Chief marketing officers (CMOs) have, perhaps, the most challenging and complex role in the C-suite.
I’m not saying that other jobs are easy, but for the most part, despite the pressures, other C-suite roles have a consistent job description over time. CMOs, on the other hand, have the added pressure of an ever-expanding, rarely consistent set of responsibilities, along with new skill sets to learn, technologies to navigate, and media channels to fuel. Not to mention, always-increasing demands of brand performance concurrent with the expectation of continuously reduced costs.
A CMO’s undeniable influence
I was inspired by Esther-Mireya Tejeda, Enterprise CMO of Anywhere Real Estate, after hearing her opening keynote presentation at a recent CMO conference. While she addressed the challenges that CMOs face, she also emphasized the one differentiating constant sitting at the center of a CMO’s role: consumer insight.
Esther-Mireya talked about how a CMO’s influence comes from their consumer expertise. She referenced a recent CMO report from Deloitte that shared the following: “By bringing the consumer expertise to the strategic table, CMOs can open new doors to collaboration, and they can transform every facet of the enterprise – from strategic planning to talent management to innovation – into a consumer-centric endeavor.” The report goes on to say that “the path to CMO success begins and ends with the consumer” because CMOs can use that insight to guide innovation, capacity building, growth-drivers, and brand storytelling.
This is one of those things that is often overlooked and easier said than done. So often, I encounter CMOs who struggle to have influence in their companies because of the pressure they’re always under to drive short-term sales. They get sucked into the day-to-day game of whack-a-mole, diverting their attention away from longer-term efforts known to help a brand evolve and be more sustainable.
Further, many CMOs find themselves feverishly moving forward without robust consumer insights guiding the way. As a result, they struggle internally to secure the resources needed for product, service, or customer experience innovation, or the time to conduct proper consumer research. All because they simply can’t make the case for longer-term investments in the face of short-term performance expectations.
Externally, CMOs find themselves pushing their ad agencies to do highly effective work, while unable to equip them with insights that would make the work as engaging and effective as possible. Creative briefs are heavy on the brand’s why–loaded with details about the company and its products, including proof points and reasons to believe–but very thin on the brand’s who–deep consumer understanding and relevance.
Three steps to becoming a more influential CMO
Relentlessly pursuing consumer insight is an important way to overcome some pressures and open pathways that lead your company forward. Here are three priorities that can help CMOs–or any brand leader, for that matter–turn consumer insights into influence, as well as a guide for business growth-driving efforts.
1. Turn your perspective outside in
Companies have a lot of ingrained ways of thinking that CMOs tend to inherit. How many times have you heard a new CMO complain about “drinking from the firehose”? It’s a cliche statement representing the all-too-common reality of being overloaded with information at the beginning of their job. I’ve seen so many brand leaders weighed down by existing internal perspectives. They lead an uphill battle of changing people’s minds in order to move forward in bold new directions, causing them to either give up on tougher fights or face ongoing skepticism until their bets pay off.
CMOs must overcome what I call trickle-down confirmation bias–one-sided points of view often guided by internal stakeholders with strong opinions. Those colleagues, while confident in their perspectives, have likely been drinking the Kool-Aid from that internal firehose. Their opinions and biases are framed by the way it’s always been and how they typically approach things. This makes your situation (as their new CMO) even more concerning as it’s unlikely you’ll be more successful than your predecessor if you don’t evolve the course of what has been said and done in the past.
Now, once you’ve absorbed everything people want you to know, it’s time to bring in your outside perspective. Not to dismiss internal folks’ feelings but to validate them or introduce fresh examples, new ideas, and alternative ways of thinking. Remember that you’re judged on how well you drive company growth, regardless of the inputs. When you begin your role, your experience and outside perspective are not only why you were hired, they’re your greatest assets. Confidently wielding them to help other employees overcome their preconceived notions is an important first step on your road to becoming a successful and influential CMO.
2. Obsess over consumers, not competition
Many times, developing a brand’s positioning includes an over-reliance on competitive analysis and finding the whitespace. We’re enamored by the competition–what they’re offering, how they communicate, which top benefits they feature. This obsession becomes especially unhealthy when it begins to substitute consumer intelligence. I caution against competitive obsession, which is more about following than leading, as it is not the way to gain competitive superiority.
