5 Things From the Horses’ Mouth

CMO’s take on 2017

The Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) role continues to be one of the most talked about, debated and contested positions in modern business. We are fascinated more about the title than the individuals who perform the role and their thinking, vision and capabilities. In the last 2–3 months, the business media reported a series of interviews, announcements and thoughts from CMOs of leading businesses. Below is a rundown of these and what they actually mean from the perspective of brands and broader businesses.

The emerging (and successful) trend of the in-house agency

CMOs of two really distinct organisations have talked about the success they have achieved through their in-house agencies — Kohler (in the business of manufacturing premium plumbing materials / kitchenware / bathroomware) and Intel (in the business of manufacturing technology, which in essence, keeps the world moving). There is a common thread behind the success of the in-house agencies of both organisations. When you have assembled the right set of capabilities, the right skillsets (even by hiring externally) and an innate sense of understanding of how the organisation operates, an in-house agency allows you to operate with far more speed and the process is more streamlined. Is the output questionable and not up to standards or creative benchmarks? There is no evidence of any such thing happening. The “Koohl” toilet campaign was a resounding omnichannel success (out of the many) and the use of drones, successful celebrity endorsements and testimonials has made Q1 2017 the best quarter in Intel’s history.

Having a fresh perspective on innovation

Innovation can be groundbreaking but it doesn’t need to be about spewing out brand extensions out of a production line. Innovation is about extending a brand’s value from being a one-time solution to a holistic one. Its about going beyond selling a product everytime, but also about providing guidance, support and advice even when there is no direct or indirect selling opportunity. It is about doing things with excellence, but doing fewer things with excellence. According to Johnson & Johnson’s CMO Alison Lewis, 80% of the company’s growth comes from innovation, but the focus has always been on fewer but bigger innovation initiatives. It is about bringing dynamic solutions to the categories in which J&J plays in and having the ability to scale at a global level (a factor that frequently contributes to the failure of innovation to have an impact).

Again, her message is around going back to the basics, which is building global brands that have local relevance (anyone who says ‘glocalisation’ is dead as a strategic enabler is joking). Brands that have succeeded in both creating and scaling disruptive innovations, have done so with a single principle in mind — expanding the value proposition of its products and services (and going beyond revenues and profitability as short-term objectives).

Having a clear idea about what your organisation ‘is’ and ‘is not’

Strategic decision-making and charting the future of an organisation requires a very clear understanding of your organisations’ capabilities and how they can be expanded. It also requires a deep acceptance of your organisations’ limitations and also what it doesn’t want to be (or never wants to be). Just like brands have guardrails, it is important that organisations have guardrails too (which can actually stop many from getting into the mess called ‘diversification).

Chinese behemoth Alibaba’s CMO Chris Tung believes in educating consumers and businesses in the Western world about what the brand stands for and what it actually does. This vision essentially points towards growing a brand in a meaningful manner. Modern business does have a tendency to become flowery and mushy about principles that are firm foundations of growing a business. It is not about having some lofty goal that will change the course of humankind on Planet Earth, but about educating consumers about your brand(s) and services.

An important brand performance metric in today’s world is ‘saliency’. Saliency goes beyond awareness. It is about having an educated and considered viewpoint or knowledge about a brand. Alibaba’s CMO wants the organisation to grow on that principle, and has even approached a multi-million dollar Olympics sponsorship deal with that viewpoint.

The consumer was and always remains the ‘king’

Regardless of whether you were capturing and measuring consumer feedback by getting interviewers to stand outside stores or now you do so real-time by monitoring social media conversations, the consumer was and will always remain the king. The mode and channels by which consumers express their needs, satisfactions and dissatisfactions may have evolved and expanded, but we were never the ones that liked to be ‘talked to’. We always want to be ‘heard’ and now we have more channels to share our voices.Successful CMOs (or those who want to be successful) recognise this fundamental truth of marketing and building strong brands.

TripAdvisor CMO Barbara Messing becomes a consumer herself when she plans her trips and uses the same empathy while guiding the future path of the business. Continuous and deep consumer understanding is an etho that she wants the business to embrace, which is grounded in the belief that your consumers are the guiding lights for you to build a successful business. There is no going away from that.

There is a bigger responsibility than building brands

This might sound strange coming from someone who loves working on brands, but there seems to be an obsession of building brands that overpowers a bigger strategic objective. The organisation needs to be built and strengthened continuously. Organisations build brands (and it is not the other way around) and we can park the brand architecture debates on the side for the time being.

A successful CMO needs to have a relentless focus towards driving organisational growth, profitability, sustainability and impact. Many of these aspects are not direct or indirect consequences of selling more units of brands. To be successful on a long term on these objectives requires a broader vision encompassing capabilities, processes, skills, value creation and expertise. In sum, there needs to be a focus on building a business. To take a leaf out of the book, we need to focus our learning minds to how non-brand driven organisations successfully grow and scale (and employ thousands). We need to look at large scale manufacturing and services organisations to understand the principles of building a business (before getting enamoured with the business of building brands).

Hewlett Packard CMO Antonio Lucio believes in exactly the above principle (even though he has a formidable brand to manage and grow).

So what have we learnt in the above five examples? Fundamental principles of business elucidated by individuals who occupy the covered Chief Marketing Officer position. Starting from achieving creative brilliance (minus the hubris), to scaling successful innovation, to educating consumers about brands, and then to putting consumers at the heart of decision-making and finally having a broader strategic goal for the organisation. Are any of these rocket science or new-age marketing humdrum? It seems that more we try to add gloss to fundamentals and nibble at the edges, leaders who are entrusted with doing things embrace fundamentals more.

Would it have made any difference if these same individuals would have talked about the same principles as CEOs or CSOs? Absolutely not. We need to start looking beyond titles and more towards an individual’s capability, vision, intent and discipline in doing something meaningful in the organisations they lead.