Breakthrough Messaging in Complex Categories

Crafting high-involvement stories for high-involvement offerings


Marketing in complex categories often involves some heavy lifting. You’re dealing with high prices, products with long-term impact, high risk, a mix of decision factors, and long decision cycles. What’s more, most complex businesses offer diversified products and services, all of which tend to entail a great deal of onboarding, training, and ongoing care.

It’s natural to assume that marketing in this category requires a lot of detailed sense-making and rational argumentation. But while sense isn’t a bad thing, complexity actually increases the need for emotional impact. When things get complex, people seek safety. And they rely on instinct, rapid access cues, mental shortcuts, and gut feel.

Case in point: Sullivan helped AXA launch a life insurance product that guarantees coverage up to 90 years old, with a playful campaign that showcases the joy of going through life — rather than just the details of a complicated financial product.

Furthermore, while delivering rational value is needed, it is seldom differentiating. Fortune Knowledge Group found that when making crucial decisions, 60-70% of business executives are heavily influenced by “soft” factors such as culture and values, reputation, image, and trust. Google and CEB found that emotional factors can drive a 5X impact in consideration, a 10X impact in purchase likelihood, and a 30X impact in paying a premium for a complex product or a service.

Case in point: Sullivan helped a top financial firm package annuity products for its advisor partners. A product that relies on rational arguments and sensemaking got a boost from messaging that emphasized emotional factors like lifestyle flexibility, reliability, and support.

Finally, personal considerations play an outsized role in decision-making. This is often overlooked in B2B settings, but many times decisions come down to more than just what’s good for the organization. Compared to business drivers, things like career advancement and the potential for personal connections have a 2X impact on commercial outcomes, according to Google.

Case in point: Instead of relying only on top givers, Sullivan energized an up-and-coming donor generation for Duke’s capital campaign, focusing on a future-forward approach and deep personal connections to drive donations. 

It’s clear that buying in complex categories is, in fact, highly personal and emotional. According to Google, buyers of B2B brands such as Cisco, Accenture and SAP, on average, feel more personally and emotionally engaged with these brands than customers of mega brands like Apple, L’Oreal, and Amazon.

Marketers should keep in mind that making a big, emotional splash matters throughout the customer lifecycle. The Google and CEB study showed how emotionally-loaded messages delivered via video significantly raise purchase probability when deployed across several stages, including supplier search and supplier evaluation.

The bottom line? When you’re dealing with a high-involvement offering, ensure you have a high-involvement story and breakthrough messaging to carry it forward. To do this, we think about the four E’s:

  • Evidence added value beyond the price tag
  • Engage emotionally, with positive feelings and associations
  • Establish organizational and personal relationships to inspire commitment
  • Elaborate emotional messaging for different deciders, stages, and channels

This helps us craft meaningful messages across the entire customer journey, providing ongoing engagement and ensuring we maintain these high-value relationships for the long term.