“CMOs today are like a bunch of fruit flies!” offered Bob Garfield, NPR’s host of “On the Media” and 25-year Ad Age columnist.
That’s the quote Bob attributed to me in a room full of Fortune 500 CMOs during his opening keynote address at the CMO Executive Summit in NYC just weeks ago. It’s an analogy that I shared with Bob a few nights earlier, where I compared a fruit fly to the average tenure of a Fortune 500 CMO, which is about 24 months. The comment, while ostensibly provocative, demands more context to be useful (and not detrimental to my relationships with that same group of CMOs I might add).
With the analogy, I meant to get at the quasi-existential career challenge that chief marketers face today. Specifically, how do CMOs and other marketers reconcile a fundamental change to the very definition of consumer/brand relationships and thus an equally fundamental—not incremental—change in the way that they practice their trade? How do CMOs adapt their approach to an entirely new consumer/brand relationship paradigm—that is if they want their efforts to continue producing results? Additionally, how can CMOs lead this courageous and bold change with their teams when the average Fortune 500 CMO’s career span can be compared to the brief length of a fruit fly’s existence? Not an easy set of challenges with obvious solutions.
As a marketer, your time and energy are likely divided across a sophisticated set of interconnected objectives, ideas, programs, fragmenting channels and technologies—oh, and you are expected make sure to tackle this complexity with no additional resources and the same performance expectations as in years past. That briefly sums up the challenge that marketers have historically faced. To compound the challenge further, the world of media and marketing has seen more change in the past decade than the U.S. mint.
You’ve also probably heard others’ opinions about the challenges marketers face. Perhaps you heard at a conference or in the trades that the rapid pace of change must be due to some specific new technology or channel? I’ve heard many opinions myself – channel fragmentation, consumer demand for authenticity, post-recession consumer attitudes, social media usage and sharing control of our brands – to name a few. So it must be one of these culprits that we need to master to continue achieving marketing success, right? Not exactly. That’s the good news. Why? Because all of the previously mentioned marketing challenges fall under the umbrella of a single pervasive challenge—and thus a single place for us to start solving them.
For as long as the practice of marketing has been taught, the way brands and consumers have built and strengthened relationships has remained fairly constant; that dynamic is now undergoing an abrupt and profound metamorphosis. I use this word intentionally because I posit that this change, while fundamental, both includes and transcends the way that we’ve managed consumer/brand relationships to this point. In other words, we need to use all that we already know as marketers while also learning a new way of thinking. Ignoring this metamorphosis and continuing to approach relationships with consumers under the same assumptions will expose your brand to significant risk and increase spending inefficiencies. Understanding the implications of this metamorphosis will allow you to create and sustain truly powerful brand performance now and in the future.
So what’s a marketer to do with this set of challenges and limited time?
It’s Time to Re-Define Your Consumer/Brand Relationships
Over the past decade, changes in media technology and consumption habits have enabled the rapid evolution of consumer/brand relationships—a redefinition and expansion of the role that consumers play with brands. Everything, and I mean everything that marketers didn’t deal with several years ago but are facing today, can be attributed to a fundamental change in the way that brands and consumers engage in relationships. After decades of relative consistency and stability, the very nature of brand relationships with consumers has changed. How fast we learn and adapt will determine our future success.
To understand, embrace and profit from this metamorphosis, we need to start by understanding what it means to build and maintain relationships between brands and consumers, then and now. Consumer/brand relationships have historically been developed and maintained through a core set of interactions that included:
• Using the product or service (sometimes called the 2nd moment of truth)
• Exposure to the brand when buying the product or service (at point-of-sale)
• Sharing high-trust opinions of the product or service with people they know (word-of-mouth)
• Seeing and hearing the brand’s advertising message (passive consumption of a one-way marketing message)
For decades, these elements were the core building blocks of a consumer’s relationship with a brand, with the lion’s share of the brand’s spending on the unilateral advertising communications described in the last bullet.
However, today consumer/brand relationships incorporate some important new elements and suggest a new approach to building and maintaining them:
• Using the product or service and receiving other value through content and actions that are congruent with personal values (purpose-driven marketing)
• Exposure to the brand when buying the product or service and having a virtual shopping experience with the brand when considering choices online (consideration online precedes the “first moment of truth” at the shelf)
• Sharing high-trust opinions through word-of-mouth and now sharing opinions within social networks (still high trust but now highly scalable)
• Seeing and hearing the brand’s advertising message and now participating in various ways in a conversation about the brand (multilateral always-on brand conversations and interactions that are frequently not controlled by the brand and sometimes do not even involve the brand).
Now that we’ve dissected the differences in today’s consumer/brand relationship, how do you tailor your budget and actions accordingly? (Note that I’m not starting with a question around channel strategy or how to best apply a piece of marketing technology.) In other words, we’re not starting with, “What should our social media strategy be?” but with, “What implications does a fundamental redefinition of the consumer/brand relationship have for your marketing strategy, implementation and budgeting?” I hope you find that refreshing.
The fact is most brands still spend their marketing budgets predominantly on unilateral advertising targeted at the consumer and designed to interrupt and persuade to take an action. Most brands are still evaluating marketing approaches using the old definition of consumer/brand relationship, as if we’re still dealing with the same paradigm that focuses a great deal on channel optimization of unilateral advertising. To be clear, the old paradigm is still at play and thus, the old marketing approaches will continue to elicit some adequate financial results—but not for long.
For marketers and their brands that embrace this fundamental change, incredible opportunities to build more profitable, meaningful, reciprocal and sustainable relationships with consumers will emerge. Understanding the profoundness of this change as a chief marketer brings you to a crossroad for your brand and your career.
So whether you are a marketer where the fruit fly analogy holds true or you are in a position that promises career longevity, you cannot rest on the same tried and true approaches for long. Next level thinking about how to evolve in parallel with the core meaning of consumer/brand relationships will decide who thrives and who fades. Which one will you be?
Ian Wolfman is chief marketing officer of brand marketing agency IMC2.