Russell Parsons: Why CMOs aren’t always the best brand guardians

Russell Parsons

Tesco is on the hunt for its fourth marketing boss in three years. Chief customer officer Robin Terrell has resigned from the supermarket to pursue pastures new. Since 2014, the UK’s biggest retailer has undergone a series of departures, rethinks and restructures at the top of its marketing tree.

Even though the rate of change at Tesco is notable, the pattern reflects reality – CMO tenures are short and getting shorter. The Marketing Society and Spencer Stuart, who put average UK and US tenure at 18 months and two years respectively, have shown the increasingly promiscuous nature of brands and CMOs perfectly.

It is said that having a changing cast at brands is counterproductive. New faces might bring fresh ideas, but new thinking can also be disruptive. The success of a marketer is dependent on the influence they can carve in an organisation and that is almost entirely reliant on the relationships they forge internally and externally. How can any of this be achieved and therefore how can a brand grow if the person at the top has itchy feet?

We published an article 18 months ago that posed the question ‘who are the real brand guardians?’. Taking the position that a company’s top marketer might not necessarily be the answer. Among the possible alternatives offered was the brand’s agency of record. Elsewhere in the piece, BBH London boss Ben Fennell argued a company’s CEO is its “head of brand”, adding “the brand is defined as much by the actions of a business, not simply its marketing”.

Tesco CEO Dave Lewis has led a process of what he is fond of describing as “brand cardiology”, since the grocer’s darkest days in 2014 when the accounting scandal sent its share price and brand reputation spiralling south. Lewis, with Terrell and brand director Michelle McEtterick, looked back to learn not what had made it the global behemoth it became in the 90s but what had made consumers like it in the 70s and 80s. This process led to a “rearticulation of purpose” that now guides its marketing activity.

Whatever you think of Tesco’s new ‘Serving Britain’s shoppers a little better every day’ mantra,  it underpins all customer-facing activity. It is also co-created and therefore heartily endorsed by Lewis. Tesco will, of course, miss Terrell’s experience and multichannel nous but it now has a sense of self that had been missing.

Although an ever changing cast at the top of any marketing function can be disorientating, a business with a direction is more important.

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