CMO’s strategic imperatives for marketing success in 2021

CMO’s strategic imperatives for marketing success in 2021



“2020 was the year of the unexpected.”

If you were to write something on the proverbial gravestone of last year, this line might be the opening sentence. Regardless of your industry or the state of your company’s balance sheet, it’s likely you can point to specific, surprising ways your brand was affected. Now, marketing executives like you are looking for proactive steps to return to growth despite the continuing uncertainty in 2021.

For inspiration, you can turn to the collective brainpower of the CMO power panel on The Conference Board/BrandActive recent webinar, “Marketing success in 2021: Strategic moves CMOs are making.” These leaders connected the disruption and pain of 2020’s crisis to specific innovations and decisions now propelling their companies forward in 2021.

Our expert panel included Bob Bejan, Corporate Vice President, Microsoft; Margaret Norton, Chief of Staff, Mass General Brigham; Paul Suchman, Chief Marketing Officer, Entercom; Paul Matsen, Chief Marketing and Communications Officer, Cleveland Clinic; Chris Hummel, Former CMO and CSO at Schneider Electric, SAP and United Rentals; and moderator, Philip Guiliano, Partner, BrandActive.

Here are a handful of strategic insights that emerged from the webinar.

1. Organizations are building on the tremendous momentum in innovation spurred by the pandemic.

There was furious agreement among members of the panel that the pandemic led to both the necessity and opportunity for innovation, as well as an increased appetite to invest in initiatives to identify new discoveries and ways of doing things in 2021 and beyond.

Bob Bejan shared how the necessity to move to all-virtual events has been transformative for Microsoft’s marketing department—and even more beneficial its customers worldwide. As his events team took a closer look at how they wanted to handle virtual events, they concluded that there were major gaps in technology that would hamper the attendee experience. At the time, Microsoft’s marketing team were not even using many of their own platforms for virtual external events. The pandemic gave them permission to work closely with their engineering teams to rapidly build out new features, and create a breakthrough, next-generation product launched in April of last year.  As Bob said, “We don’t make events anymore. What we make is interactive television.”

Paul Matsen shared that earlier this month, Cleveland Clinic made their largest single research investment ever. Partnering with the State of Ohio, JobsOhio and Ohio Development Service Agency, they launched an initiative focused on global and emerging pathogens and human health through their Innovation Center based in Ohio.

Chris Hummel shared his view about the inextricable link between innovation and data, stating that “Innovation is always data-driven.” Chris went on to say that organizations have never had so much data and that the key to unlocking innovation is no longer about merely capturing the data but rather about identifying how to use it and finding ways it will make a difference.”

2. Finding a way to inculcate digital interactions to leverage scalability and lower costs is a huge opportunity.

As we move forward in 2021, and in-person events begin to look possible again, the learnings from the past year on the effectiveness of digital events are important to note. Bob shared how Microsoft’s Build event went from 6,000 in-person attendees in 2019 to 197,000 in 2020—and how Microsoft’s interactions with attendees were more deliberate and valuable. Smaller group gatherings were possible even at this scale, and the cost per interaction was greatly reduced.

Chris Hummel added, “I think we need to recognize where technology and innovation can do it better, not just to replicate what we used to do.” The unique benefits of digital events should not be lost as in-person conferences return.

In industries like healthcare, this change from in-person to virtual interactions affected service delivery. Margaret Norton explained that in February 2020, patients at her health system, Mass Brigham General, logged 1,500 telehealth visits. But, by the end of 2020, they had completed over 2 million total visits. And while those numbers may decrease in 2021, she does not see a fundamental shift away from virtual doctor visits anytime soon. Margaret said, “We just have to really be able and ready for our patients—to think about how we’re going to care for them in ways that they became really used to, really fast—and kudos to them for that.”

3. Don’t lose sight of the long-term – plan to emerge from the pandemic stronger

In 2019 Partners made the decision to rebrand to Mass General Brigham uniting some of the most prestigious hospitals in New England into an integrated, patient-centric healthcare system.  Margaret Norton had this to share on their commitment to the rebrand in the face of the pandemic: “We had to continue the rebrand work because as hard as it was managing this pandemic and the work that our folks were going through, we knew that we would emerge one day. We needed to make good on that promise to present a united integrated healthcare system to the marketplace.”

This commitment to launching the new brand during 2020 paid dividends for Mass General Brigham. It helped to unify their voice when it came time to communicate to patients that it was safe to return to their doors in early summer. The work done by the team is helping to usher in a new wave of brand loyalty and recognition for Mass General Brigham.

Entercom also kept moving forward on key strategic initiatives. CMO Paul Suchman shared: “We are continuing to invest in our content, in our thought leadership. We are investing in our brand. We are investing in our marketing technology to be better … serving our consumer listeners and serving our clients, our revenue sources. And we’re also putting a premium on creative.”

4. Listen to your audience to spur your growth – and don’t be afraid of failure

Having an advertising-driven business model wasn’t without complications for Entercom in 2020. But their Chief Marketing Officer, Paul Suchman, discussed how focusing intently on their audience became their NorthStar. Utilizing data across the broadcast, digital and podcast spaces, Entercom doubled down on creating content and experiences to drive engagement. Entercom “…optimized music formats. We enhanced our sports offering, our talk offering, our news, with new programming, new voices, new content types. And our podcasting business produced some of the most influential and awarded work in the marketplace in 2020”.

Chris Hummel agreed – echoing the need to focus on understanding your buyers – and mapping offerings for them. But he also went on to comment on the importance to overcome the fear of failure. He shared, “Get out there and test new products, new approaches, whether it be new goods you’re offering, or new strategies. The best way to figure out whether they’re going to work is to test them and get them out into the market”.

For Cleveland Clinic, the pandemic brought into sharp focus the need to give the same level of thought to the caregiver experience as they do to the patient experience. Paul Matsen said, “We created an integrated office of caregiver experience, mirror images of each other because our caregivers play such an important role in care.”

To learn more about our panel’s views on, Marketing success in 2021: Strategic moves CMOs are making, listen to the full recording of the webinar or read the transcript, here.

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