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5 CMO strategies for marketing in turbulent times

Clive Armitage

October 13, 2022


By anyone’s standards, the last three years have been a challenging time to be in B2B marketing.  Just as we start to see the green shoots of post-Covid growth, from an economic perspective, we find ourselves in volatile and uncertain times and marketers are being asked, once again, to do less with more.  But while an immediate business reaction might be to cut marketing budgets, hundreds of years of research would suggest that this is, in fact, counter productive.

While in our New York office recently, I hosted a number of key, US-based CMOs and market leaders to discuss this very issue, as well as to find out how people are coping and share best practices with industry peers around marketing during tough economic times.

Good marketing strategy aligns closely to business strategy,  and to provide that rounded view, we were fortunate to be joined on the ‘panel’ by Matt Preschern, Chief Marketing & Demand Generation Officer for NTT, a charismatic and vocal marketing industry veteran who has defined the strategic direction for many global technology brands, and Gary Kirkham, Partner at Centerview Partners and one of the leading technology economists in North America.  Following 25 years at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Gary has a unique perspective on the pressures company boards face in relation to investors and how marketing can support in terms of growth.

As always with these events, the conversation was lively and thought provoking, and while we covered a myriad of topics, there were nevertheless 5 overriding themes that justify broader airtime here:

  • What if the glass is actually half full?

The late racing car driver, Ayrton Senna, once famously said: “you cannot overtake 15 cars in sunny weather… but you can when it’s raining.”  In other words, while economic uncertainty can be worrying, it is often the best time to make an impact and get ahead.  During our discussion, Gary supported this sentiment when he talked about the challenges of planning.  With many organizations currently on the eve of planning cycles, putting effective measures of success in place can be testing.  Pivoting the measure to market share, Gary believes, is what companies should be aiming for at times like this. It’s an opportunity to strengthen the business, invest, and establish advantage over competitors.  So rather than getting caught up in ‘recession mania’ and the negative side of the economic situation, the view from the panel was to keep positive both personally, and with your brand messaging and measure what matters.  Fasten your seatbelts during this temporary stage of turbulent economic times and brace for impact!  As Matt quoted at our meeting last week ‘never waste a good crisis!’ 

  • Assess your company’s value proposition

In tough times, many companies – and certainly all public companies – will scrutinize their financial profiles and spending, so it is imperative that your external communications have an explicit economic value component as customer budgets come under the spotlight. Ask yourself whether your company messaging includes clear communication of a benefit that is articulated in financial terms.  For example, if your proposition is around migration to cloud, ensure there is an economic value equation that goes above and beyond just the cost takeout.  In the spirit of the point above about avoiding getting caught up in the negative narrative, focus on the positives.

  • The value of employer brand

The significance of brand values doesn’t stop at external audiences, though; employer brand is just as critical during challenging times, particularly against a backdrop of the Great Resignation.  Your people are your most important asset, so it’s crucial you have an understanding of who they are, what drives them and why they choose to work for you. This cannot be underestimated: your employer brand matters just as much – if not more – than any product or solutions proposition and this is another reason to remain positive in all messaging to all audiences, whether they be outward or inward looking.

  • In a hybrid world, less is more

In its recent ‘9 Actions for Winning Through A Recession’ guide, Gartner highlighted nine actions across three key areas to help position organizations for success, with one of those key areas being the acceleration of digital and technology initiatives.  In our discussion, however, this recommendation came with a cautionary note that, despite the acceleration of digital technology during Covid, we are, as marketers, very much operating in a hybrid world today.  And while investment in digital technology and assets is essential, it should nevertheless be remembered that there are, once again, opportunities to engage with customers in-person, too.  But engaging in parallel and presenting a consistent experience is hard, so when it comes to hybrid marketing, less is definitely more!

  • Keep your customers close, but be agile

Depending on which report you read, we all know it costs 5-7x more to win a new client than to grow an existing one, so should you double down on customer focus, or invest in winning net new?  According to our guest speakers, it’s not a question of either or, it’s about focus and agility. Focus on the 20% of customers that provide 80% of revenue, but equally, be agile enough to keep in mind the infamous quote from boxer Mike Tyson: ‘everyone’s got a plan until they get punched in the face.’  In other words, maintain this focus, but remain agile enough to make adjustments along the way if necessary.  

It was the last point about customer retention and acquisition, as well as focus on the most important customers (the Pareto Principle) that got me thinking about the significance of ABM and the role it plays during a recession.  Having that depth of insight and understanding about each of your customers not only informs the marketing campaigns you run, but also enables sales teams to get closer to customers in terms of understanding when and where revenue will come from, thus aiding planning and certainty during uncertain times.

I will expand on this thinking in the form of a blogpost which I hope will be both thought provoking and of benefit to you as fellow ABM marketers at a time when results are under scrutiny.  Watch this space!

In the meantime, I’d like to thank Gary and Matt for sharing their valuable insights and experiences with us, as well as the marketing leaders in attendance for their thought provoking input and reactions to the discussion.

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