2021 is the year of the CMO

2021 is the year of the CMO

Blackwood would see 2021 as the year of the CMO; it is the most rapidly changing function in the consumer space.  Marketing searches are keeping the team busy from a hiring perspective, and this is a trend which is set to continue as we look towards the rest of 2021 and beyond.  Now more than ever, clients need to create lasting and meaningful relationships with their consumers and thus need the right marketing brains in place.

‘The modern CMO’ is a term often used by clients who are looking to make a hire, but what does the modern CMO look like? We are living in the age of digital transformation, a process which has only been intensified by recent global events.  The demise of bricks and mortar retail has been well documented, leaving behind a vacuum which is being rapidly filled with digital ways to spend, whether that’s via e-commerce, online marketplaces, or social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and now even TikTok.  Consumers are being driven online, opening up rapidly evolving ways for businesses and brands to reach them.

Never before has a consumer had more choice when it comes to spending money.  Brands which pursue an inherently agile and consumer-focussed strategy will have the greatest longevity.  This will involve building a strong relationship with the consumer via communication and interaction on every step of the consumer journey.  The old ‘black book’ school of marketing, one which is inherently PR and Communications-focussed, is fast becoming obsolete and is being replaced by the need for a digital-first skillset.  CMOs must adapt and reinvent themselves, and they must do this quickly. 

The tendency to view marketing as a woolly, nebulous function rooted more in art than science is fairly outdated, but the last few years of digital innovation have turned this belief on its head.  Brands are connecting with their consumers online, and online tools facilitating this connection have led to a flood of data.  There are now more ways than ever for brands to learn about their consumers and their tastes and spending habits.  Brands can now build an intricate and intimate understanding of their consumer and, crucially, this allows them to learn how best to service their consumer’s needs and preferences in real time – the ultimate goal and the primary way of achieving lasting growth.

Marketing has evolved in response to this.  There has been a focus on performance marketing, a data-driven approach to connecting with consumers, and a concentration on bottom-of-the funnel marketing techniques.  Planning around the customer journey is becoming increasingly technical and is innovating rapidly, and CMOs are having to acquire a fast-evolving digital skillset to keep up.  But does this go far enough? Data has become so democratic that in order to derive any value from it, CMOs need to work out how best to use it to create a unified, powerful brand message, cutting through the noise and creating a lasting connection with the consumer.  It is not enough simply to be reactive – bringing the brand to the consumer – a CMO needs to be proactive, harnessing data insights and technology to influence consumer behaviour and bring the consumer to the brand.

The route is changing in accordance with the changing nature of channels in the market, but ultimately the origin and destination remains the same.  As CMO of Cignpost Diagnostics Abigail Comber puts it, “the whites of the eyes of the consumer must always be visible”.  Prioritising performance marketing and data can often lend itself to navel gazing and result in an introspective, and ultimately reductive marketing strategy focussed less on longer term brand building. 

Long term value creation is not merely derived from product, it is derived from every stage of the consumer journey.  Consumers want more from their brands, prioritising experiences which you cannot get online.  Global events and macro trends have placed a spotlight upon topics such as the environment, and political and social issues.  Consumer behaviour has changed in accordance with this, with consumers demanding more from companies than simply a suitable product.  They want to buy into a lifestyle, a community, or a purpose; the brand is ultimately more important than the product.  Companies such as Birkenstock, Gymshark and Dr Martens have received sizeable valuations by subscribing to this notion, focussing on the entire experience, and helping consumers to feel like they are valued members of a community.  In this way, CMOs must therefore also look up the funnel.  There is something to be said for those top-of-the-funnel magic moments which serve to forge meaningful and lasting consumer relationships.

Agility is the buzzword of 2021, according to Mediabrands Global Chief Consultancy Officer Hamish Kinniburgh. To be truly consumer obsessed, brands need to figure out how to move at the speed of the consumer and take a coordinated approach across the journey. The mass broadcast system cannot do that and is no longer sufficient. To achieve a joined-up consumer experience requires the brand to have a coordinated approach across each of marketing, product, and sales.  Value creation will only be achieved if a marketing strategy has a clear view to growing ROI; the basic definition of marketing is to fulfil customer needs profitably.  To foster coordination, many companies are placing more emphasis on the role of the Chief Customer Officer, whose remit is to provide a holistic approach to all methods of consumer contact, and also the Chief Growth Officer, whose role spans marketing, product, sales, and finance.  Often, both the CGO and the CCO are granted P&L ownership, giving them a voice when it comes to pricing and product, and rendering them commercially accountable.

P&L accountability may inhibit creativity; the CMO is responsible for creating exceptional brand experience, and Hunter’s CMO Claudia Plant recognises that the tension between commerciality and creativity can pose a challenge for brands.  One school of thought is that brands should be a source of inspiration, and exist to “entertain, immerse, and inspire”.  A priority for the modern CMO should be “to create value for a brand which goes way beyond its product”.  Creating long-term value for a brand which overrides its product can sometimes be at odds with the daily commercial realities of a business, and therein lies the fundamental challenge. 

Lysa Hardy is currently the CMO of Hotel Chocolat, and is responsible for all sales channels including e-commerce, retail, and wholesale, in addition to her broader brand-led and creative remit.  Lysa believes that this breadth has been crucial in allowing her to drive faster growth.  The “fundamentals of marketing have not changed, but the pace of marketing, the breadth, the channels, the knowledge available to consumers, have proliferated hugely” and “marketing needs to be empowered in order to respond to these changes in a commercial manner and capitalise on these opportunities.”  Does the title of CMO bely the breadth of the role, or rather, is it the case that the perception of marketing is such that it does not acknowledge that modern CMOs are doing more than they did in the past? As Yale Varty, the former CMO of Hostelworld points out, it is a fairly antiquated view that the CMO does not have accountability for P&L management.  Hardy wonders whether marketers need to do a better job of marketing what the CMO contributes to business.

There is a scientific component to marketing in addition to creativity, and the most effective CMOs are those who can stretch across both.  The modern CMO is likely to look like an individual with an equal blend of left and right brain, someone with the ability to generate ideas via the manipulation of data.  In the modern world, businesses need to be truly consumer-obsessed in order to achieve lasting commercial growth, and their CMO is fundamentally the voice of the consumer.  The debate of what to call the modern CMO will likely continue, but the most successful marketer is one who puts the consumer at the forefront of strategy.