How can marketers hone executive level communication skills?

The chief marketing officer (CMO) is often responsible for driving digital transformation in a business, but they remain reliant on support from the C-suite, especially to secure budget approval. How can CMOs speak the language of their fellow senior executives to get the buy-in needed for their investment?

Published in association with Sitecore.

According to Syl Saller, CMO of Diageo: “As marketers, we should be experts in communicating to our audiences in the language they are going to understand and connect with. Doing this inside the business should be no different.”

The rationale is clear, but communicating the value and vision of digital transformation can be a complex task. Paige O’Neill, CMO of Sitecore, says the first big challenge is getting alignment with the wider business. “In many companies, digital transformation is still an initiative driven by the marketing department. The rest of the C‑suite usually understands that it is important, but they dramatically underestimate the complexity and cost involved, which means they underinvest from a resource perspective,” she says.

There are four key areas in which marketers can make sure their message is not only heard by the wider C‑suite, but also resonates in an impactful way.

Ensuring metrics are meaningful to other executives is critical. This means understanding their pain points and tailoring the measurements accordingly. As Ashley Mealor, CMO at Vision Direct, says: “Marketers will interact with colleagues in finance, operations, procurement, among others, so it’s always useful to tie their activity back to margins, return on investment, turnover, investment. This will bolster their credibility by demonstrating they share objectives with the wider executive team rather than working in isolation.”

Yet, all too often, CMOs are asked to provide arbitrary figures that don’t reflect marketing effectiveness. They are frequently based on outdated notions of what needs to be measured, but technology has changed everything. Ms O’Neill says: “We need to be measuring a whole new set of metrics around the customer journey: what path leads them to have the most successful interaction with the brand, where they are falling out of step with the path we want them to follow and so on.”

Two-way communication

There is also an art to presenting results to the board, who will often be pressed for time and focused on a specific topic or agenda. Mr Mealor says: “There needs to be constant two-way communication between marketing and the board to ensure everyone is on the same page. We find that monthly board meetings for updates work best to keep everyone informed. We then have quarterly business reviews that allow for more in-depth reporting to the board.”

Regular one-to-one dialogue is also invaluable. “I talk to a lot of CMOs who are reluctant to have out-of-cycle interactions,” Ms O’Neill says. “But I have regular interactions with members of the board to ensure key topics are discussed, even if they don’t end up being presented at the board meeting.”

One of the best attributes a marketer has is their creativity, but it shouldn’t just be used to engage an external audience. As Kevin McNair, marketing director at KP Snacks, says: “Marketers typically don’t do a great job marketing their own function. They need to understand what certain people think and do now, and what needs to be deployed to get them to [act] differently in the future. It’s basic behavioural marketing.”

Using customer insights to tell stories about how the brand is being experienced, highlighting both success stories and worst-case scenarios, is a key tool. “Statements always need to be rooted in research to be credible, but creativity can bring them to life for the rest of the executive team,” says Mr Mealor. “Presenting customer insights, vox pops, mock-ups and visualising solutions helps put everyone on the same page.”

Narrative around data

Marketers should harness data and build a narrative around it, finding the sweet spot between art and science. Ms O’Neill says: “You have the data you need to convince the C‑suite that digital investment in customer-first approaches and new infrastructures is critical to the business, so instead of going in and just presenting data, we should be taking the data and putting it into a story for the business.”

Technology has become an integral part of every aspect of business, but some C‑suite communication skills are more technically advanced than others. Using technical terminology can alienate, rather than impress, an executive audience, failing to advance a marketer’s case.

Jascha Kaykas-Wolff, CMO of Mozilla, is resolute: “There is no exception. Marketers should never use jargon.”

Mr McNair takes a similar standpoint. “I am a great believer in staying away from jargon. At KP Snacks we have [a mantra], ‘Make the complex simple’. People who hide behind jargon tend to have something to hide.”

It comes back to a fundamental marketing skill of understanding the customer and tailoring communications accordingly. As Leor Franks, CMO at Augusta, says: “Working with fellow C‑suite members is no different; align the terminology used to their skill set. Use accounting language with the chief financial officer (CFO) where you can for maximum impact, but be aware of your own limitations.”

Ultimately, jargon risks causing confusion and diluting the message. Ms Saller points out: “Technology is moving so fast that none of us can claim to be experts and ensuring everyone who is involved in key decisions shares a basic understanding of a particular technology’s connection to growth is critical.

“As marketers we should be experts in communicating to our audiences in the language they are going to understand and connect with. Doing this inside the business should be no different.”

Strategic insight

Marketers have a direct line between the customer and an organisation’s wider business functions. It puts CMOs in a strong position to deliver strategic insight that may not otherwise be unearthed, enabling them to deliver huge value to the C‑suite.

Mr Franks says being the business’ champion of the customer is critical. “Insight from customer feedback and brand surveys, for example, can be an illuminating source of strategic insight. And benchmarking to industry peers can provide vital competitive intelligence.

“I’ve worked with numerous such surveys over the years; being the executive with this insight and sharing it with others to help shape their thinking is a significant value-add.”

Ms O’Neill shares this view: “If you have a conversation about driving technology across the organisation which is grounded in customer conversations and data, that is pretty powerful.”

Reinforcing strategic worth is ultimately about strengthening the whole business. As Mr Kaykas-Wolff says, the marketing function should leverage information such as research, customer feedback and market trends to ensure other parts of the organisation, such as product and service teams, can make better decisions.

He adds that Mozilla operates its marketing function like a company, “improving the business acumen across the company, developing the business model and setting up an organisation that is directly accountable to the [wider organisation]”.

Marketers are well equipped to ensure their case for digital transformation is heard by the right people in a compelling way and the onus is on them to deliver. It is a matter of deploying both their core skills and the data at their fingertips. But treating the C‑suite as individuals is critical.

“In extremely simplified terms, a CMO drives revenue, a chief operating officer drives margins, a CFO reduces costs and a chief executive holds everything together,” Mr Mealor concludes. “If CMOs understand everyone’s pain points and adapt the way they interact with other C‑suite members, they should have very few problems getting their views across.”

To learn how marketers can build a business case for digital transformation click here.