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Valos Advantage: Why some CMOs are more successful at brand management than others


Valos Advantage: Why some CMOs are more successful at brand management than others


Michael Valos investigates the CMO’s role in brand strategy, from the technical skills to implementation, and argues it has implications across the business from finance to human resources.


This is the fifth in a series of articles that look at the six key specific marketing skills required by CMOs to be successful in the contemporary environment: strategic insight, digital strategy, marketing innovation, customer insight/marketing metrics, brand management and commercial/financial acumen.

Unlike some articles on marketing skills, the focus in this series is on a strong implementation link to strategy. The assumption underlying this series of articles is that senior marketers need more than technical skills to be promoted to be successful leaders.

A 2014 study by Mindshare shows brands at a potential crisis point. For example, in 2010, 66% of consumers agreed with the statement, ‘When I see or hear something interesting about a brand I like to pass it on’, but in 2013 that number dropped to 47% – a significant shift. A number of 2014 trends appear to be making branding an even more critical skill for marketers.

Social media allowing rich engagement and social media monitoring allowing measurement of reach and impact. Brands are now engaging in mobile and wearable media. Social media can deliver on emotional and functional brand attributes. This must be integrated into the overall brand marketing communication strategy.

Brands have to walk the talk in terms of standing for values. With information at the fingertips of consumers, companies can’t hide information as they could in the past. Apart from impacting customers, this also impacts recruitment strategy as some potential employees seek to work for organisations with values they can aspire to.


I conducted a series of focus groups with CMOs and marketing leaders from such companies as ANZ, AGL, Telstra, L’Oréal and Deakin University, and identified skills that separated the successful ones from marketers who plateaued career wise. The skills were then validated and reduced to six by two highly respected industry experts: Chris Khor, managing director of Chorus Executive and Anna Whitlam, managing director of Anna Whitlam People.


Part One: Skills and mindset of CMOs who successfully manage brands

Influencing and engaging stakeholders 

Peter Zafiris, sales and marketing manager at BlueScope, considers successful brand management to be something broader than a marketing department issue. Instead, he considers it an issue with organisational wide implications requiring organisational wide support.

He views a CMO is having a strategic role in persuasion and influencing other functional areas. “Influencing done well will provide internal brand alignment. This is the key skill of the CMO,” he says.

The need to show relevance of brand strategy to non-marketers in delivering long-term sustainable benefit for organisations is emphasised by Zafiris. “The CMO must first engage stakeholders to help them understand the brand values and brand promise and then deliver on the strategic business outcomes.”

Recent research shows marketing losing influence at senior levels of organisation and this suggests there was never such an appropriate time to sell brand strategy. Especially when organisations face so much complexity and change in the current external environment.

A passion for people: internally and externally

Mike Harley, founder of Percolate and formerly a CMO in a number of companies, such as National Foods, responds to a question about brand strategy skill in the following way: “In my experience, good brand marketers have a deep seated passion for understanding people, in particular their target consumers and/ or customers of their brands.

“The best brand marketers understand what makes their customers tick and why customers behave in certain ways. They do this to ensure their brand remains relevant to the lives of their target market.”

Harley echoes the sentiments Zafiris outlines above in terms of the importance of understanding organisational stakeholders. “The CMOs who stand apart are those that have the ability to set a clear vision and strategy for their brand with key stakeholders in their organisation.

“This vision is based on deep consumer/customer insights, which ensure internal stakeholders are aligned to the vision and understand their roles in achieving that vision.”

Harley has conducted research into successful CMO traits associated with successful brand management and these include: being self-confident, innovative, resilient and profit focused, using initiative, and taking risks.

Sharing brand meaning between company and customer

Deakin University brand researcher Dr Riza Casidy, from the School of Management and Marketing, has produced a number of top tier academic journal publications in the area of branding. Casidy believes that the most successful CMOs believe a strong brand should be designed on the basis of a company vision and what meanings the brand will convey to the target audience: “It is critical to understand what the customer, and not just what the marketing department, considers its important brand attributes.”

One concept Casidy finds particularly insightful is from the proponent of brand orientation, Mats Urde: “Urde stated that to be brand-oriented, the formulation of company strategy should be based on brands, rather than customers. This means that at times customer orientation can be a barrier to successful brand strategy implementation.”

Brand management metrics

Anna Whitlam answers the question of ‘why are some CMOs more successful at brand management than other CMOs?’ in the following way: “CMOs that successfully manage brand strategy have a clear understanding of the relationship between corporate and product brands, risk management and their alignment to share price.”

