In her introduction to ‘Marketing Unbound’, Charlotte Howard, event chair and consumer goods and marketing correspondent for The Economist, told the hundred-plus mostly senior executive attendees:

“Now more than ever, marketing is about creating relevance for a brand in every customer interaction. It’s about connecting with and serving the customer in ways that foster lasting relationships, that feeds the company’s intelligence, and in turn, makes it even more relevant to the customer.

But marketers face real challenges. They must navigate a changing, complex supply chain. They must choose among hundreds of firms eager to partner, then find ways to ensure their marketing dollars are well spent. They must combine new technological tools with old-fashioned creativity to interact with consumers meaningfully.”

This one-day conference didn’t waste a minute as polished presenters from leading brands and emerging technologies raced across topics from ‘Smashing Silos,’ to ‘Talent Recruiting’ to ‘Challenger brands turn the tables,’ plus intriguing ‘Tech Interludes’, networking breaks and an interactive strategy session.

Let’s review some highlights from the presenters’ point of view in this cornucopia of insight.

Smashing Silos – Marketing in the Middle

Laura Beaudin, Partner, Bain & Company
The good news is that marketing has finally earned a seat at the table in the C-suite and in strategic discussions about the future of the brand. The difficulty is that it actually means that marketing must operate quite differently due to the speed with which decisions must be made and the need for close collaboration with other parts of the organization, whether B2C or B2B, to put the customer at the heart of it.

Many marketing departments are reorganizing not around channels but around the customer. That’s pretty disruptive but also beneficial; our research shows that increasing the speed of decision-making, largely due to the availability of real-time data input, can have tremendous benefits to increasing market share and sales and reducing costs. The real catalyst to change is thinking about the consumer over the course of their lifetime.

Michael Fanuele, Chief creative officer, General Mills
It’s tough being a big food company these days. We understood the need to get more precise in our use of data and yet have a desire to respect and honor the long-standing relationships people have with our brands. What became really important for our marketing group was grounding the company around purpose. It seems that in this time of cultural trauma about food we had forgotten what we’re about so we wrote a new statement of corporate purpose, a very simple notion – ‘We want to make food that the world will love.’

That simple rubric has become a useful tool for people in any silo or division to use in decision-making, in finance, law, marketing, about how to make food people will love. It’s quaint but really powerful. We take our message seriously and want to measure the love people have for our brand. I think we’re taking lessons from the world of politics in measuring brand dynamism; is the brand heading in the right direction or is it stuck, has become an important metric.

Phil Schwarz, Chief marketing officer, Tinder
We’re a digital product, a little over three years-old and have the advantage of feedback literally instantaneously. It allows us to get products to market quickly and to regionalize products easily. We still have to prioritize our resources but we are able to put something in the market and immediately know if it is working or not, and why.

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As to smashing silos, the organization must be prepared to focus on the same metrics to understand what success means, be ready to pull the trigger incredibly quickly, roll into a test market and make a decision about whether to scale it globally a day later. You can’t scramble to do that. You have to be prepped and ready with the right analytics in place. This approach necessitates marketing’s engagement across the organization.

Savvy, Is the Audience Always Right?

Jody L. Bilney, Senior vice president and chief consumer officer, Humana
Humana [insurance] is at the forefront of a transition to the ‘retailization’ of healthcare. Before we were siloed and intercepted consumers to talk about what we wanted to talk about very much on our terms rather than in terms the consumer understands.

We’re in the process of fundamentally shifting and re-architecting the consumer experience to present ourselves with the proper understanding of people’s circumstances, what might happen next and how we can help. How we as individuals track and engage with our health is fundamentally changing and we are working very hard to master that.

Connie Weaver, Executive vice president and chief marketing officer, TIAA
Two weeks ago we took a bold step, changed our name and our game, which is all about the customer, about delivering a different experience that meets the customer wherever they are in the five generations that we serve simultaneously. It’s the first time in a long time that children, Millennials in particular, like their parents and grandparents and they’re talking together. It’s important because health and wealth create some of the greatest stresses.

RELATED: Warning: Those Millennials Are Bright, Shiny Objects

When you say ‘retirement’ to Gen X or Y, they’re not thinking about it the same way. They don’t trust institutions; they’ve watched their parents go up and down financially like yo-yos. They’re looking at their grandparents, who are living off the old lifetime income pension plan and wondering about that and whether social security will be there for them.

When you think about how they think and, importantly, how they feel, and their state of mind as they make life decisions, they’re changing habits like no generation before. When you blend the five generations together, and step back as a financial services company, you have to reimagine how to reach each and every one of those individuals in a relevant way to engage.

