How To Think About Brand and the Role of the CMO — An Interview with Margaret Molloy

The role of the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) has become increasingly complex. The confusion about what marketing is doesn’t help. I caught up with Margaret Molloy, CMO of Siegel + Gale, a top marketing influencer, and a fantastic marketer (trust me, I’ve worked with her!) to distill brand, marketing and the CMO role for startups.

This interview was conducted for Beyond Product, (now Available on Amazon Kindle and B&N Nook). Highlights are below:

What is Marketing? How Do You Characterize the Role of the CMO today?

“Marketing is the act of persuading others to act. Be they consumers or B2B buyers, internal colleagues, media, analysts, influencers, what have you, we are persuading people to act. We deploy storytelling, analytics, and all kinds of machinery around that, but at its core that’s the business we are all in.

It’s a marvelous time to be a marketer today — assuming, of course, you want to be a modern marketer. Successful CMOs are characterized by being strategic business leaders. The channels have evolved. The pace of change has changed. The need to be strategic and understand the market remains constant. The role of the CMO is to have a strategic outlook and appreciate the duality of creativity and analysis in the marketing process.”

What are the Most Important CMO Skills?

“The most fundamental skill a CMO needs is the ability to drive business performance. So, a number of those attributes, creativity, analysis, those skills do not necessarily need to reside in abundance in that one person or the role. But what great CMOs do really well is understand the business context, hire, and inspire the right team members, be they internal colleagues or agency team members, to drive business performance.

I think there’s an under-appreciated skill that some of the best CMOs have and that is the ability to simplify. Great CMOs need to be able to take in many data inputs; they need to have an appetite for change, to be able to synthesize insights, articulate brand purpose that is compelling for their colleagues and others. And at its heart, that’s about understanding a lot of inputs and being able to simplify them for an audience. So great CMOs in my mind are great simplifiers.”

What’s your Most Important Advice for Tech Startups?

“One of the mindset opportunities for startups is to get over this notion of trying to disrupt and actually focus on simplifying. And there’s dimension to that. People are very harried, whether they’re consumers of products or business users, so the ability to simplify for your end user is fundamental.

A number of more traditional companies have a very acquisition-oriented mindset versus usage-oriented mindset. So, they think about marketing as demand generation and building awareness — that marketing’s job ends when the transaction happens. If you’re focused on getting customers to actually use your product as opposed to just buy your product, that has meaningful implications for the kind of content you create, the emphasis on time and budget within your marketing department, in other words you don’t stop when you’ve achieved that all-important customer acquisition target. You actually say, “Are people actually using the product? How do I create content and programs that drive usage as opposed to just that single acquisition strategy?

People who are focused on usage look at things like advocacy, customer referral, what’s being said about their product online in the ratings engines and other places, as opposed to the awards that marketing is winning. It’s a very fundamental mindset shift from being purchase oriented to usage oriented.

There’s a lot of acclaim for brands who have deemed to be disruptors in every sector, but actually, I think people fundamentally as humans don’t want to be disrupted. They actually want their lives to be made simpler. So, if you look at the brands who are doing very well, they are exhibiting behaviors like removing friction in a process or fundamentally making it easier for someone to actually use their product or they’re saving people time or they’re empowering customers or users which is not really disrupting at all, it’s making life simpler for the user.

Shifting that mindset has implications for where marketing begins and ends, it is also implications for the kinds of questions we ask. Are we simplifying our lives for our customers? How can we look at the customer journey at every moment of truth and see are we simplifying that experience? And by asking those questions we’ll get to a very different flavor of marketing, and I think for start-ups actually a better outcome.”

How Should Startups Think About Brand?

“You can decompose brand into a few elements that are vitally important and strategic for a B2B startup:

Name: Being really smart about how you name your company so that the name that you give your company doesn’t box you into a particular category. It’s vitally important to have a name that allows you to pivot and doesn’t require that you backtrack, so the money that you’ve spent in marketing in one phase of the evolution isn’t wasted. So, naming is a really important aspect of branding.

Purpose: Having the ability to articulate a purpose that’s larger than a feature set of a product, that similarly will grow as the scope of the business grows. One of the characteristics of start-ups is the notion of agility and pivoting, and solving bigger problems as we learn more. Therefore, you need to be thoughtful about your company’s purpose for the market. This is a vital asset when hiring the right talent. What can set one start-up apart from the other is their ability to motivate, hire, and retain excellent staff. Having a purpose that’s emotionally compelling, and that’s backed up by great values, that are articulated, that’s time well spent. That’s a strategic asset.

We see it going wrong when companies don’t have well-articulated values carried through into the customer’s experience or the employee’s experience interacting with that company. That’s when then things can fall apart. So, purpose and values are really important aspects of branding.

Experience: If you think of brand today as evolving from merely words and pictures to experiences, then the start-up has to ask, ‘What is the brand experience we want all our constituents to have when interacting with our company?’ If it’s a physical product, what is the unboxing experience? That’s a vitally important brand touch point. If it’s a technology that requires a highly skilled engineers, what’s the employer brand? What’s the experience those engineers will have as they go through the recruiting phase to joining our company?

If you interpret brand as a strategic asset and you go through the various dimensions from what is the brand experience: What are our values? What is our purpose? What is the problem we’re solving in the world? Why do we exist? Why should someone care if we go away next week? What is our name? All of these dimensions make brand a vitally important investment of time and resource. If you really understand the essence of what constitutes brand, then it will be something you invest in.

The irony is, whether you are deliberate about creating a brand or not, an entity has a brand. It is the experience that people have interacting with that entity, so either you manage it as an asset, or leave it to chance. Some savvy CEOs spend a lot of time of managing their tech stack, or managing their financial resources, or managing their board. I would submit the brand requires equal management because left to chance, you are essentially leaving it to others to tell your story.

Want More?

Listen to the full interview with Margaret here:

You can also find Margaret on Twitter.

For more from Margaret and the other 50 startup leaders interviewed for Beyond Product, get your copy at Amazon.com, B&N, or one of your other favorite retailers.