Underlying her viewpoint would appear to be the link between brand equity and share equity.

One risk that she may be alluding to is the risk when making brand architecture decisions. For example, mergers and acquisitions represent the chance to achieve marketing economies of scale, but ultimately lead to the choice between a house of brands (e.g. BP keeping the Caltex lubricant brand name after acquisition) and a branded house. These are particularly risky decisions that may result in alienated consumers when organisations seek to cut costs or achieve economies of branding scale.

Nevertheless, Whitlam considers that successful CMOs have, “The skill of developing appropriate brand oriented metrics as a means of successfully managing the critical relationship between corporate brand, product brand and risk management.”

Avoiding beige branding strategies

According to Chris Khor of Chorus Executive, “Successful CMOs manage brands by avoiding the ‘beige syndrome’. By this I mean they develop non- differentiated strategies and their marketing gets lost in clutter. These beige strategies may not result in failure, but they very rarely result in true success.”

Reading between the lines, Khor suggests that unsuccessful CMOs don’t take risks. Their brand strategies don’t stand out. One issue that may be related to Khor’s point is the fact that, these days, marketers are drowning in data collected through new technologies and this may result in strategies based on qualitative metrics, but it lacks a human intuition of creativity likely to lead to a breakthrough product.

The comment by Khor hints that the successful CMO needs to manage brand metrics and data in conjunction with retaining an intuition regarding differentiated branding.


Part Two: Beyond marketing – making strategy happen

As mentioned earlier, this series of articles attempts to bridge the link between six key CMO skills and implementation. The remaining section of the article identifies barriers to brand strategy implementation, as well as potential solutions.

When BlueScope’s Peter Zafiris is asked what he considers to be the greatest barrier marketers face in implementing brand strategy, he says: “Internal barriers are the most difficult. Everyone in the organisation will have an opinion when it comes to most appropriate brand strategy and everyone will think they are a marketer.

“As a result, successful CMOs need to push hard and quickly to overcome these barriers. The skill required to overcome this barrier are clever and clear reasoning and evidence-based marketing.”

Corroboration for Zafiris’ view is found in other responses such as the one from Percolate’s Mike Harley. He has also observed the organisational implementation barrier that prevents many well-conceived branding plans from becoming reality.

According to Harley, the CMO has a critical role in the executive team. “The major barrier to a CMO’s successful brand strategy implementation is lack of alignment and commitment to the brand strategy by the executive team in the initial instance and then across the key organisational functions involved in bringing the brand to life,” he says.

Functional areas such as sales, customer service and the supply chain need to be committed to the branding strategy. This commitment is necessary to ensure that all customer touch points are aligned and support a differentiated brand strategy appropriate for relevant target markets.

As mentioned earlier, Khor says unsuccessful CMOs seem to deliver beige branding strategies. To overcome this, she highlights a potential solution: “I frequently observe too much caution and compromise between CMOs and the wider business, creating a safe (but ultimately bland) strategy and execution. This failure to be brave can be an individual skill as well as a characteristic of an organisation’s culture.

“Further, this is not just a problem in marketing, but also in business, operations, HR and finance.”

Other implementation barriers to successful branding identified by Chris Khor include lack of insight, research or thought in branding strategy formulation, as well as lack of implementation resourcing.

Anna Whitlam identifies one barrier to implementing branding strategy. This particular barrier has at least two potential negative impacts. First, it can lead to a watering down of branding strategy and, second, it can result in slowing down an organisation in delivering to the market. Whitlam describes the implementation barrier this way: “CMOs spend a large amount of time influencing internally to get leaders of the business ‘on the bus’ with brand strategy,” she says.

“Successful CMOs are challengers and the successful CMOs can provide hard, objective facts on the potential organisational outcomes of their brand strategy.”

Successful CMOs develop a track record and are less questioned about the underlying logic of brand strategy.


In closing

These interviews highlight differences between successful and unsuccessful CMOs in terms of their skills in formulating and implementing brand strategy. With a 2014 Mindshare study showing brands in crisis and with digital technology making brand strategy more complex on one hand, yet providing more opportunity to engage on the other, never before have marketers required brand skills to this extent.


Michael Valos’ next article – the last article in this current series – will address the sixth and final skill needed by successful CMOs: commercial acumen.

You can read previous instalments of The Valos Advantage here.

Michael Valos

Dr Michael Valos is senior lecturer in the School of Management and Marketing at Deakin University, co-author of Integrated Marketing Communication 3rd edition, and chair of Marketing's industry advisory board.

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