Are CMOs "Leaping Tall Buildings" To Be The Brand?

February 8, 2018 Frank Grillo

The changing role of the CMO: are they asked to leap tall buildings?

We’re navigating a landscape in which the customer is in control. For a brand to succeed, someone needs to take ownership of that customer—and often step in and "be the brand," as well. More often than not, we’re seeing the CMO put into this role. But are they hindered by too many high expectations and too many required skill sets?

A recent article from CNBC caught my attention. I’m in total agreement with its sentiment. The author of the piece points to four major factors that are currently putting exceedingly high expectations on today’s continually changing role for the CMO:

1. Empowered Customers Are Expecting More Engagement from Brands

Customers, fueled by dynamic services, now expect brands to deliver right experience at the appropriate time (meeting them at each stage in their buyer’s journey).

2. Boardroom Pressure to Drive Growth

New technologies within digital, including AI and chatbots, can improve a brand’s relationship with customers. And CMO’s are now held most accountable within the C-suite for this disruptive growth. This leads us to question, is the CMO’s role turning into Chief Data Officer and Chief Experience Officer as well?

3. Techquake

This is the overflow of tech systems, programs, and platforms. CMO’s are expected to master these to create personalized, relevant customer experiences. There’s simply too much data to sort through to get relevant info on customers – and because of this, we’re losing sight of the brand narrative. Which leads us to another question, should the CMO become the enabler of collaboration between digital and brand parties?

4. The Digital First Disrupters

Agility and openness to/ease of experimentation has allowed companies like Slack, Snapchat, et al, to reach billion-dollar valuation in just a few years. All the while they are redefining everything from product design to marketing, sales and servicing.

So, it’s common now, that we’re seeing the demand for some position inside the company–a leadership position–to own driving all of this. “Who are these superheroes?” asks the author.

It’s come into focus, as we look across the landscape, that the CMO continues to be one of the more likely people to attempt leap tall buildings and into that space.

What’s also become prevalent is the differentiation between those who can navigate through this change, and those who can’t.

And much like we’re seeing in retail, those who can’t make the change will be pushed to the side.

Rethink Boundaries to Be the Brand

Ultimately, we’re faced with the question: Do CMO’s need to rethink their boundaries to become organizational orchestrator of all of these capabilities and the facilitator of end-to-end brand transformation?

In a piece I worked on for MarketingJournal.org along with Kimberly Whitler, Kim noted that, “organizational structures within a company can often hinder a brand’s customer-centricity. While authority over company finances is easy to identify in all corporate organization charts, bottom-line authority for pleasing the customer tends to be far flung, fragmented and ambiguous.” What’s required is a Chief Customer Officer—covering duties, that currently fall to the CMO, who was previously focused on managing marketing communications.

There’s a quote I like: “A brand is defined by experience.” What that means is it’s not just what your brand says, but it’s what happens when a customer interacts with your brand. And whether or not that matches with what I expected from the brand. Is the conversation all consistent? Are what you say and what you do matching?

So, we know two things for sure:

  1. The brand is defined by every experience;
  2. And the customer is dictator of this—they are totally in control.

But where does the CMO fit in all of this?

Everything the customer interfaces with, whether it’s a physical product or a retail shopping experience or software, is the definition of your brand. And so, the idea of rethinking the CMO’s boundaries and becoming an organizational orchestrator is right on.

There has to be a come together point inside an organization where somebody owns what that customer experience is and understands that it is what makes up your brand.

If the CMO doesn’t do this, who does? The CEO?

These days, CMO’s are often brought in with the expectation that they’ll drive that change, but they’re not given the mandate or the authority to do it. And, let’s face it, in many cases, some just don’t want to do it. These are marketers who feel more comfortable in the safe-to-live-in world of emails, websites and direct mail rather than owning the entire brand experience and the customer.

The CMO that does take on the brand ownership will not only need the mandate from the CEO, but the personal motivation and skill set necessary to become this “superhero” or “walk on water” CMO (as Kim Whitler calls them). Which you don’t often find, as a lot of CMO’s come from big marcom or product backgrounds. In other words, they’re not necessarily from a background of innovation and change.

So, the CEO may say, “I’m looking for you to do this,” but that doesn’t mean that everyone in the company falls in line and reports to you, the CMO. If you get put into this position, I’ll say it: you have to be a ballbuster. You have to be willing to step way outside of normal bounds. If you try to stay inside the normal CMO box you’re going to fail, because everyone else is going to run over you.

If you choose to not do this as a CMO—to not to accept the responsibility for change—set reasonable expectations. Ultimately, you’ll get frustrated because revenue won’t be where it needs to be. You might survive longer than those CMO’s that accept the mandate, but fail to deliver upon expected results and high expectations. Regardless, the bullseye is upon you. Is it any wonder CMO’s have the shortest lifespan of any executive? 

A Whole New Set of Questions

In looking at the necessary skill sets and high expectations placed upon the position I’m led to ask further long-term questions:

  • Is the CMO position even viable anymore?
  • Does it have to be rethought?
  • Do CEOs become CMOs?
  • If so, do we need more people with marketing backgrounds to become CEOs?

These are the challenges and changes that "disrupting" the role of the CMO have led us to consider. As we move forward, it will be interesting to see who the heroes are that are up to the task of meeting them head on. 

About the Author

Frank Grillo

Frank Grillo, CMO, brings creativity and an emphasis on customer centricity to the Harte Hanks brand. With more than 25 years of sales and marketing experience, Frank has helped many brands expand and transition their marketing strategies through periods of significant change, innovation and disruption in the marketplace. He is laser-focused on two of our clients’ critical needs—defining solutions for digital and data, and raising the Harte Hanks profile with external audiences like media, analysts and investors.

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