Digital Marketing
9 min

Reinventing the CMO Role to Become a Digital Transformation Leader

Elisha Hahm Senior Content Strategist

If there’s ever been a time for more innovation, accountability, empathy, and evolution in marketing—2021 is it.

As the world continues to reinvent itself in major ways, businesses have been forced to pivot hard and re-evaluate their understanding of the customer at every turn. At the crux of that shift are chief marketing officers (CMOs). In addition to figuring out the specific alchemy between their brands and consumers in an effort to drive engagement, performance, revenue, and growth, they’ve now been tasked with a new challenge: navigating an era of rapid digital acceleration.

As brands hustle to stay relevant and evolve in the midst of this digital boom, marketing execs need to be ready. The question is: do they have the support they need to succeed?

To better understand how CMOs can reframe their position to become leaders in digital transformation—while helping their organization survive and thrive no matter what comes next—we spoke with leaders from Google, Sky Zone, and International Education Corporation to get their one-of-a-kind insights.

Encourage cross-functional communication and collaboration across your teams and members of the C-suite

As technology continues to expand digital marketing capabilities—from creating innovative ways to connect with audiences to providing a wealth of customer data across every touchpoint—the role of the CMO has been significantly elevated.

Once solely responsible for brand and marketing campaign initiatives, today’s CMO helps drive and shape almost every aspect of business: from company goals and objectives to customer experience to bottom-line revenue.

CMOs are expected to demonstrate how marketing impacts growth and contributes to strategic business decisions. But to make that happen, they must be fully engaged and aligned with their teams and members of the C-suite.

“We need to be fast; we need to make those quick decisions. But the downside risk is that the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing. To make the right decisions for the company, it’s incumbent on us to communicate at every turn and know what we’re doing. The faster you go, the more your internal apparatus needs to be well-oiled in communicating.”

Josh Cole | CMO, Sky Zone

Start the transformation: CMO action steps

CMOs can consider these three recommendations to help break the siloed cycle of the past and find a voice at the executive table:

  1. Rethink your role: Look beyond your core competencies and intentionally build relationships across teams and with members of the C-suite. Give yourself permission to ask questions, get involved outside your traditional scope, and actively contribute to conversations with peers.
  2. Lead the customer experience conversation: By cultivating customer-centric thinking across the organization, you create a more connected enterprise that brings together all aspects of the customer journey—brand, products, services, and customer interactions. This in turn helps close the gap between brand promises and customer expectations.
  3. Make marketing make sense: Make your voice heard by translating marketing insights into the language of your C-suite peers—whether it’s financial, sales-oriented, strategic, or talent-related. Get comfortable talking to the CFO about budgeting and P&L or the CIO about your technology needs.

Refocus your efforts on boosting employee morale and company culture

As marketing’s role has expanded, it means more work: onboarding new technology, prioritizing CX, and adapting to safety concerns. Amid these rising expectations—coupled with the growing strain on mental health—employees are relying on their leaders more than ever.

That means CMOs are playing the role of both chief marketer and counselor, listening before acting and often offering support that’s both work-related and personal.

In a recent study by Ginger, nearly 70% of US workers said they feel more stressed during COVID-19 than at any other point in their entire professional career. In order for CMOs to deliver on the brand’s mission, and ultimately drive performance, company culture and employee morale must be aligned with the brand.

“What I’ve noticed in the past year is the importance of the culture we’ve cultivated within our organization. It has become our backbone in terms of being able to weather the storm.”

Esther Duong | Executive Director of Marketing, International Education Corporation

Start the transformation: CMO action steps

Here are three ways to boost company morale and keep your teams positive, focused, and engaged throughout 2021:

