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Why Starbucks’ elimination of its global CMO indicates an evolution of the role, not ‘a canary in the coal mine’

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As the CMO role continues to evolve, the halcyon days of the rock star CMO have seemingly come and gone. The job has become increasingly more difficult, with expectations of what marketers should be delivering for their businesses continuing to rise as marketing is being tied even closer to business results. At the same time, marketers are having to do more with less, with every dollar working harder — and some are even expected to exceed these higher expectations of the job despite being fractional CMOs.

The tumult of the CMO role in recent years has certainly become more intense. Last week’s shake-up at Starbucks, with the company retiring the global CMO role altogether, could be seen as another chip against the role. Walgreens, Etsy and UPS have also eliminated the role. With that said though, McDonald’s eliminated its global CMO role and then brought it back not even a year later in 2020, and Coca-Cola went through a similar process in 2019 — although it took the company closer to two years.

“I don’t think this is necessarily a canary in the coal mine for CMO [role] — I think it illustrates that the marketing function needs to appropriately fit within the structure and the strategy of the business,” said Jay Pattisall, vp and principal agency analyst at Forrester. “For every doom and gloom story, there is an example of a thriving marketing practice or a thriving and growing marketer — McDonald’s and Coca-Cola represent that. They are organizations that brought back the chief marketing function as a means to help the company to grow.”

Rather than seeing the Starbucks news as a bellwether for continued elimination of the role, marketers, brand executives, trade group leaders and consultants see it as a reflection of the current reality for CMOs. There are some organizations that are reorganizing the duties of the marketer across various C-Suite functions and seemingly eliminating the CMO role. Others are expanding the duties of the CMO, adding things like chief communications or chief experience officer to the titles. It’s all a matter of an organization taking a centralized or decentralized approach to the marketing function.

For businesses that are making changes to the CMO role, much of the change that’s happening is specific to each business, the industry that business is and and the C-Suite’s appreciation and understanding of what marketing is able to do. At the same time, marketers are not only expected to deliver results from their campaigns but they also must prove those results’ immediate effects on a company’s bottom line and stock price.

“The marketer role is that red thread across the organization that knits everything together so that the messaging, the quality experience, the emotional resonance shows up in every single moment that the brand’s creating,” said Greg Silverman, global director of brand economics at Interbrand. With that being the case, other C-Suite execs like the CFO and CEO want to “not only see it turn into revenue but also express a higher stock price.”

Marla Kaplowitz, president and CEO of industry group the 4As, echoed that sentiment via email: “Today, the CMO has a dual challenge: Ensuring they are deeply knowledgeable about the business with financial acumen, data fluency and technical expertise amidst increasing complexity while also making sure that others in the C-Suite understand the investment and value of marketing (including long-term).”

Title, organizational changes reflect business needs  

Whether or not a CMO is able to manage those challenges will depend on the individual in the role. While some businesses may be removing the CMO title and opting for something like chief growth officer or chief brand officer or chief customer experience officer, that’s not a sign that the CMO in the previous role failed in some way but rather an evolution in how a company looks at the role and how it fits within their goals and strategies.

“Those are not necessarily companies doing less marketing,” Nick Primola, group evp at the ANA Global CMO Growth Council, said when asked about the changing titles and the seeming fragmentation of CMO duties at some companies. “It’s just that they’re looking at it in a different way, which I think is actually more accurate with respect to what the practice actually is versus just marketing campaigns as it is traditionally thought of.” 

For those in global CMO roles, it’s more important than ever to find a way to make sure that they are integrated into their business and that there’s an understanding of the role itself.

“All these companies have different definitions and expectations of what a CMO does, which can be challenging,” said Adrian Fung, eBay’s global CMO. “The important piece is that the CMO is deeply integrated into the business strategy. The challenge when the CMO role gets splintered is that the CMO isn’t integrated into the business strategy and vice versa [so] the rest of leadership doesn’t then know what the CMO is doing and things get split apart.”

Fung continued: “The onus on CMOs like myself to make sure that that connection is tight, that I understand what the rest of the business is trying to do, that I the have a voice at the table to say, ‘Look, here’s what I believe is the right thing for the customer. How would we talk about this, what is the combination of product experience, marketing, etc., that’s ultimately gonna drive growth?’ Well, when you have those conversations early on, you understand that together, it becomes much easier to define what is the role of the CMO going forward.”

The results of those conversations are different for each business, its needs and its C-Suite’s respect of marketing. Whether or not an organization takes a centralized or decentralized approach to the role is not a reflection of the role’s importance or the potential for that to wane, according to marketers, brand executives, trade group leaders and consultants, but rather an evolution of the role to fit businesses’ needs at this moment.

Recognize the evolution, already

It’s important to define what the CMO role is today and what it will be going forward. But there also needs to be a recognition that the responsibilities and expectations for that role have already ballooned far beyond what they were originally.

“Marketing a brand today is far more complicated than just managing marketing communications,” Allen Adamson, brand consultant and co-founder of Metaforce, said, adding that the job can be “too nebulous” for one person. “To some extent, it was built for a time when marketing was mostly marketing communications and you could manage that around the globe. [What’s happening now] is less about the CMO not being an important role and more that there’s just so much of it that it has to be split across many different people.”

Marketing teams not only have to manage ever-expanding advertising channels and proving that they’re driving results for their businesses and shareholders, but they are also now “at the fulcrum of everything that is happening in regards to cultural and societal change,” noted Jason Cieslak, president, Pacific Rim, of global brand experience firm Siegel+Gale. “They’ve got to engage clients and customers on social channels and those things are mercurial, they’re evolving and they’re difficult.”

“In so many ways, what they do is a proxy for broader change in the world around us,” said Cieslak. “CFOs aren’t reacting to massive [social and societal] change. Their roles aren’t changing. If you’re a chief operations officer, your role is not changing on a weekly, daily or monthly basis but CMOs are and I think that oftentimes they [are treated] unfairly for being the proxy to all of that change of an organization.”

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