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The CMO’s Strategic Imperative

By Noah Elkin | January 14, 2021 | 0 Comments

marketingDigital Marketing Strategy and ExecutionMarketing Leadership and Strategy

They say “culture eats strategy for breakfast,” but before you tuck into your morning meal, consider what’s on the CMO’s plate in 2021. In light of the severe (and ongoing) disruption companies have experienced in the past year, the CMO’s strategic imperative has never been greater. So look before you eat … because CMOs face a full course of challenges as they seek to return their organizations to growth in 2021 (or extend their 2020 growth path).

The Strategic Imperative Demands Prioritization

As my colleagues Jay Wilson, Augie Ray and Anna Maria Virzi note in their topline findings from Gartner’s CMO Strategic Priorities Survey 2020-2021 (Gartner client subscription required), challenges include (but are not limited to):

  • Ongoing economic uncertainty stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, 
  • The rippling impacts of the pandemic on consumer behavior (see this post by Kate Muhl and this one from Claire Tassin to highlight just a few relevant examples),
  • An increasingly competitive business environment punctuated by disruptive new entrants as well as resurgent incumbents, and 
  • Social and political polarization.

CMOs also face considerable challenges in executing against their digital strategy, from leveraging integrated customer data to selecting the right technologies to support digital marketing efforts to delivering personalized experiences to customers. We’ll explore these challenges in more detail in our 2020-2021 Digital Marketing Survey later in Q1. Suffice to say that more than 50% of digital marketing leaders rate them as moderate or significant hurdles to digital marketing strategy execution. Throughout, CMOs remain on the hook — and under mounting pressure — to deliver business results against a fast-moving consumer target.

Selective focus photography of an arrow, signifying the CMO's strategic imperative and the challenges marketers face in reaching their target audiences
Photo by Ricardo Arce on Unsplash

Reinvention Drives Strategic Focus

Marketers seem intent on meeting the challenge to deliver results by resorting to a classic move: selling more of their existing products to existing customers and selling new products to those same customers. Among respondents to our CMO Strategic Priorities Survey, 73% said they will focus on existing markets to fuel growth. New customer acquisition isn’t off the table, but it is definitely taking a back seat — for now.

But, it’s not just a matter of falling back on the tried-and-true. Many CMOs are doing so with a twist, focusing their efforts on reinventing key strategies to best position their organizations for a postpandemic return to growth. As my colleagues wisely note, you can’t do everything at once, so being selective and prioritizing those strategies with the greatest potential for kickstarting growth in the short term is crucial.

Doing More With Less

Of course, resisting the urge to do more or try more will be difficult, because, as we know, marketers are inherently an optimistic bunch. We saw that reflected in Gartner’s 2020 CMO Spend Survey, where respondents expected short-term budgetary contractions in 2020, but a rosier outlook for 2021, even in the face of significant economic turmoil.  As we advance headlong in 2021, the harsh reality of new budgetary pressures may require CMOs to temper their optimism. If 2020 brought cost optimization to the fore, 2021 looks to be a year of ongoing cost management.

Delivering on this manifold strategic imperative means balancing in-demand skills, resources and support, both from internal team members and external partners. It may also require CMOs to further develop their own skillsets, including focus areas such as financial acumen to better align with organizationwide cost management initiatives and digital know-how to help accelerate the organization’s digital transformation.

Culture may eat strategy for breakfast, but what’s on the menu is no blue-plate special. In light of the challenges that lie ahead, don’t think of the CMO’s strategic imperative as anything close to comfort food.

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