Retail CMOs’ Changing Roles and Their 5 New Imperatives | RetailNext

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Retail CMOs’ Changing Roles and Their 5 New Imperatives

Marc Dietz
Marc Dietz
Chief Marketing Officer

Immersed in an ever-changing industry, retail CMOs are developing customer experience strategies side-by-side with branding priorities. But, since when did it become two separate strategies?

This article was first published in the Summer edition of The Robin Report, as well as on the The Robin Report site.

There’s a lot of buzz these days about new CMO imperatives around customer experience, and it’s often spoken and written side-by-side with age-old priorities like branding. As such, I am struck by a Screen-Shot-2015-09-14-at-2.08.23-PMdisconnect still too prevalent in many companies … since when are these two things separate?

I realize if we ask 20 marketers to define branding we’d likely get 20 different and not altogether incorrect answers. But for me, the definition goes something like this: your brand is the sum total of all experiences both positive and negative that your customers have with you, whether initiated by you or not. Notice how the combination of “customer” and “experience” is really the core point?

Brand and Reputation

It’s important to note there is a subtle difference between brand and reputation, and between branding and your brand. Your brand is more than your reputation, but reputation heavily influences the brand, and your brand is not entirely under your control. It’s also defined by the results of customer experiences you didn’t plan as much as branding actions you did, and, of course, the degree to which customers share experiences with others. One author, Jay Baer, defined branding a few years ago as: “Branding is the art of aligning what you want people to think about your company with what they do think about your company. And vice versa.”

In just 5 years, Warby Parker has illustrated the inherent linkage between customer experience and brand. Pricing is part of the Warby Parker value proposition, but the innovations with omnichannel and in-store retail are key. As they put it: “Our retail spaces combine the snappy ease of online ordering with the fun and serendipity of real-life shopping (with a photo booth or two). We can’t wait to meet you!” And they live up to that. Great experience, great brand.

Stormy Seas of Change

So while reputation, brand, branding, and customer experience have specific differences, they need to be considered simultaneously and holistically, regardless of the company and its industry. And, as if the role of the CMO isn’t changing fast enough, the retail industry itself is undergoing major disruption and rapid transformation – in equal parts due to innovative disrupters like Warby Parker and a newly empowered shopper who is clearly in charge. As a result, retail CMOs certainly have their work cut out for themselves, and five key imperatives sit squarely in the eye of the storm.

1. Go Beyond a 360-Degree View of the Customer; or Your Competition Will

As CMOs in all industries now build “360 views” of customers as comprehensively as they can, retailers need to go even further, expanding the horizon to better understand not only customers but shoppers and browsers in the stores as well.

Online shopper insights have evolved a great deal over the last 15 years, but in stores there has remained a black hole of information. We’ve known from basic traffic counting how many people come into stores, and if they swipe a loyalty card at the POS we then know a great deal about them.

But, what about shoppers who don’t make a purchase? Are they new or repeat shoppers? What percentage of male versus female or different age groups shop your stores? Are they tourists or locals? Did they drive a mile or 50 miles to get to the store? Where did they shop before and after they visited your store? And, once in your store, how did shoppers use their mobile devices?

With traffic down in physical stores and consumer behavior changing rapidly across channels, retailers today cannot afford to let their competition know more about their shoppers and customers than they do.

2. Become BFFs with Your Head of Stores

The need for the CMO and Head of Stores to act together is critical. Retailers must succeed in creating a seamless omnichannel experience and many efforts and budgets are going towards online and now mobile experiences. But 93% of retail sales are still finalized in the physical stores, and the touchpoints that can make or break the customer experience are myriad.

How do staffing levels improve or destroy customer experience in the stores? How do layouts of stores, queues at service areas, signage, and sales associate interactions translate into a better or worse customer experience?

Just as it’s critical for CMOs in any industry to cultivate closely aligned partnerships with their CIOs, it’s imperative for retail CMOs to do so with their store operations counterparts.

3. Capitalize on In-store Mobile Shopping

Part of better understanding shoppers in a retail store environment includes better understanding how they use, can use, want to use and would be willing to use their mobile devices as part of the in-store shopping experience.