Joseph Coughlin, Director Massachusetts Institute of Technology AgeLab
Some observations: The consumer, of any age, is what I call Gen ‘EX’- Generation Expectation. They expect to live longer and better at any age. They don’t want products that you push; they want a solution to a problem.

Second, the technology divide is over. Sure, 75 year-olds can’t build a computer, but there better be an app for that. We’ve socialized the customer. Third, your competition is not your competition. The consumer today is totally shock-proof. They’re comparing their experience with your brand with every other experience in every other domain.

The bad news is, your consumer is older, they’re tech savvy, and reach across the generations. Your job to excite and delight them just got a lot harder because they’ve seen it all and they’ve got attitude.

“Challenger brands turn the tables: tech as a gateway to lasting connections.”

Moderator Charlotte Howard, consumer goods and marketing correspondent, The Economist.
This might be the age of the challenger brand. It’s much easier for young brands to come in, tell a compelling story and win a devoted following. The bar to entry in many industries has been lowered; take the snack business where we see a new entry nearly every week. Let’s discuss, how a young brand can differentiate and get its’ message out. And, as a bigger company how do you maintain that authentic relationship with consumers?

Amanda Brinkman, chief brand and communication officer, Deluxe
We’re a one hundred year-old company and the largest check printer in the USA. Since 1915 we have worked with small businesses to help them succeed. We realized they were struggling with marketing so we’ve begun to build up those services and now offer a full suite of marketing services.

In our hundredth year, 2015, we wanted to do something disruptive to firmly establish Deluxe in the small business space. We don’t typically invest much in brand awareness and we’re out-spent by competitors like Go Daddy, Constant Contact, and Vistaprint, so we invested our entire marketing budget in creating rich content in the hope that we could produce something meaningful that people would spend time with and that would stretch our budget.

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We developed “The Small Business Revolution,” and rolled out a documentary series of lightly branded films and photo essays that tell the stories of small businesses across the country. We felt that we could own this space as champion entrepreneurs because no one else had taken the time to do so. The response has been phenomenal. People have really followed this movement.

By creating a link between small business and Deluxe we’ve elevated the conversation around the importance of small business in this country and achieved our marketing goals along the way but with a purpose and mission that has benefitted people.

Greg Fisher, Vice President, Head of Global Brand Marketing, PayPal
We’re almost 20 years-old but when you look at how people manage their money, we’re at the cusp of a payment revolution. We doubled down on putting people at the center of everything we do and say — a fundamental shift over the last year. Whether you’re talking to product developers, customer service, or marketing, we’re carefully thinking about who we’re talking to, what they want (whether they’re merchants or consumers), and insuring that they get what they want. Across the board, we’ve been thinking about people in a much more genuine way.

We’ve framing PayPal as a consumer challenger brand. Our new campaign, which launched at the Super Bowl, puts people at the center in a bold way the category has never seen before. A lot has to do with mapping the customer journey, from the first touch through acquisition. Customers engage with us all the time, positive and negative, especially in the payment space where there is so much opportunity to acquire merchants and bring on new customers by offering a great experience. We’ve re-imagined how we engage in the social space, and brought on more customer service reps who are actively looking in social for problems by reaching out and addressing them.

Jamie Perry, vice president, brand and product development, Jet Blue
Airlines is a long established industry with lots of consolidation over recent decades. Jet Blue is now the fifth largest airline in the USA; there’s only about six and the top four have 80% of the market so we’re still a small player.

In the eyes of customers, we’re a commodity business. You want to get from point A to B, you’re looking for the best price, and it’s not going to be a wonderful experience, so you grin and bear it for three hours until you reach your destination. In that commodity space you have two large clusters – the big guys, who offer reach (fly you anywhere) but look the same, and discounters like Spirit and Frontier, who compete purely on price.

We at Jet blue believe there is a space between those two models for an airline that focuses on regular folks who fly a reasonable amount and are prepared to pay a bit more for a nicer experience. On the outset (2000) that was relatively easy, as the flying experience had reached a nadir. Offering free TV and a whole can of soda was a way to differentiate. Over the years, airlines have realized that by offering a little back, even though they’re charging for small perks, can win customers. What we offered in the early days is no longer enough so we have to continue to find things that matter to customers and innovate to stay ahead of the competition.

If you looked at ads from the major airlines, they all look the same (photos of planes or destinations) and talk about rational product drivers (most departures, lie-flat seats); if you look at the discounters all they talk about is price. They don’t mention people at all; there’s no loyalty that comes from ‘cheap.’ We put our customers and crew members at the center of everything we say. For example, when you see someone wearing a Jet Blue uniform in an ad, it’s always one of our people; when you see a customer, they’re real not an actor.

Image: Gioia Fabbri