Refocusing the role of marketing

When change is the only constant, how can marketing strategy help you stay ahead?

What do Airbnb, ZocDoc, and Spotify have in common?

They’re all examples of just how much consumer behaviors and preferences have changed in recent years. Today’s consumers would rather share than own; expect seamless, yet personalized buying experiences; and see value as being about more than just price.

The value propositions of companies that have emerged in recent years are evidence of this:

  • Airbnb allows travelers to rent rooms in homes around the world, offering a unique alternative to a generic hotel.
  • Venmo enables users to send instant payments to friends via a mobile app, meaning no more stress when splitting a bill.
  • Stitch Fix offers a new relationship model, using algorithms to mimic a “personal” stylist to assist busy female shoppers.
  • ZocDoc takes the headache out of finding a doctor to visit, displaying open appointment times and verified reviews of healthcare providers everywhere.
  • Spotify provides unlimited music streaming and tailored recommendations, changing what it means to purchase and discover music.

We surveyed 150 marketing decision makers across North America to learn their readiness to take on these new competitors. We found that they are anything but confident about being properly equipped to manage, and capitalize on, what the future holds.

  • 66% expect more change ahead
  • 44% are not confident about their departments’ preparedness for change
  • 87% are not extremely satisfied with their ability to handle change
  • 75% believe that marketing does not play a critical role in realizing the value of business strategy

We believe that to win, marketing strategy must be at the intersection of business needs and changing consumer desires. In fact, marketing strategy is the biggest competitive advantage you can have as a business because it puts you closer to the consumer than anything else.

Marketing strategy made to adapt to an ever changing world

Navigating this new world and reaching consumers in a real, relevant way is more challenging than ever. So, how should organizations adapt marketing strategy in order to maintain a competitive advantage?

We talked to 50 CMOs from a variety of mid-tier and top brands. We asked them questions like:

  • What keeps you up at night?
  • What has enabled you to stay ahead?
  • What do you believe is the role of marketing strategy?
  • How do you make marketing strategy matter in your organization?
  • What’s working well and why?

We distilled these conversations into 4 critical levers that all businesses can pull to ensure their marketing strategy is truly on the pulse of changing consumer desires and needs. Brands can use these levers to shape distinctive experiences across the entire value chain.


From profit to purpose

Companies used to invest in brands to raise awareness, influence the “upper funnel” and ultimately believe that a bigger funnel of aware consumers would lead to profitable growth. With the deluge of messaging across all channels, consumers must be able to connect with a purpose that is relevant, meaningful and demonstrates obvious value. This means making absolutely sure that your brand plays a real purpose in consumer’s lives, connecting with their lifestyle, beliefs and self-image.

As many know, LEGO was nearly bankrupt in 2004. 2003 sales were down 35% in the US (29% worldwide), and with escalating debt and costs the business was on the brink of disaster.

The brand was being overstretched as the business moved beyond brick toys into theme parks, apparel, and even video games. CEO Jorgen Vig Knudstorp famously quoted, “What we realized is that the more we’re true to ourselves, the better we are. We needed a permanent change in our lifestyle”.

LEGO defined a clear brand mission to inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow, with an aspiration to globalize and innovate the LEGO system-in-play. This purpose became the driving guideline(s) for how LEGO focuses their business and brand. For instance, no new product lines can be developed which do not innovate on the brick system in play – this means that the set must encourage creative play, inspiring building and provide a sense of challenge.


From engagement to empathy

Creating a thriving brand requires delivering purpose from the inside out. Companies are beginning to understand that they must empower employees to see themselves as valued contributors to constantly evolving the organization. Marketing strategy should include a clear relationship between the brand purpose and the role employees play to make this purpose real in the world. This encourages employees to perform their best—and in turn, affects how they relate to customers


Your marketing strategy has to be from the inside out… We now have 50,000 people working for us that believe in this idea of making America 20% healthier by 2020. Everyone in the company is rallied behind doing this.

Pam Orlando, Executive Creator Director, Humana

Cleveland Clinic
The Cleveland Clinic truly believes in applying empathy to their strategy. The organization hosts a boot camp for empathy, engagement and service behaviors. This 4 day inter-professional conference (now running 6 years) is devoted to exploring patient experience as a key differentiator essential to the future of healthcare delivery. It brings together patient experience leaders, healthcare executives, nursing leaders, policy makers and major stakeholders for presentations, debate and candid discussion of key issues that drive patient experience.


From big ideas to brave action

Being brave means looking beyond short-term gains toward long-term transformation, embracing disruption rather than rejecting it. But being brave in marketing starts with a brave innovation brief, which challenges the organization to ask difficult questions like, “what is the obvious value of the idea”, “what is the unfair advantage we have to win”, and “what is the tension and pain we will be solving for our consumer?” Creating a brief through these lens encourages ideas that are brave and fuels the courage for the team to follow through, even if the business case is not cut and dry.


Adobe is practicing brave innovation inside their organization, and giving its employees the permission and courage to bring ideas to life. Kickbox is a small, red cardboard box containing everything an employee needs to generate, prototype, and test a new idea. According to Adobe, the Kickbox is “designed to increase innovator effectiveness, accelerate innovation velocity, and measurably improve innovation outcomes.” Mark Randall developed Kickbox after finding out that “convincing management” was the most frequent response when Adobe employees were asked what led them to keep their ideas to themselves inside the business. Adobe believes so strongly in the program that they have open sourced the discipline online.


From efficiency to real-time agility

The linear, once-a-year process that once fueled marketing is almost laughably out of step with the pace at which trends shift today. Now, companies must use social data and analytics to adapt and react instantaneously. In many leading organizations, marketing is proactively uniting functions such as technology, corporate planning and finance to build forward-looking scenarios and strategies for how to increase customer value. Scenario planning will involve more of the organization, serving as a continuous and less rigid process.


“The most effective marketing organizations leave nothing to chance. In a world that’s increasingly unpredictable, scenario planning for multiple outcomes and situations is key. How do we respond if the regulator…? How do we respond if xx enters the market…? This actually means a lot more work but will also allow marketing teams to respond fastest and set the agenda.

Jenny Ashmore, Chartered Institute of Marketing


Netflix is a great example for a marketing organization which can rapidly adjust marketing mix, along with visual and verbal messaging to increase customer value. As a business, they use data analytics to inform what titles are licensed, how to drive conversion, what videos to recommend, all the way down to how data (titles, lead actors, UI backgrounds) is visualized.

Today’s marketers have more questions than answers. Many struggle to see the real ROI their work delivers to drive business value.

4 levers to help refocus marketing strategy

By putting into action these 4 levers, marketing professionals can confidently keep pace with their consumers, and clearly demonstrate their value to their business – even in times of rapid change. Clarity, empathy, bravery and agility should be at the heart of how data is collected, how decisions are made, how visions are made real. By doing this, marketing strategy becomes that tool for ensuring readiness and competitive advantage that keeps truly great companies growing.