketing practitioners cannot be overstated as competitive pressures grow and economic instability increases. It is to be hoped that further opportunities will be taken to ensure that this specialist area of marketing will receive the attention that it deserves by both academics and practitioners.

The subsequent discussion ranged over some of the practical issues, such as the means of providing appropriate knowledge through to how academics can develop meaningful contact with practitioners and businesses with several examples of how some universities are successfully achieving this. Having to bring this session to a close while the debate remained extremely buoyant suggested that the both academics and practitioners find their relationship both important and stimulating.

Peter WilliamsLeeds Business School, Leeds Metropolitan University, Leeds, UK andAcademy of Marketing Business to Business Special Interest Group, UK

About the author

Peter Williams, CEng; Chartered Marketer; MBA is a Senior Lecturer in marketing at Leeds Business School, Leeds Metropolitan University. He is a member of the Academy of Marketing and Chair of the Business to Business Marketing Special Interest Group. His research interests include marketing in the engineering industry, customer service and the influence of religious faith on marketing practice. Peter Williams can be contacted at: p.williams@leedsmet.ac.uk


Brennan, R. (2000), “Wither business-to-business marketing education”, Proceedings of the Academy of Marketing Conference, Cardiff University, Cardiff, 1-4 July (CD-Rom)

Rudolph, P. and Williams, P. (2007), “Some reflections on the business-to-business marketing education in the UK”, Proceedings of the Academy of Marketing Conference, Kingston University, London, July (CD-Rom)

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