The New Role of the CMO? The Chief Experience Officer

By Rachel Haberman on April 24, 2018

Last week, IBM's Institute for Business Value published research on over 2,000 CMOs from around the world. The question at hand: How has the role of the CMO evolved after two decades of digital transformation?

Certain aspects of their findings will surprise no one who works in marketing, namely that CMOs face a strong mandate to prove marketing's role in driving revenue. But other findings paint a far more intriguing picture of the changing nature of the CMO's role. Where once the CMO had a clearly defined sphere of influence, the modern CMO is increasingly responsible for shaping the end-to-end customer experience, extending her reach beyond the marketing department and into areas of the organization once walled off.

Enter: The Chief Experience Officer

Of the five activities the study identified as top priorities amongst respondents, three dealt directly with shaping the customer experience:

  • Improving the omni-channel customer experience
  • Reinventing the customer experience through digital innovation
  • Championing a customer-centric corporate culture across the enterprise

To understand these priorities and the corresponding shifts in the CMO's role, consider the larger business landscape. In ever larger numbers, companies are transitioning from a product focus to a service focus. Venerable tech giants-IBM among them-have gradually repositioned themselves from creators of innovative products to providers of innovative solutions. In this environment, customer experience is an ever-more-important competitive differentiator.

Who within the organization is best equipped to understand the needs of the customer and deliver a differentiated brand experience? You guessed it-it's marketing, and the CMO must lead the charge. As one CMO interviewed quipped, "The role of the CMO is evolving into 'Chief Experience Officer.’"

A designer leans over a table

Image attribution: Kelly Sikkema

Embracing Customer-Centricity

It's unsurprising that marketing's shift in focus towards the customer experience is coinciding with significant growth in content marketing. Both stem from a changing, customer-centric understanding of the relationship between a brand and its audience.

In their report, IBM champions design thinking, which 79 percent of their highest performers ("Reinventor CMOs") use:

"CMOs who are design thinkers adopt an empathetic perspective. They put customers' needs front and center throughout the full continuum of engagement, which their teams continually test and improve. Instead of focusing on how to market their widget or service, they ask, 'What do our customers want? And how do we best serve their latent needs?’"

This mindset is likewise at play in content marketing: By flipping the perspective from "what do I need to sell to my customers" to "what do my customers need," marketers eschew sales-driven messages for content that is valuable in its own right, building customer relationships by offering informative or entertaining content experiences.

In some ways, marketing-driven customer experience reflects the tenets of content marketing writ large, which is to say, building a brand by providing exceptional experiences based on audience insights. By extending that mindset to the entire customer lifecycle, marketers who have already embraced content marketing and brand storytelling will have a leg up on their competitors.

A man's legs, in baggy pants and sneakers, hang above the shoreline as seen from above

Image attribution: Colton Jones

The Challenges Ahead for the Experience-Focused CMO

But just because many CMOs are already shifting to a content-led approach to marketing doesn't mean broadening that vision to encompass the entire customer experience will be straightforward. There are significant challenges ahead.

Deep Audience Insights

While the marketer's mainstays of market research and focus groups remain valuable for big-picture audience insights, digitally mediated interactions leave organizations with masses of unstructured data that can reveal a more detailed picture of the customer experience for those with the capabilities to process that data. Interestingly, less than half of the CMOs interviewed were investing in AI to provide insights for customer experience design, giving those who do a considerable advantage.

Personalized, Non-Linear Experiences

Classic models of the customer journey are woefully inadequate for the highly individual, non-linear relationships consumers have grown to expect thanks to hyper-personalized category-defying brands like Amazon, Netflix, and Facebook. While few brands are in a position to deliver a comparable experience (and Facebook's recent woes have vividly illustrated the downsides of algorithms run amok), CMOs must consider what a personalized customer experience could be for their brand and build the capabilities to deliver that personalization at scale.

A Single, Unified Brand Story

Even within the marketing organization, CMOs often struggle to maintain a unified message across all brand touchpoints, particularly with a large and dispersed team creating content for a multitude of channels. This challenge only grows when the CMO must extend her influence into parts of the organization that do not ladder up to her directly, such as product development, customer service, investor relations, or talent recruitment. Addressing this challenge requires action on three fronts: articulating a compelling overarching brand story, developing horizontal relationships such that other departments become champions of the brand story, and creating structures for enterprise-wide visibility into brand touchpoints.

Developing New Operational Models

Building off this last point, many if not most organizations lack the structures and processes to operationalize a unified approach to customer experience, in no small part because it requires disjointed teams to collaborate. Beyond building bridges at the senior leadership level, CMOs can empower their teams to develop cross-fuctional relationships themselves and to build shared processes and resources. Transparency between departments can stave off duplicated efforts and enable seamless, brand-aligned customer experiences across all touchpoints.

A woman in professional dress outside an office building, shot from below

Image attribution: Ta Mystika

The CMO's New Mandate

Under the umbrella of customer experience, the CMO has an opportunity to enter new territory. Freed from the strictures of product-price-place-promotion, the CMO can now shape the broader sphere of corporate strategy, championing the needs of the customer across all touchpoints and redefining customer relationships for the modern era.

If ever there were a time for the CMO to define her place at the executive table, this is it.

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Featured image attribution: Mar Cerdeira