Marketing: Leading the Way

First published June 10, 2010 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

At last week’s national Business Marketing Association (BMA) conference in Chicago, three marketing executives from three well-known B2B brands each made an interesting comment:

“In the 3M scheme of things, marketing wasn’t even a second-tier priority. It was fourth or fifth tier at best. But in the future, marketing needs to lead 3M.” — Jeff Lavers,  Vice President of Marketing, Sales and Communications, 3M

“Emerson didn’t even have a CMO before me. They didn’t believe they needed one.”– Kathy Button Bell, CMO, Emerson

“We’re announcing a marriage at GE. We’re not sure how they’ll get along, but IT and marketing are about to become married. We’re combining the two functions.” — Beth Comstock, CMO, GE

Wow! Three iconic B2B brands, each rethinking the role of marketing within their organizations. Is this a wave?

What Marketing Should Be

The reason I love marketing, at its purest, is because it’s the connection between an organization’s business model and their customers. Marketing owns that essential bond. But that’s a responsibility that has been abdicated by many organizations, and never explicitly acknowledged by others. That connection, that reason to do business in the first place, is ignored by a startling number of companies.

Marketing should be the voice of the customer, driving product development, service delivery, operation — indeed, every aspect of the business. That’s what Lavers was hinting at in his challenge to 3M. Companies need to be driven by their customers. Marketing should be accountable for keeping the two firmly in sync. But somehow, in the past several decades, marketing has become cheapened, to the point that the function was essentially abolished in many org charts.  3M relegated it to a seat way at the back of the bus. Emerson never even bothered to put in on the corporate directory until 10 years ago. Marketing needs to be put back on the org chart, right at the top.

The excuse in the B2B world was that there was no need for marketing. The channels owned the relationships with the customers.  But the digital marketplace is re-forging relationships between manufacturers and end customers. Suddenly, brands matter. Customer feedback matters. Conversations matter. Marketing has to be the one constantly reminding everyone inside the corporate walls that those connections are vital in the future.

The Marketing – IT Connection

So that explains the import of the comments from Jeff Lavers and Kathy Button Bell. What of the impending nuptials between marketing and IT at GE? What are we to make of Beth Comstock’s BMA announcement?

This signals a fascinating shift in the practice of marketing. If marketing takes over the wheel and drives the company forward, then IT has to provide the infrastructure to help it win. This will be an uneasy shift of power. IT is used to being the control point within organizations, though marketing folks would use a different label: “bottleneck” or ” black hole” is one I regularly hear. With the shift in importance of marketing, IT dragging their heels will no longer be tolerated. In their drive to be nimble, marketing will be pushing — and pushing hard. I see no signals here that indicate potential wedded bliss. Essential? Yes. Easy? Not on your life!

If America’s iconic B2B brands are now ramping up for a new kind of marketplace, one where they take back accountability for end-to-end relationships, we are definitely dealing with a new normal. But I fear many in the C-suite ponder the prospect with the same reluctance they would have about giving the kids the keys to the Porsche.  Sure, we’ll go fast, but we will be driving off a cliff?

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