B2B Marketing in Technical Industries: A Q&A with Steve Johnson

As the fields of life science and healthcare converge, understanding industries and target audiences is more crucial than ever for B2B marketing. We sat down with Steve Johnson, Managing Partner at CG Life, to discuss the changing industry landscape—and how B2B marketing is different in life science and healthcare.

Can you tell us a little about your background in marketing?

My degree is actually in Public Relations.

Right out of school I joined an integrated marketing communications firm here in Chicago, a B2B firm that did very similar work to what we’re doing here at CG Life, minus our focus on the life science and healthcare industries.

Even though my education was in PR, I was working at a fully integrated firm, so I had the unique opportunity to learn how various marketing approaches work together under a unifying strategy to influence target audiences and drive outcomes for clients.

I think B2B is very, very different from the consumer marketplace. Not better or worse, just different. Although you’re still reaching people, the messaging strategies for enterprise products and services require a strong understanding of the decision-making process used in different kinds of businesses.

I did that for almost 20 years before coming to CG Life, where I’ve now been building brands and creating lead generation programs for nearly 10 years. What we do is conceptually simple, even if marketers often try to make it complicated or if it isn’t always easy to execute. Our job is to understand specific target audiences, the specific value our clients’ offerings bring to that target audience’s day-to-day life, and then to communicate that in a way that’s compelling and meaningful to them.

Except for a couple of years, my whole background has been in B2B. Personally, I find it more challenging, more complex. When you’re talking B2B you have to take into consideration so many factors—there are brand factors that exist in B2C, but also an examination of buying groups and decision-making processes. There may be a distributor network that’s thrown into that whole mix.

After that we get very in the weeds and things can get more technical, but on a fundamental level I’ve been doing this for almost 30 years. I guess I’ve learned a thing or two along the way.

How did you find your way to CG Life?

I met Jeff and Murad at the agency where I worked previously. I’ve known Jeff for 25 years and Murad for 20. I’ve always really respected their passion, their approach to marketing, and the culture they created here at CG Life.

When they came calling 10 years ago looking for someone to help them build the business, I was excited to join this dream. One of the most exciting things about this business for me is our focus on life science and healthcare. Even if we aren’t personally solving the world’s problems, the work we do nudges our clients and their science or medicine forward one step at a time, helping them communicate to their customers and grow as businesses. In that work, we’re helping them to make a difference. That feels good.

Now that you’re here, what’s your role at CG Life?

As soon as I find out, I’ll let you know!

I’m joking, but because we’re a dynamic agency my role changes day to day and is always evolving. In general, my role here is to help provide guidance to the organization and our clients wherever and whenever I possibly can. In some cases that gets very tactical—I might be working with a client on brand development or doing research to help them better understand customer needs.

At a broader level, I work with the agency to make sure we have the right resources in place, that the business is vibrant and healthy, and that we’re running the organization to provide our clients with the best possible service.

You’ve commented a little bit about the differences in B2B and B2C. How do you think marketing itself is different in B2B in healthcare and life science compared to other B2B spaces?

At some levels, it’s not that different. Marketing is marketing is marketing. It all comes down to understanding your audience, clarifying your point of differentiation, and communicating with your target audience. From that level I don’t think there’s a whole lot of difference.

But, when you look at specific marketplaces, you start to see some of the nuances. Of course, you have to work within regulations in some cases. But mostly, when you look at healthcare or genomics or biotech or whatever category, you start to see differences unique to the kind of audience you’re speaking to. In that, you can find points of differentiation and ways to engage and relate to your audiences.

The folks we’re talking to have different needs from a retail company stocking up on Diet Coke. Clinicians and scientists have different needs than a business that builds engines for trucks. Scientific and clinical audiences tend to be very analytical, very critical, and very educated—mostly on the PhD level. They’re literally trained to question everything, so marketing has to be adjusted around that continuum.

Having that kind of critical audience means that we have to sometimes communicate a little bit differently. As marketers, we need to have a strong understanding of the technology and its benefits – not just its features. Feature-based marketing has plagued B2B forever. The better we understand the technology, the more effectively we are going to be able to talk about how our audience can receive value from our message, our efforts, and our clients’ products.

How do you personally stay up to date on the latest developments in science and in marketing?

I’m lucky that a lot of what I do is conduct 1:1 interviews and qualitative research for our clients. By talking directly to people in the industry, you get a great sense of the marketplace and the trends that are happening, both from a business standpoint and from the personal perspective of people in specific markets.

I think that’s the best way to get information—from the people in the market itself. When you want to learn about what is really happening in the clinic or lab, there is no replacement for a simple conversation.

Another way we do that is going to conferences, trade shows, and networking events. We’re out there talking to people all the time. You have to be out there. Walking the show floor and talking to people, you get a great sense for the trends affecting the market and our clients.

What scientific advance are you most excited about right now?

I’m guessing that everyone would answer CRISPR, and I’m going to have to say it, too. Truly, if you think about the implications that technology can have, will have, and is having, there is little doubt about the transformations ahead. Eliminating diseases before they are present. Yes, there are ethical concerns, but there always are with new technologies.

It’s crazy to think about the amazing things that could be coming down the pipe. And, it doesn’t take a lot of science fiction to think it through. Many of our clients work with CRISPR on a day-to-day basis, and there are a lot of amazing things that could happen. The snowball is rolling down the hill, and it’s not going to stop. It’s going to pick up even more momentum as CRISPR and the breakthroughs that it enables influence other technologies and research, and open new doors that no one is even considering.