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The Chief Marketing Officer's Dilemma; Companies change CMOs at the drop of a hat. Are they the victims of high expectations? Or are their employers failing to recognize what really drives the health of their brands?

Byline: William J. McEwen Author of Married to the Brand (Gallup Press, 2005) and coauthor of the Harvard Business Review article "Inside the Mind of the Chinese Consumer"

Synopsis: Powerhouse brands such as Chrysler, Sears, Visa, and Coca-Cola have recently changed their marketing leadership. Are the cast-off executives victims of high expectations? Or are their employers failing to recognize what really drives the health of their brands? Bill McEwen, author of Married to the Brand, tackles these questions, which are daunting today's marketing chiefs at companies across many industries.

Consider the plight of today's chief marketing officer. She's hired, often with great fanfare. She's empowered with impressive advertising and marketing budgets, accorded C-level status, and entrusted with the company's most precious asset: its brand. And just over two years later, she's gone.

In 2007, according to executive search firm Spencer Stuart, the average CMO at a top organization lasted a mere 26.8 months. CEOs and CFOs also hold high-profile, high-pressure positions, but they enjoy tenures that are typically about 50% longer. (See "Bottom-Line Pressure Forcing CMO Turnover" and "Length of CMO Tenure Continues to Decline" in the "See Also" area on this page.)

Some CMO jobs are even going begging. Spencer Stuart reports there were twice as many CMO vacancies in 2007 as there were the previous year.

In the past few years, well-regarded companies in categories ranging from mass merchants and autos to fast food and financial services have announced the departures and/or replacements of their CMOs. Brand marketing leadership has changed for powerhouse brands that include Chrysler, Wendy's, Sears, Bank of America, Starwood, Visa, Wal-Mart, and Coca-Cola. What gives?

It can't be because the typical CMO's job is finished and there's nothing left to accomplish. Some of these leadership changes are simply the result of CMOs retiring. But the normal retirement age isn't usually reached a mere two years after beginning the job.

And it can't be that the typical CMO's job is onerous and undesirable. Any marketing leader would leap at the chance to pilot an esteemed brand, outfitted with a multimillion dollar budget and presented with the chance to show the whole world what can be done.

In a good many cases, the change is made for the same reason that football teams change coaches. Management has the feeling that someone else could do the job better. And that's the critical issue. Just what is "the job"?

Building the brand vs. building the buzz

Appearances to the contrary, the job of the new CMO is not to fire the old ad agency, introduce a new slogan, and launch a multimedia ad campaign that generates industry "buzz" while winning creative plaudits around the world. The "M" in CMO stands for "marketing," and the job should revolve around the crucial tasks for marketing: profitably increasing sales share and/or volume while meaningfully enhancing the brand.

In too many cases, it seems that the newly arrived CMO feels the job is all about "stirring the pot." But a great chef doesn't have a goal of simply stirring the pot. He or she focuses on the outcome: creating a total experience that will keep customers coming back to the restaurant time and again.

As we've found in case after case, profitable growth is directly dependent on the degree to which a company's customers are "fully engaged." Strong customer bonds represent the long-term viability and health of a company's brand. (See "The Engagement Imperative" and "Managing the Value of Your Brand" in the "See Also" area on this page; see graphic "How Engaged Are Your Customers?")

If the goal is to create and sustain stronger customer relationships, the CMO must be relentlessly focused on those engagement outcomes. A CMO's "freeway and shower time" should be spent worrying about the factors and initiatives that have the greatest impact on customer engagement.

Advertising -- the "Promotion" component in marketing's classic "four Ps," along with Product, Place, and Price -- can contribute to acquiring and reinforcing customer connections. But advertising merely represents the communication of the company's brand promise. It cannot ensure an enduring relationship. Making a promise, however impressive it might be and however memorably it may have been done, isn't the key to customer engagement. Engagement results only when the company keeps the promises it makes. (See "Promises, Promises" in the "See Also" area on this page.)

And this is the dilemma for many CMOs: Although they usually control the packaging and promotion of the company's products and services, they are in most cases divorced from control of the company's operations and, importantly, its people; other executives have those responsibilities. Yet especially in the service business world where so many CMOs now reside, processes and people are the points of ongoing contact that truly matter to the customer. Human interactions powerfully and memorably define the customer's brand experience, whether it takes place in a department store, bank, hotel, dealership, or onboard an airline. If the CMO doesn't control those factors, then the real health and well-being of the brand are essentially in the hands of others.

The net result is that the CMO may be held responsible for the total brand experience without being empowered or prepared to manage it. This is true in the business-to-consumer world, but it's even more pronounced for CMOs in the business-to-business and professional services arena. As pointed out by Accenture's former CMO, "It's harder than in b-to-c" because, in b-to-b, "personal relationships are much more important in the marketing mix."

Equipped and empowered

Back to the football analogy. Imagine that a football coach has control of some of the flashier, higher profile positions in the game -- the wide receivers and running backs. But if that coach doesn't control the other units -- the offensive and defensive lines and the special teams -- success will be beyond his reach. In like manner, the CMO may control the marketing and advertising budgets but have little influence over the operations and people assets that represent the company's ability to actually keep its promises. The football coach gets fired, while the CMO moves on "to pursue other opportunities."

Thus we see the plight of today's CMO: held responsible for the growth and health of brand relationships but in many cases, working with at least one hand tied behind her back. But simply handing oversight for operations and human resources to CMOs whose careers have focused almost entirely on developing promotions and managing creative communications won't solve the problem either. That's no more likely to enhance the brand than would assigning human resources the task of designing and executing a compelling new advertising campaign.

What's more likely to be required is a twofold solution. First, companies need CMOs who can recognize and embrace the full scope of their brand-building obligation, from defining the brand promise to ensuring that the company delivers on it at each and every customer touchpoint and at each and every brand encounter. That means they must look at the world from the customer's point of view -- and most customers don't recognize or care about traditional company silos. Second, company management must have a better and a more realistically defined set of objectives and accountability put in place for the CMOs they hire. Otherwise, we're stuck in a marketing world where CMO tenures will continue to be measured in half lives.
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Author:McEwen, William J.
Publication:Gallup Management Journal
Date:Mar 13, 2008
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