Impossible not to communicate
Astute marketers understand that everything communicates. What brands do and don’t do can send out signals for others to make sense of and when the environment in which a brand exists becomes more political, contentious, or controversial, what a brand chooses not to say can be as telling as what they do say.
Successful brands don’t have to be challengers to position themselves ‘versus’ something and creating or adding to an existing cultural movement, whether positioned explicitly as ‘doing the right thing’, or simply a show of values or ‘what we believe in’ can become a real competitive advantage for brands.
So, whilst making and taking a stand is a solid business strategy for the likes of Nike (share price +22% since their 2018 Colin Kaepernick ad: Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.) and Airbnb (successful IPO and Mkt cap of $60bn since their 2017 Super Bowl Ad #WeAccept), it doesn’t mean that promoting a viewpoint on societal issues is right for every brand.
Over 13 years ago Simon Sinek compelled leaders to ‘start with Why?’ a talk which triggered an obsession in marketing with brand purpose and whilst purpose can be an powerful way of organising and inspiring businesses when executed well (Patagonia, Dove, EA), its ability to win over customers is only effective if the brand story is authentic and relevant. Consumers (and investors) are quick to see-through purpose that exists merely as a marketing exercise.
“The Hellmann’s brand has existed since 1913 so we would guess that by now consumers have figured out its purpose (spoiler alert – salads and sandwiches).”
– Terry Smith, Chief Executive & CIO of Fundsmith
Brands that aren’t evidently organised behind a brand purpose aren’t however exempt from knowing where they stand on matters of ESG, DE&I, human rights, or the support for LGBTQIA+ communities; these are not ‘hot topics’, they pose inherent questions to businesses that consumers increasingly demand to see action on.
The role of the CMO is therefore intrinsic to developing and deciding how a brand positions itself, where it shows up and whether it acknowledges the thing that divides opinion, what’s right for one brand may not be right for another regardless of any political leanings.
Therefore, companies increasingly need to have a strong sense of their brand's own moral code – a Brand Bushidō – that guides decision making. CMOs are invaluable here, armed with a skillset that few possess, their customer expertise.
Customer obsession is the guiding light through any difficult brand decision and is vital to navigating new and changing developments that influence customer opinion and behaviour.
“The CMO is the chief representative of the customer – nobody else gives a $#@£ about customers in the organisation…We are the ones that say what the customers are doing or thinking, and bring that into the boardroom.”
– Mark Ritson, brand consultant and former marketing professor
Where once there was little of concern for marketers; be it a World Cup (don’t mention the Q word), big tech (take your pick; Meta, twitter, TikTok), supply chain issues (UK egg rationing), green credentials (advertising adds extra 32% to annual carbon footprint of every person in the UK) or a cost of living crisis (95% of marketers say economic recession will have an impact on 2023 marketing strategy), the challenge now is to get it right with customers.
Not over-reaching, or doing/saying too little, is a unique pressure that marketing departments face. A study of CMOs at 100 top-spending U.S. brands revealed that on average they stay in their posts for 40 months – less than half of the average of CEOs – with CMO tenure at a decade long low, the contributions to building brands can last far longer than they do.
To make better decisions, marketers must listen to, understand and develop a deep knowledge of their customers to make the right calls. Developing a strategy from what is true of the brand and find creative and engaging ways to connect with consumers, creating positive associations and making the brand easy to think of and easy to buy.
“A principle isn’t a principle until it costs you money”
– Bill Bernbach, DDB