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How chief marketing officers can be the new C-suite MVPs

June 22, 2021, 12:00 AM UTC
The new mission for chief marketing officers "is about synchronizing a business’s operations with its marketing message to positively impact society" while driving revenue, writes Bob Liodice.

During the pandemic, CEOs around the world were suddenly tasked with answering to the concerns of a broader suite of stakeholders. Beyond shareholders and customers, CEOs were challenged to address the needs of suppliers, employees, investors, and, most notably, the general public. The term “stakeholder capitalism” became the buzzword of the year to describe the new goal of synchronizing business operations with the interests and the needs of humanity

In fulfilling this expanded mission, many CEOs found a new “humanity” partner—in their chief marketing officer. 

What made CMOs unique in this journey was their hoard of data and carefully curated insights into each stakeholder group. Combined with years of experience talking on behalf of their brands, CMOs became uniquely equipped to assist executives with addressing the full array of stakeholder concerns. As we now approach a new normal for businesses, CEOs must empower their CMOs to go beyond traditional advertising and, instead, help the entire enterprise create value for its stakeholders.  

This new mission for CMOs is about synchronizing a business’s operations with its marketing message to positively impact society and drive revenue. It is about eliminating the view of marketing as a “business to business” or “business to consumer” concern. Instead CMOs must view it as a calling to find solutions for stakeholders that drive business growth—and thus create “brands for humans.”

Take the example of Marriott. When the pandemic hit, Marriott was coming off its best year ever, with hotels running 80% to 90% occupancy around the world. COVID dropped occupancy rates to 10%. Until then, Marriott’s marketing was focused on securing greater occupancy and adding new services. Now, Marriott is dedicated to understanding the “who.” “Who” are the customers in their hotels, how are they different from pre-COVID customers, and how can Marriott inspire them? This required not just an advertising strategy, but a retooling of its operations to meet the unique human needs of its customers.

Or consider the example of Nike and its Space Hippie shoe line, cited as part of new research done by the Yale School of Management. In recent years, Nike saw that many of its stakeholders were concerned about sustainability. Rather than simply devising a marketing strategy to signal support for environmentalism—aka a “concept car” shoe—the team wanted to integrate sustainability into the core of its operations, by making a shoe entirely out of its own “scrap” waste materials. 

But in order to do so, Nike would have to understand, and solve for, the constraints of all stakeholders. For customers they would have to figure out how to create a shoe from trash that still met the “Swoosh standards”; for suppliers, they would have to solve for how to manufacture at scale, with quality, using trash; for stakeholders, the shoe would need to be profitable. The result was not only the “lowest-carbon shoe ever,” according to the company. In Nike’s 2021 Q1 earnings report, CEO John Donahoe said the Space Hippie was the highest-heat innovation launch in Nike’s history. He credited the shoe for contributing to the brand’s double-digit growth in China. Meanwhile, the low-carbon innovations that came out of the creation of the shoe—from material choices to methods of manufacturing to packaging—are now being leveraged across Nike. 

‘Brands for Humans’

This deep understanding of stakeholder concerns is best found in the marketing department. Yet surveys prior to the pandemic showed that up to 70% of CEOs had diminished confidence in their CMOs to drive growth.  Changing this perception is urgent and critical in this new era of business. CEOs must demand more from marketing, and CMOs must deliver a Brands for Humans strategy. Brands for Humans is a new framework, developed by Association of National Advertisers’ Global CMO Growth Council, that is focused on:

  • Brand purpose
  • Sustainability
  • Diversity, equity and inclusion
  • Brand and consumer safety

This strategic overhaul will also require changes in education. University presidents must reframe the way they teach marketing’s role in business. They must work together with corporations to prepare students for rewarding careers that take a more holistic view of marketing as a tool to influence not just brand perception, but business operations. The goal must be to energize creative thinking and personal leadership that reflects the new era of business operations.

Fortune Media CEO Alan Murray recently summed up the changes taking place in business today. He noted that an analysis of the balance sheets of Fortune 500 companies in the 1970s reveals that around 80% of company value was in physical assets—buildings, equipment, assets, and inventory. The same analysis today reveals that more than 80% of the value is in intangibles, such as intellectual property, brand value, and consumer recognition—all things rooted in people. 

Whether it was brought on by the pandemic or just clarified by it, there has been a fundamental change in the way businesses operate. Collaboration in the C-suite is now required for a company to be a force for good and a force for growth. By connecting the dots between marketing actions and business outcomes, CEOs and CMOs can work together to build a new future for their companies. They can make their brands B4H—or “Brands for Humans.” If they do, society will be better off—and so will their balance sheets.

Bob Liodice is CEO of the Association of National Advertisers.

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