Rebranding CMOs as growth officers doesn’t help market marketing

As another big global business hires a chief growth officer rather than a CMO, will it help to reframe marketing’s role within the wider business or is there a risk of further damaging marketing’s reputation by pitching it as something separate to growth?

Kimberly-Clark has become the latest business to install a chief growth officer (CGO) rather than a CMO as its top marketer, hiring Alison Lewis, formerly of Johnson & Johnson and Coca-Cola to take on the role.

The business, which owns brands including Andrex, Kleenex and Huggies, says her responsibilities include “leading the global marketing team, building marketing capabilities, and leading the corporate research and engineering team on creating consumer-inspired innovation”. She will also play a key role in the company’s initiatives to improve commercial capabilities that drive growth.

To me, that sounds very much like the remit of a CMO.

Yet Kimberly-Clark joins an ever-expanding roster of companies that have made the switch to chief growth officer. And these are mostly marketing-led organisations in FMCG and food and drink, including Mondelēz, Coca-Cola and Mars – surely they already understand better than most that marketing is, and always has been, responsible for driving growth?

With that in mind, reframing the top marketer as the chief growth officer feels purely like a renaming exercise rather than an overhaul of what the job entails. That was certainly the opinion of Lewis when I spoke to her two years ago, when she was CMO at Johnson & Johnson.

She described the chief growth officer role as a “symbolic” position that “makes it clear to people what [the CMO’s] role is”.

“To me it’s a positioning thing because of course my role is to drive growth. I always say I want more people to use our products more often. It’s that simple. If you interpret marketing as a fluff word and think it’s just all the over the top stuff, I think you’re absolutely wrong,” she said.

Chief growth officer is just a symbolic role, says J&J CMO

That certainly seems true at Kimberly-Clark, where it looks as if CEO Mike Hsu wants to make a point to shareholders and analysts (who typically don’t understand marketing as well as other areas of a business) about the job of the CMO.

“This appointment demonstrates our commitment to drive growth and excellence in the way we invent, market and sell our products across the world,” he says.

Risk of long-term damage to marketing

But could ditching the CMO role and moving what marketing does under the chief growth officer umbrella actually cause more damage to marketing’s reputation and standing within the wider business in the long-run?

It’s almost as if marketers are admitting defeat and confirming the suspicions of shareholders, analysts, and even their colleagues in finance and other departments, that marketing doesn’t have any real impact on business performance.

And dressing the CMO up as a CGO could actually create more of a void between what marketing does and the business outcomes it delivers.

Taking ‘marketing’ out of the title means the C-suite might continue to overlook the value of marketing. It’s almost like admitting marketing is a dirty word.

Where the CGO can make a difference

Yet there are times where a CGO can make sense. But it depends on how it is positioned within the company and the experience of the person taking on the role.

At Mars, for example, the CGO is a former marketer but she didn’t move straight into the chief growth officer role. Instead, Berta de Pablos spent two years running Mars Wrigley’s US confectionery business before she took on the position, bulking up her marketing expertise with general management experience.

“I actually think that in order to get to this role it’s important to have some general management experience,” she explained. “That way you understand what drives the growth of the business and you can get into this position. It helps you join the dots and orchestrate what is needed to drive growth.”

If the CGO is just a straight replacement for the CMO, it does little to elevate the standing of marketing in the wider business world. But as Mars shows, the position shouldn’t always be dismissed as merely symbolic.

If companies can prove the added value and different skills a CGO needs then there is value in the role. Whether this is the case for Lewis at Kimberly-Clark we’ll have to wait and see.