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The March of the CMOs

Updated: Dec 2, 2021

Words by Isabel O’Brien

On 11th March 2020, WHO declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic and Chief Marketing Officers across all industries had to abandon their forecasts, KPIs, and 5-year plans, in favour of a more agile and intuitive approach to marketing. Before COVID-19, we may have eye-rolled at calls for a corporate ‘pivot’, but the pandemic has transformed this into a mantra, aligning CMOs in their mission to ensure their brands are valuable in a time of crisis.

This collective refocus has led to an increased need for cross-industry learning, a thirst that was quenched by Cannes Lions Live 2020. The event hand-picked leading CMOs from all corners of the business world to come and share their experiences for the benefit of their contemporaries.

The line-up included Mathilde Delhoume, Global Brand Officer, LVMH, who captures the importance of the CMO role in the current climate: “The COVID-19 global crisis has been a catalyst for putting CMOs at the forefront, as this has been a moment where brands can really help humanity with meaningful acts.”

Speaking on behalf of the pharmaceutical industry was Tamara Rogers, Chief Marketing Officer, GSK, who corroborates this mission to adjust brands to maximise utility: “As we came into this year, we had a clear kind of prioritisation for how exactly we were going to deploy our plans. Then this pandemic hit. We decided to course correct and shift in a number of areas. We had to look at our brand portfolio through the eyes of the consumer, and really make sure that we were living up to our purpose.”

To fulfil this new responsibility, Bozoma Saint John, former Chief Marketing Officer, Endeavor, cites the importance of gut instinct: “Reacting to what is happening right now is the best strategy. We’ve always forecasted to where we want to be, but we haven’t really paid attention to the present moment in its fullness.”

Speed has also been crucial, with teams needing to streamline their operations to match the fluidity of life under COVID-19: “We prioritised ruthlessly because otherwise you get lots of ‘busy doing’, and then we were very clear around making sure that people were empowered, to get speed and agility,” says Rogers. 

One of the universal re-routers has been a shift towards digital solutions, with CMOs recognising the need to replace physical experiences with online alternatives to align with consumer needs.

The pharma industry has often been criticised for its hesitancy towards digital, yet Saint John reveals that this has been a difficulty affecting all: “It has been really challenging because for most of us, even though we dipped our toe in the water of digital action, it hasn’t been the core of the business. It hasn’t been the way to primarily engage consumers,” she says.

Despite this challenge, Rogers reveals that pharma has proven itself to be more digitally agile than could have been predicted: “Our industry can be very proud of itself because we all did an incredible pivot, very fast,” she says.

Not only has the way consumers are looking for information changed, but also the type of content they have been looking for: “The role of marketing and the creative industries has really never been more important; it’s very clear that businesses need to step up. Be both a force for growth and a force for good,” says Marc Pritchard, Chief Brand Officer, Procter & Gamble.

The COVID-19 global crisis has been a catalyst for putting CMOs at the forefront

“We’ve definitely seen more embracing of, and pull for, more entertainment. Right now, people want brands to be useful and they don’t just want to be advertised at. So, how do you shift that relationship and make sure you’re engaging?” asks Rogers.

For GSK, this has meant creating story-led, interactive campaigns focussing on the most relevant products in their OTC portfolio. This has included promoting products that serve as treatments for symptoms of COVID-19, reminding people to maintain healthy habits like allergy care and dental hygiene, and advocating the use of vitamins and minerals, at a time when global populations are more invested in health.

Fundamentally, CMOs have been tasked with looking at consumers as people, rather than customers: “COVID-19 concerns people; they have concerns around their safety, their anxieties. We must speak to these messages; we must find solutions for those issues within our businesses. And now we have racial and social unrest too, how does that also impact our businesses?” asks Saint John.

At a time when businesses are addressing diversity and representation in their organisations, it has also been the role of CMOs to harness their platforms to support and promote positive social change. For pharma in particular: “Our brands serve all people and it’s so important to make sure that we’re doing the right things,” says Rogers. “We have a lot of spending power. We can make a big difference.”

Whilst 2020 may be remembered as a time of crisis, for CMOs it has been a moment where their missions aligned and industry lines blurred; the position taking on new meaning and purpose. As Delhoume concludes: “Our motto is to reframe and shift the functional description of marketing from B2B and B2C, to become what we call B4H: brands for humans.”

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