While not the hot buzzword it was a couple years ago, perhaps, one important challenge is still showrooming – shoppers experiencing a product in-store, then buying online, sometimes still standing in the physical store.

Today, retail CMOs can know which websites shoppers are navigating to, what they are searching for, what the results are – including prices, and even what items are add to a shopping cart.

Armed with this knowledge, retailers have the opportunity to define proactive and reactive tactics: proactive to encourage shoppers to engage first within the brand on their mobile device, with a clear value proposition that keeps the sale in-store or within the brand; and reactive in cases where there is a real-time opportunity to engage and reinforce your brand value for next time or perhaps even “intercept” that sale before you lose it.

4. Find Your Brand’s Own Line Between Personalized and Creepy

Becoming more relevant and more personalized in how to engage customers is no longer a new imperative. Nor does “don’t be creepy” require any discussion. But the imperative lies in the subjectivity of the topic and the differences across industries, brands, customer segments, individual customers, or even the same individual customer in different channels or with different communication vehicles.

So where is the line between creepy and personalized? The answer is, of course, “it depends.” It depends on your brand, the level of trust that exists with your customers, the content, and the context.

Is it creepy for Amazon to suggest what else you might like to purchase? Is it creepy for a Nordstrom personal shopping assistant to recommend a look based on what you purchased before and a real-time optical scan (i.e. with their eyes) of your body type, hair color, and skin tone? With today’s changing retail landscape, this kind of brand-customer-content-context-medium audit should be done at macro- and micro-levels, and is now even more critical considering new personalization capabilities such as proximity marketing, smart fitting room technologies, targeted offers via SMS, and even sales associate training for in-person engagement and post-sales follow-up.

5. Push the Envelope on Experimentation and Measurement in the Stores

One of the biggest changes in the marketing discipline in recent years is the need to be more data-driven. Measure, measure, measure. Test and learn. Again, not new imperatives at this point, and in the digital space, much of this is pretty easy, such as A/B testing email subject lines for better open rates or greater conversion.

In stores, it’s much more difficult. We can measure redemption of a physical coupon or changes in sales at POS, but until now, it’s been nearly impossible to appropriately attribute sales to a given tactic. How did a new marketing campaign perform with respect to driving shoppers into the store? How did a cross-channel campaign from online to store actually convert to sales? What impact did signage, mobile-based personalized communications, or other in-store offers have on traffic, conversion, and sales?

Attribution is a double-edged sword … it is increasingly difficult to measure ROI on a given tactic with multiple things going on, and yet we, as marketers, need to move fast and experiment more with multiple programs and tactics. It is easier to choose either/or but the imperative on retail CMOs today is to find a way to do both.

Changed Role and Integrated Approach

Whether a CMO’s approach to branding and customer experience has been fully integrated all along or not, it is encouraging to see a new consolidated focus emerging, especially as it relates to the CEO. A recent joint study published by Gartner and The CMO Club highlighted the “CEO’s number one increased expectation of CMOs is to step up to leadership of the integrated cross-functional customer experience.” Now, that is great to see, especially in retail.

It’s anyone’s guess as to whether it’s the retail industry or the role of the CMO that is changing faster. But clearly the confluence of both is creating a perfect storm raging directly at retail CMOs. Just like any strength could be eroded by a threat in a classic SWOT analysis, every imperative is also an opportunity. Those retail CMOs who best capture these opportunities will be the ones to ride out this storm, perhaps not to calmer waters, but to long-term customer loyalty and growth.

Share your thoughts on the changing nature of the retail CMO role on Twitter @MarcDietz and @RetailNext.


  • Devika Girish

    Great read, Marc. Like you said, today it has become increasingly critical for retailers and brands be able to meet today’s hyper-connected consumers on their terms, across all channels of interaction, by serving their ever changing needs, preferences and in-store behaviour. This is where beacons come into the picture. Yet, in their haste to catch up to the beacon hype, many brands are rushing through their beacon pilots without putting enough thought into it. And this has resulted in a number of unsuccessful beacon deployments. So much so that, many marketers consider beacons to be a mere buzzword. However, there is more to beacons than merely pushing offers. We have discussed in detail about 5 reasons why businesses should invest in beacons now here: