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Are CMOs a Threatened Species?

June 25, 2021


Are CMOs a Threatened Species?

A little while ago, I asked why we weren’t putting more CMOs in boardrooms. The answer is that many people still don’t see marketing as central to their business operations. Instead, they see it has a kind of “nice-to-have,” that you can add on when you have the budget. And when times get tough, the first place to look to cut. 

We saw this happening throughout the pandemic. Businesses put their marketing plans on hold. The luckier ones didn’t need plans, they just needed good distribution. Others, fought to get distribution in order to turn marketing engines on. When we moved into 2021, many companies slashed budgets further.  

Big brands began to pivot their messaging as they stayed close to their consumers and understood changing behaviours. Take General Mills, for example. With everyone under lockdowns, people were doing things like eating breakfast at home. Have you seen TikToks of people stocking their pantries? General Mills, cereal and snack brands amplified this messaging as the brand of pantry choice. Hey, marketing from an insight can create stickiness for a broader depth of potential customers. 

And then, mic drop….a few weeks ago, the company announced the departure of their CMO. And they also announced that they weren’t going to seek a replacement.

Wait what? I guess maybe the strategy of distribution and traditional messaging doesn’t require a CMO! Yikes! 

How Important Is a CMO?

This move is particularly shocking because the pandemic seemed to reverse a trend to letting CMOs go. We’ve seen lots of big brands waffle over the CMO position in the last five years. McDonald’s and Coca-Cola both added a CMO position, then axed it, then added it back.

This kind of back-and-forth from the biggest brands is confusing. Are Chief Marketing Officers important, or are they non-essential? If McDonald’s can let theirs go, does your brand need one? Was McDonald’s foolhardy to axe the position? We saw them add it back a couple years later, which suggests CMOs are more important than a lot of people think.

That echoes my observation that organizations don’t invite the marketing team to the boardroom. Even when you’re doing strategy about where you’re taking the brand, how you’re growing, the boardroom walls you out. Because brand identity and growing connections with customers isn’t seen as… integral to the business.

It doesn’t make much sense to me; I’ve seen organizations have CMO influence in the boardroom and they do much better. When they lose that guidance, they stumble more: they lose sight of who they are, what they’re are in business for…their higher purpose and the reason customers buy!

You can’t put a CMO in the boardroom if you don’t have one in the entire company. And that comes back to the idea that marketing is fair-weather activity that you can do when times are good. You don’t really need it, seems to be the going attitude.

Coke and McDonald’s probably have a bit of hubris here. Because they have the brand recognition, the clout they do, they feel like they don’t even need to market. Sure, they’re still going to run ad campaigns featuring attributes of new products or promotions or other stuff. But do they need a CMO overseeing their global brand identity, creating a cohesive vision? They already have a strong brand identity.

You should have guessed my answer already: yes. You do need someone overseeing your brand identity. In fact, the bigger the brand, the more you need someone overseeing that identity. Coke operates in how many different markets? And yeah, they have to adapt to local expectations. But it’s tough to translate your brand values to a new market if you don’t know what those values are to start.

So you have to have someone who understands the core of the business, the purpose of it—the essence of the brand. Who are you and what do you do? What does your brand stand for, what does it mean to your customers? What are they really buying vs. what you think you are selling?

From there, you can start translating those ideas to whatever markets and audiences. “Trust” looks different in Asia than it does in North America. And it’s different again in Africa and South America. But you have to know your brand is about trust at the core to even be able to start. If you’re selling “trust” in one market, “esteem” in another and “innovation” in a third, you might have a problem with brand cohesion, especially where you may be in the product life cycle. In Canada, often, marketers must pick up global creative that does not match where the brand is at in its life cycle and needs related to building a relationship with the local consumer. People get confused: who are you? What do you do? Do you see and even understand me…or even care?

The Pandemic Showed Marketing’s Power

Some felt the pandemic cemented the importance of both marketing and the CMO. Although some were slashing budgets, others realized they needed new ways to connect with their customers.

Marketing became more important in the early days of the pandemic. We tried to connect with our customers, not just about our brands, but as human beings. Some brands tried to be funny to keep people’s spirits lifted; others tried to be helpful by providing tips. Some focused on entertaining content to keep people occupied during lockdowns. And others were focused on tips or ideas.

In short, the pandemic created a whole bunch of opportunities for connecting with our customers. It wasn’t maybe the best time for sales on some brands. But, there was an opportunity to reach out, to deepen our relationships with the people who buy from us over the long term.

We can’t do that without marketing (or sales, to an extent). Surveys of Marketers and CMOs suggested that they felt the pandemic had shored up their position. Marketing kept everything glued together. Marketers adjusted their messages, switched their campaigns, asked customers what they wanted or needed.

General Mills is a prime example, like I said. People were suddenly buying more snacks and breakfast food. Of course General Mills wants to capitalize on this sudden consumer rush. How do they make sure people are buying from them, that they think of General Mills brands? Marketing!

CMOs Remain in a Precarious Position

The departure of General Mills’ CMO and their decision not to fill the position is worrisome. It suggests that the pandemic didn’t drive home the message as much as we would have liked.

CMOs and Marketers more generally are still seen as being a kind of frill. They’re not so crucial that you need them to run the business. And, all right, for some folks…maybe the CMO isn’t as important as your CFO or your CEO. But so many people overlook the power of marketing, the importance of the CMO.

So, even heading into post pandemic timelines, CMOs still seem to be a “threatened species.” We still have companies acting like McDonald’s and Coke were a few years ago—deciding to go it without the CMO. That makes it tough to argue that CMOs are important. It makes it even tougher to argue that they should be in the boardroom. If people think the CMO can get the boot and you don't even bother replacing them, why do you need them in the boardroom?

But that’s the thing—you do. Giving marketing some presence in the boardroom is so important. And that’s why this is so frustrating! Even after the pandemic proved how much marketing can do, we still have people tossing it aside.

It will be interesting to see how well General Mills does without a CMO. How long will they continue without one? The company gained a lot during the pandemic, and their move to oust the CMO comes at a time when their brand is riding high. Much like Coke and McDonald’s before them, this could be some kind of hubris. While the going is good, they don’t think they need a CMO.

If they start losing some of the market share the pandemic gave them, we might see them change their tune. It’s not unheard of for brands to reverse their decision on eliminating the CMO position, after all. Both Coke and McDonald’s did that exact same thing. So it will be interesting to see if General Mills follows a similar path here: bring in a CMO when the brand needs help, get rid of the position when things are good, then scramble to bring someone back aboard when the brand starts sinking again.

The most frustrating thing here is that brands never seem to learn from this. They do this two-steps-forward, one-step-back dance so often. Just accept that you need these things and stop trying to get rid of them!

If brands would keep their CMOs on, where would they be? Would McDonald’s or Coke be further ahead than they are now? Slow and steady progress, to me, seems a better plan than this rollercoaster brands keep riding.

Whether we’re Marketers or not, we should always be thinking about the core of our organizations. Why are we really here? What do we offer that no other brand does? A CMO can often help us find answers to those questions—and from there, we can build our brands in more organic ways.

We have to start with the why!


A little more about me. My goal is and always will be to inspire and create conversation!

I am a businessperson who has excelled in driving a competitive edge through marketing, strategy, innovation, building irresistible brands and unlocking the genius that exists. I am writing to inspire or create new consideration. If you have ideas or questions that you would like me to put a pen too, I would be delighted.

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