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Beyond Intel Inside: What B2B Marketers Can Learn from BASF

By Drew Letendre

One of the staples of Sunday morning corporate advertising in the 1980s and 1990s was BASF’s long-running series of TV commercials that featured the memorable slogan: “We don’t make a lot of the products you buy. We make a lot of the products you buy better.” Then came variations that included: “We don’t make the dress. We make it brighter. We don’t make the surfboard. We make it lighter.” These commercials introduced a B2B marketer and positioned it as one that played an important, if unspecified, role in enhancing thousands of products.

Somewhere around 2004, this venerable, if vague, campaign was retired and BASF picked up a bold tagline. It became “BASF: The Chemical Company.” This was an important transition for the German company even if it seemed spectacularly ordinary to most TV viewers and brand watchers. Suddenly, BASF was ready to trumpet its place in the B2B world as a maker of dyes, plastics, ammonia and such. Looking back, the old campaign, while soft, was a brilliant way to tee-up “The Claim” and played an important and enduring role for BASF. It also offers an important lesson for other B2B marketers as many contemplate boosting awareness of their brands among end users.

While “Intel Inside” is often cited as the first and best breakout ingredient branding effort, BASF’s simple emotional appeal was perhaps more important in the history of B2B marketing. In fact, it may have been the concept of the ingredient brand in embryo, the seed of the idea that came to bloom most famously in “Intel Inside” in the 1990s.

BASF’s long-running consumer campaign brilliantly articulated the essence of all B2B benefit-delivery: B2B “ingredient” companies don’t make end products or end services or end-user experiences, but they contribute an essential component, catalyst, without which the end product would be less remarkable. Indeed, without the component, the end product might not “be” at all. Intended or not, BASF was an early instigator, awakening the consumer consciousness to the previously invisible world of B2B.

There was however some head scratching when BASF revamped its marketing and adopted “The Chemical Company” claim. But it now seems that BASF had the long view in mind all along. By seeding the market with that positive message and establishing a foundation of general good will first, it made for itself a permission slip to be in the chemicals business, transparently and proudly later on. The soft consumer-focused slogan established the ground on which “The Claim” was not only possible—but, more importantly, powerful. “The Claim” is that BASF is not merely “a” chemical company but The Chemical Company. (In ads today the company says “we create chemistry.”)

BASF’s “coming out” was a bold move — and an important one. Around the time of the change, BASF CEO Jürgen Hambrecht was quoted as saying: “We know the public image of chemicals and chemistry has been deteriorating. Chemicals are essential to life, we know how to work with them, and we have got to fight back.”

To be sure, this was not the CEO making a disinterested public service announcement. The benefit, if any, could easily redound to competitors like Dow and DuPont. Putting aside the holes in his argument — that is, some chemicals are harmful to life — trumpeting that BASF was a chemicals concern, was a bold marketing salvo. What makes it bolder and more interesting is the fact that both Dow and DuPont and others, under pressures from a suspicious and increasingly antagonistic public, have been noticeably distancing themselves from the very language BASF emphatically embraces.

Today its unapologetic ownership of “chemical” makes BASF look like a strong, bold, transparent industry leader. And, let’s watch. This positioning may ultimately make the image of the “chemical” industry — dare I say it? — “better.”