The CMO Isn’t Going Extinct, But It Needs to Evolve

If you’ve read any business news section over the past few years, you’ve probably seen mention of the “retail apocalypse”—an ominous phrase used to describe the overwhelming number of store closures and bankrupt businesses that now dot the retail landscape.

Industry observers posit that online retailers, direct-to-consumer brands, and developing consumer preferences have helped push companies unable to differentiate themselves in an increasingly competitive marketplace to the brink of collapse, if not their eventual demise. (Though, for the record, it doesn’t look like brick-and-mortar shopping is going anywhere—studies say that consumers still love to shop in stores, and often spend more money in-store than online).

Now, it appears CMOs could be the latest victims of the changing tide.

In Forrester’s new report “Predictions 2020: CMO,” the research firm argues that the once highly touted marketing position is now in “a final desperate fight for survival.” In it, they cite recent departures or job eliminations at high-profile companies like Johnson & Johnson, Kellogg’s, Taco Bell, McDonald’s, and Walmart as evidence.

“CMOs are being leveled up or out of the C-suite… the title may disappear and the role may end up subsumed into something greater,” Keith Johnston, Vice President, Research Director at Forrester writes in a recent blog post. “Perhaps it’s time?”

A Move That Was Decades in the Making

Marketing’s changing role in today’s businesses and brands didn’t happen by chance.

Over the past 20 years, advances in technology and increased efficiencies have transformed the role of the CMO from “a long-term brand-building growth captain to a quarter-disciplined and data-focused operator,” Johnston writes on the Forrester site. Meanwhile, companies are increasingly focusing their efforts on improving the customer experience to distinguish themselves.

But cutting through the noise has never been so tricky, especially when the majority of retailers and brands want immediate results but may not have the tools or budget to do so. And as Johnston states, “few CMOs have effectively navigated the transition,” leading to a slow but seismic shift that’s finally taking shape.

Still, not every CMO or marketer climbing retail’s corporate ladder needs to fear for their job security—that is, as long as they’re willing to adapt.

Here are three ways retail’s CMO jobs are evolving and what effect it’ll have on how stores operate.

1. Changing Roles and Responsibilities

As previously mentioned, some of the world’s biggest brands are either axing their CMO positions or seeing employees step down from their roles. But the majority of the companies listed above (and others) aren’t entirely getting rid of the responsibilities usually handled by a CMO, but spreading them out or creating new positions to keep up with the changing times.

Newly created or shifting roles like SVP of Marketing Technology, SVP of Global Marketing, SVP of Advertising and Brand Engagement, and VP of Marketing and Digital Brand Commerce are moving in to fill the void. Those transitions also hint at the industry’s increasingly customer-first, digitally-focused future. And in many of the above cases, a former CMO’s main marketing responsibilities now fall under the jurisdiction of numerous positions, sometimes even in multiple departments, to ensure each marketing channel—be it online or in the stores themselves—gets the attention it deserves. 

It seems retailers and brands are recognizing that many CMOs are spread too thin, and are adjusting their strategies in turn.

Takeaway: To keep up with changing consumer habits, businesses—especially ones that emphasize enhancing the customer experience—need to modify their marketing efforts. 

“The problem is that the CMO job has become a marketing job, a brand strategy job, a chief digital officer job and an innovation job. It’s really hard to juggle all of those,” Allen Adamson, co-founder and managing partner at Metaforce, told Marketing Dive in response to the Forrester report. “[Being CMO] has become too big to succeed at and too easy to fail at.”

Because of that, expect CMOs (or the duties once held by them) to get shared amongst multiple roles that focus less on traditional KPIs (Forbes contributor Richard Kestenbaum alluded to a few that are applicable to marketing roles in a recent article), and more on driving engagement to stores by offering unique customer experiences. Retailers who figure out what those experiences are, and how it’ll help their stores stand out, will stay ahead of the curve.

Foko Fact: According to Deloitte, marketers say designing, delivering, and monitoring the customer experience is their biggest challenge.

2. Added Values

In a world where online marketing and traditional advertising is an increasingly automated practice that doesn’t deliver the level of results it once did, retailers and brands must get creative to attract customers and make a sale.

One way to do that is by showing what you stand for. 

“[In 2020] CMOs will become story makers, placing customers at the center of their company values, experiences, and processes,” Johnston stated on the Forrester site. “Businesses with any amount of disconnect or fragmentation in the brand will find growth elusive, feeling the brunt of disruption in this age of customer control.”

In 2017, Forrester cited that 52% of consumers considered company values when making a purchase. Last year, the research firm predicted that the best CMOs would “capitalize on divisions in society to disrupt the market by exploiting weaknesses or unresolved problems within an ecosystem to create value,” and we certainly saw that in campaigns by Nike, Patagonia (for many, CEO Rose Marcario’s methods are considered a blueprint for success), REI, and other forward-thinking retailers who took a stand on social and cultural issues. 

Takeaway: As more companies realize the importance of corporate responsibility in building brand loyalty, expect retailers and brands to put their beliefs front and center of their marketing efforts to stand out from the competition. Doing so may alienate some customers in the process, but forward-thinking marketers know that retailers can no longer have it both ways. True leaders must make a stand to stand out. 

Foko Fact: In 2018, Nike’s now-famous 30th anniversary “Just Do It” campaign with polarizing football player Colin Kaepernick actually led to a 31% increase in online sales and growth in stores.

3. Constant Collaboration

In retail, the role of the CMO has long been a siloed affair. Heads of marketing are often concerned about their in-store marketing efforts and want to ensure that stores reflect current campaigns and brand ideals, but sometimes lack insights into their implementation at the store level and overall effectiveness. And when that happens, the in-store experience suffers. 

According to a survey by Accenture Interactive, 87 percent of marketers admit traditional experiences no longer satisfy customers, while a previous Forrester study found that most U.S. brands are “mediocre” when it comes to delivering quality customer experiences.

Basically, most companies and their marketing teams know they’re falling short of expectations.

That’s why many CMOs are embracing the role of “CMO Collaborator,” according to Marketing Dive, to align the brand vision and create more memorable customer experiences.

To do so, retailers are shifting their perception of physical locations, and treating them more like individual marketing plays by focusing on the whole experience—from the entranceway to endcaps and cash wraps to the people working in stores. Because while signage and advertisements supporting sales are important, CMOs who don’t work closely with employees and teams on the frontline probably aren’t presenting the right brand experience to customers.

Takeaway: CMOs should work with their SVP of store operations and other employees tied directly to store-level execution to gain better insights into what’s working on the ground floor (such as checkout processes and training), come up with new ideas (like product positioning and creative promotions), and ensure that stores fit a company’s bigger picture to create a better customer experience.

To ensure all individuals involved have the tools necessary to set themselves up for success, retailers and brands need to help open up the lines of communication between HQ and the store level, so CMOs gain a better understanding of day-to-day operations and can adjust their marketing strategy accordingly. 

Foko Fact: According to a study conducted by RIS, marketing campaigns and promotions are two areas executives say could be markedly improved by better HQ-to-store communication.

Final Thoughts + Summary for Execs

Change is scary. But in order to survive, CMOs need to follow in the footsteps of retail’s major players and find ways to create innovative in-store experiences that go beyond traditional marketing ploys.

Get Ready for Change — Find new ways to engage with customers in stores to stay relevant in retail’s digitally focused future.

Believe What You Sell — If your company feels strongly about social issues impacting your industry, speak out about them to stand out from the crowd and show customers you care.

Work With Others — Proactively connect your team with the frontline, so marketing can glean much-needed insights from the store level and customer-facing employees have the tools to create a deeper connection with customers.