  1. Prioritize employee mental health: Employee mental health has been a hot-button topic lately—and for good reason. CMOs can help keep their workforce happy and secure by investing in tools to streamline communication, advocating work-life balance, clearly stating what your mental health resources and policies are, and encouraging employees to take advantage of them.
  2. Foster a culture of innovation: Relationships that extend beyond the boundaries of teams and even the organization itself are invaluable to acquiring new knowledge and sparking innovative ideas. Make an effort to encourage employee participation in something outside their immediate network—whether that’s joining a peer-to-peer learning community, attending a marketing executive-led masterclass, or even hosting internal events that have nothing to do with marketing (i.e. cooking, history, culture, etc.)
  3. Practice reassurance and understanding: If your business has undergone changes over the last year, which it likely has, your employees may be feeling overwhelmed or burned out (Zoom fatigue is a real problem). Instead of letting these feelings fester, reassure your team by clearly communicating the reason behind each change and showing them how it can work in their favor. Wpromote Founder & CEO Mike Mothner put it this way in his latest LinkedIn article, “Transparency and empowerment unlock a mutually beneficial relationship between leaders and employees, and create the opening for two-way communication and meaningful feedback that will set your business up for success.”

“We revitalized the old idea of the brown bag lunch series, making it virtual and opening it up on a peer to peer, volunteer basis. We’ve discussed everything from work topics like digital advertising or project management 101 to really interesting cultural topics like the history of Lebanon or how to plan an outdoor adventure. The attendance has been great, and the feedback has been tremendous.”

Josh Cole | CMO, Sky Zone

Align your organization around the customer using data-driven insights and automation

Marketers represent the customer at a time when organizations must consider that voice in their business decisions. You need to care about every interaction and experience a customer might have with your brand that could potentially impact the way they are connecting with your brand or services, not just to secure the purchase decision or conversion.

“In the past, marketing focused more on the front end of announcing our brand: sharing who we are and what we do. But now we have to consider how to connect and engage with our students across the entire journey, and bring in the right technology to ensure flexibility, continuous learning, and success with the program. We’re going to continue to prioritize that while staying agile to successfully adapt.” 

Esther Duong | Executive Director of Marketing, International Education Corporation

There’s likely no one better placed to lead this customer-centric charge than the CMO. And many marketers are stepping up: A recent study by the CMO Council and Deloitte found that, over the past decade, CMOs have been increasingly asked to elevate their activities from brand and marketing plan management to acting as an enterprise-wide revenue driver that taps into the hearts and minds of their customers.

The most critical capability of the CMO is to have a profound, deep understanding of customers and their needs to keep them engaged and loyal to your brand. This not only involves having knowledge of data and the power to adopt new technologies quickly—it also demands a different way of thinking.

“I’ll propose a little experiment to you: pick any day next week and wake up in the morning pretending you know nothing about the way your company currently operates. Without these legacy constraints, what would you do differently? How would you structure your team? What incentives would you set for them? What would success look like? I’ve learned boldness is contagious. If you set an example of crazy thinking, others are encouraged to follow you.”

Aprajita Jain | Lead Brand Marketing Evangelist, Google

Start the transformation: CMO action steps

Here are a few ways you can spearhead this movement, and put the customer at the heart of everything you do:

  1. Recognize the value of an outside-in strategy: An outside-in approach focuses on looking beyond the prism of your own internal structure and, instead, looking through the eyes of the customer. By applying outside-in thinking throughout the org, you’re able to develop new solutions that will improve your ability to attract, retain, and grow the value of customers—a critical component of performance.
  2. Get your first-party data house in order: The greater control you have over your first-party data, the less reliant you’ll be on third party data which is quickly becoming obsolete. Consider ways you can obtain first-party data through a value exchange: offering perks in a rewards/loyalty program, free shipping incentives, discounts/coupons, or a free gift with purchase.
  3. Amplify the role of data and automation: Make it a priority to invest in the right tools and technologies that will allow you to effectively utilize valuable customer data to streamline processes, build a holistic view of your customers, and ultimately elevate the customer experience across every touchpoint.

“Let automation be your friend. I cannot stress this enough. Machine learning is turning marketing into a self-funded money printing machine. You can literally give the algorithm an input and say, ‘I’m willing to pay you an unlimited amount of money as long as you can continue driving net profitable customers to my site.’ It’s really an input/output thing.”

Aprajita Jain | Lead Brand Marketing Evangelist, Google

Ready to hear the feature-length event? Check out the full conversation, The Roaring 2020s: Lead Your Brand’s Marketing Transformation.

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