Instead, CMOs should be more obsessed with understanding consumers. Never has this been more important. The pace of change in our lifestyles and businesses has accelerated due to a reprioritization of choices, emerging technology, infinite choices for almost anything we need online, and more. So much of yesterday’s consumer insight is outdated today. Tuning into the nuances of people’s feelings, needs, and desires is crucial and a great opportunity for a CMO to bring new insight to their team. As Deloitte says, consumer insight is the most important thing that CMOs can use to garner influence. Deloitte also shared (in an earlier report) that “the ability to recognize and use emotional data at scale is one of the biggest, most important opportunities for companies.” This is a reference to how behavioral science prioritizes the way people think and feel, with an eye toward their future behaviors, versus typical rear-view mirror consumer research.
Today, we are in a better position than ever to gain consumer insight through behavioral science research methods that are both mainstream and affordable. Cyrus McCandless, PhD, a neuroscientist at Sentient Decision Science has said, “Brand leaders should understand that we aren’t subjectively aware of most of what our brain does, but we now have very effective ways of studying the unconscious processes that shape our conscious experience, our behavior, and our choices.” He adds, “What we continue to find is that what really motivates most of us to do most of the things we do, most of the time, has less to do with conscious reasoning than we thought. By understanding both the rational and ‘irrational’ aspects of behavior, and leveraging modern research tools, we can produce more accurate predictions and more useful insights.”
Modernized CMOs take advantage of the behavioral science research revolution that is underway, improving upon long-standing approaches to consumer research and deepening their brand’s understanding of people’s mindset and emotionally-rooted decision drivers. They gain influence from understanding and better serving the people they’re trying to reach in ways that give them more competitive advantage than they’ve ever gotten studying the competition.
3. Orchestrate desirable brand experiences
Some people operate from the perspective that a business’s sole objective is to grow revenue and profit. Another common perspective–that’s more in line with how I see the roles of businesses and brands–is driving value for stakeholders including leaders, investors, employees, and consumers. Eric Fernandez, a brand leader and friend, once said to me, “Revenue is the result, not the objective.” This perfectly expresses how I’ve always felt leaders should approach their role in driving value for the businesses they serve. Brand leaders who orient their work around making people’s lives better are the ones who most effectively spark brand desire, with revenue and stakeholder value following.
While other C-suite leaders and their teams focus on driving monetary value, you as the CMO have the unique opportunity to champion consumer value within your organization. When CMOs represent the consumer, their influence internally stems from their understanding of people externally. They use their insight to reset internal alignment around how the brand’s products and services can be developed, presented, and communicated to spark desire. Whether it’s innovating on new offerings, brand messaging, customer experiences, or performance marketing programs, you can better orchestrate all the moving parts using the consumer insight you bring to the table.
This intersection of spheres of influence is where things get tricky. It’s where there’s both opportunity for success and peril for CMOs. If they bow to the pressure of their internal teams, if they drink the Kool-Aid and rely on trickle-down confirmation bias, if they don’t seek out and leverage fresh and reliable consumer insights, CMOs risk poor results that stand to disappoint fellow C-suite members. When CMOs champion fresh and reliable consumer insight, however, and use it to reveal and fill cracks in internal thinking and long-held beliefs–when they use insight to orchestrate desirable brand experiences–they increase their influence in accordance with any brand desire and revenue growth that follows.
Seize your influence
Companies have an ingrained way of thinking. Change is easier to ask for than to accept. As a CMO, you are often put in the tough position of being the change agent your peers need but are simultaneously resistant to.
For you to be most successful as a CMO today, your greatest opportunity is to challenge long-standing internal perspectives and cultivate more desirable brand experiences rooted in consumer insight. You’ll benefit from understanding how people feel, what they yearn for, what they respond to, what makes them tick, what increases their brand desire. Being a champion of consumer insights is how you can earn trust and foster support for novel paths forward. Consumer insight is what you uniquely bring to the table and where you gain your greatest influence.
Cover image: Vlad Chorniy