4 recommendations to help CMOs turn digital transformation into recovery

The 2021 Digital Trends report makes four key recommendations for CMOs and customer experience leaders looking to harness digital transformation and lead recovery in 2021.

As brands look to recover and learn from the lessons of 2020, Chief Marketing Officers have a uniquely holistic role to play in the business recovery, research from Adobe’s 2021 Digital Trends report suggests.

According to the report, the dramatic events of the past year acted as an “accelerant for digital transformation,” positioning the CMO — as the custodian of the new, digital customer — in the box seat to help organisations understand new behaviours and translate them into insights and growth strategies.

Supporting this, two in three companies who have invested in technology enabling CMOs and other digital leaders to deliver, track and quickly evolve the digital customer experience outpaced their rivals in the second half of 2020.


“Businesses are all grappling with the same challenges: remote working, new digital customers, the need for greater convenience, changes in buying behaviour and, added to that, their employees’ and their customers’ well-being,” the research suggests.

Based on the responses of more than 13,000 participants, the 2021 Digital Trends report makes four key recommendations for CMOs and customer experience leaders looking to lead the recovery in 2021 — addressing the mind, body, heart and spirit, respectively, of the modern organisation.

1. Take a strategic stand

Nearly 70 percent of respondents who are pessimistic about their company’s prospects for growth in 2021 believe their organisation is in reactive mode and lacking a strategy, the Digital Trends report found.

Meanwhile, three in four respondents report that marketing has increased its influence in the boardroom as executive teams look to understand and cater to new customer behaviours.

The opportunity for CMOs and digital leaders is to translate their fluency with customer data and insight into strategic activity that can help develop new revenue streams.

“They will keep their place [in the boardroom] with deep customer insights and a specific point of view on how to act on them,” says Adobe’s Chief Technology Advisor Scott Rigby.

He cites Adobe customer Accent Group as a great example. The retailer operates shoe brands such as Platypus, Hype DC and The Athlete’s Foot, and boosted online sales by 69 percent last financial year, growing profits by 7.5 percent despite the pandemic.

During lockdown periods, the company focused on online and fulfilment, converting its retail outlets into “dark stores” to fulfil online orders, in the process growing its contactable database by more than 40 percent to 6.8 million.

Then-chief digital officer Mark Teperson, whose remit included omnichannel, marketing, ecommerce, merchandise and CRM, drove online sales growth at Accent Group during the pandemic. He has since been headhunted to be chief strategy officer at fintech Afterpay.

Actions for CMOs:

CMOs who want to retain their seat at the leadership table need to build a position of strength based on a foundation that should consider:

2. Develop the connective tissues between insight and action

Customer experience leaders are more than twice as likely as the average to have significant insights into new customer journeys, and they are better able to identify friction points, the Digital Trends report indicates. They are also three times more likely to be adept at building experiments to test those insights in the field.

India’s largest online beauty store Nykaa focused on selling essential personal care items during pandemic-related lockdowns, pivoting its ecommerce strategy to facilitate hyperlocal deliveries from its physical stores. It has also invested heavily in the digital customer experience, offering more than 850 curated online customer journeys.

“We have been an omni-channel retailer, and are reaping the benefits of the investments we made to push this strategy,” says Founder and CEO Falguni Nayar.

The company has invested in a comprehensive content marketing strategy based on “education, curation and personalisation” to build trust with customers, resulting in a 15 percent bigger basket size for content consumers.

In general, executives rank agility as the second most important organisational quality, with “innovation” placing first. The one in five respondents who rated their organisation as “very strong” in their speed of gaining accurate insights were more likely to be able to justify and attract an increase in marketing budget, the Digital Trends report found.

Chaminda Ranasinghe, Chief Experience Officer at higher education institution RMIT, says the role of marketers and experience leaders has expanded in recent times as the broader organisation has understood the importance of responding quickly to changed customer expectations.

“We’re having to do a lot more research and data gathering and turn those into meaningful insights,” Ranasinghe says.

The marketing team uses agile, contemporary working methods that include independent, cross-functional teams focused on particular audiences, developing hypotheses, conducting experiments and releasing minimum viable products.

In one example, Ranasinghe says the marketing team trialled a range of incentives, from smaller class sizes to more hands-on support, for students who came to RMIT to do an associate degree. In the end, offering a guaranteed place in a related degree if the student maintained their grade was the most effective offer. As a result, the number of offers involving guaranteed pathways rose from 50 in 2019 to almost 1000 in 2020 despite the pandemic.

Actions for CMOs:

CMOs and CXOs who want to strengthen the connective tissue and speed between insight and action should consider:

3. Focus your organisation’s customer empathy

Understanding how people feel is an “essential but often overlooked” part of the customer experience, according to the Digital Trends report. Customer experience leaders are more than twice as likely to have insight into the mindset of customers throughout the journey.

“Marketers excel at empathising with audiences and creating advertising that fosters an emotional bond with their brand,” the study suggests. “Applying that skill throughout the customer experience is how brands that cannot compete on convenience alone will thrive in their markets.”

Indian bank HDFC, which last year ramped up its investment in Adobe Experience Cloud technology, has been keeping close tabs on customer sentiment. Initially, HDFC communicated solidarity with its customers and then switched to action, removing minimum balance requirements and ATM charges for customer benefit. They further promoted social distancing through the innovative #SafetyGrid campaign that put its logo grid in front of essential businesses to help people remain at a safe distance.

It wasn’t until the second half of 2020 that HDFC began marketing relevant services, according to Chief Marketing Officer Ravi Santhanam, who says they have learnt the value of staying connected with customers during tough times — and that social distancing doesn’t have to mean emotional distancing.


Actions for CMOs:

CMOs who want to focus their organisation’s empathy should consider:

4. Examine your brand’s purpose (or explore why it doesn’t have one)

Companies with a brand purpose outperform their competitors and have happier, more optimistic employees, the Digital Trends report found.

When brand purpose is authentic, it motivates and inspires employees by speaking to why it exists beyond profit and provides the opportunity to change things for the better.

Unfortunately, only 40 percent of companies’ stated brand purpose meets these criteria, an analysis of 800 organisations’ brand purpose revealed.

At RMIT, the brand purpose is “to get students ready for life and work”. Ranasinghe says this has led to a focus on helping students develop resilience that will serve them well as they continue their studies during the pandemic and beyond.

The organisation has not only added counselling services, physical facilities and, at times, helped feed students during the pandemic, but has consciously cultivated a more flexible attitude to helping students academically. As one example, they worked with industry partners to provide practical experiences for students who were stranded overseas and unable to complete their course requirements, enabling them to continue their studies and graduate.

Actions for CMOs:

CMOs who want to improve their organisation’s commitment to brand purpose should consider:

As we emerge from a period like no other, marketing leaders should use their unique skills and technology, navigating economic challenges, new customer behaviours and the impact on staff by addressing the mind, body, heart and spirit of their organisation.