How data and digital transformation is helping CMOs lead customer experience-driven brands

As businesses struggled to understand and cater to new customers, the role of marketing in setting strategy expanded throughout 2020.

The role of the chief marketing officer has undergone a once-in-a-generation reset over the past year as the world has adapted to new and rapidly changing circumstances following the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The most prominent shift for organisations in response was the sudden and wholesale transfer of business online – a shift that pulled marketing into the boardroom at an unprecedented rate, according to the Adobe 2021 Digital Trends Report.

“The digital shift was dramatic and ubiquitous,” the report found. “With few exceptions, brands must now view their digital strategy not as a component of marketing, customer service, or product, but as the core driver of customer experience and business growth.”

In most organisations, marketing has ownership of the digital customer, and this customer has been evolving rapidly: roughly half of organisations reported an influx of new customers and a similar proportion reported new buying habits and paths to purchase, according to the data.

“In our current situation, the digital environment took on enormous importance,” said one respondent to the study. “In most cases, marketing was already leading these projects, and it gained greater relevance and leadership in our company.”

As businesses struggled to understand and cater to this new customer, the role of marketing in setting strategy expanded throughout 2020, according to three quarters of respondents.

Now, with global vaccination programs driving renewed hopes of a ‘new normal’ emerging in 2021, the question facing many CMOs is how can they consolidate and retain this leadership role?

Real-time data and digital transformation is key to CMO success

In a changing environment, the ability of marketing to monitor shifting situations and the resulting impact on customer behaviour is critical, according to Adobe’s chief technology advisor Scott Rigby.

“We’re in a highly volatile environment, going in and out of lockdown,” Rigby says. “Those organisations that are more advanced do have a finger on the pulse of what’s happening in customer data in real time.”

Companies that have made a strategic, sustained investment in technology to deliver, track and manage the customer experience flourished in the second half of 2020. The 2021 Digital Trends Report shows over 70 percent of these organisations outpaced their competitors and were three times more likely to have ‘significantly outpaced’ their sectors than the average.

Investment in collating, understanding and acting on customer data will be the key to success for CMOs moving forward.

Using customer data to inform executive collaboration

The greater focus on customer behaviour in response to the pandemic has empowered CMOs. The value of customer data and insights has driven more collaborative partnerships in the boardroom, particularly with chief operating officers, chief commercial officers, chief information officers and chief financial officers.

CMOs must “identify and cultivate peer alliances and partnerships” to solidify their success, according to a recent Gartner study, Leadership Vision for 2021, which found 90 percent of board directors expect every functional leader to conduct strong, cross-functional collaboration during the COVID-19 crisis.

Supermarket chain Coles is a case in point, with CMO Lisa Ronson saying she met at least daily with the company’s chief operating officer and the chief of commercial to address radical changes in customer behaviour, from anxiety about supply of their preferred grocery items and staples, to panic buying.

“Very initially it was all about collaboration and communication,” Ronson says. “We were making decisions on much, much tighter timeframes than what we typically would as a leadership team. We were meeting daily if not twice or three times daily, and on the phone constantly just making sure we were all in the loop.”

The logistics, communications and merchandise involved in enabling customers to observe new hygiene requirements and provide guidance at the point of sale about social distancing had to be tightly coordinated.

Meanwhile, Coles’ research and insights team combined online customer data with in-store purchase data, call centre data, proprietary research and other sources, such as search activity on recipe website, to create a weekly customer sentiment report that provided insights into the changing patterns of customer behaviour.

“We’ve been really heavily leaning on all of our partners, not just our research and insights partners actually, our technology partners, who really sift through large large volumes of data on a minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour basis, and serve it up to us in a way that’s very insightful,” Ronson told Adobe’s Experience Makers Live event. “We’ve been drawing on a lot of those sources … to really understand the sentiment of all Australians.”

Understanding the insights behind customer data drove a series of cross-functional initiatives for Coles.

After customers began to stockpile staples, and once the company had adjusted its operations to maintain supply, Coles launched a bulk staples range and marketed recipes to help people learn new cooking skills, capitalising on that new-found collaboration.

“A lot of customers had never cooked from scratch before but they had a lot of flour,” Ronson says. “In June last year, 94 percent of Australians were cooking more than they’d ever cooked before.”

By September, the company had pivoted to launch the “What’s for dinner?” campaign, helping customers learn to cook new recipes and supporting a domestic baking boom, partly driven by the need for people to entertain kids while families were spending more time at home.

Building the technological foundation to drive digital transformation

Collaboration between CMOs and CIOs is a particularly important partnership as it empowers CMOs with the technology to generate insights that help deliver the experience customers are seeking.

Companies with cloud-connected data management are at a distinct advantage: two-thirds of those who were classified as CX Leaders used either one unified cloud-based platform for marketing data, or a data management layer connecting disparate systems, according to the 2021 Digital Trends Report.

Brands such as MG Motor India are seeing the benefits of a technological transformation, underpinned by close collaboration between the CIO Manish Patel, and the Head of Digital Marketing and Content Strategy, Udit Malhotra, to create a unified picture of the customer experience.

The company’s ongoing digital transformation is bringing its brand website, 50 dealer websites and digital screens in dealerships onto Adobe Experience Manager, so when customers interact with the brand on any of its digital properties, they have a consistent, uniform experience. The move has already contributed to a more than 400 percent increase in leads and a nine percent conversion rate.

The digital interactions between the brand and customers across these various channels are captured by Adobe Analytics, while the insights gathered are leveraged to further deliver personalised customer experiences using Adobe Target. Using data generated by Adobe Audience Manager, second-party data collected from dealers and their websites, and third-party data, MG Motor aims to increase its reach and segment size.

“Customer experience is paramount for MG Motor, and that means going beyond just marketing great ads,” Malhotra says. “Adobe’s understanding of content innovation, superior experience delivery and data prowess has enabled us to drive richer customer experiences across our digital and other platforms.”

Transforming new behaviours into growth opportunities

CMOs that can identify opportunities to create new revenue streams and generate growth from changes in customer behaviour are likely to be more successful than others at retaining their position at the leadership table.

It’s a big opportunity, according to Gartner, which points to the need for CMOs to address and overcome a “perceived lack of business and financial acumen” to continue participating in strategic decision making, as well as influencing those decisions.

Tourism Australia’s CMO Susan Coghill, who is part of the peak tourism body’s executive leadership team, is one marketer who is utilising customer data to identify and capitalise on new growth opportunities.

“One thing that we’ve seen born out of our site is that international travellers travel very differently than our domestic travellers,” Coghill says. “Particularly at this point where we’ve got this crisis happening and people can’t fly, there’s this uptick in need for road trip content, for example.”

To help service this need, Tourism Australia launched an online map to provide Australian travellers with useful information and click-through links for each state and territory for further advice. From customer behaviour, the organisation, which has made Adobe Analytics available to 80 percent of its marketing team, collects valuable insights into how domestic travellers are returning to the road.

The organisation is now encouraging Australians to plan domestic trips the way they approach international trips by building in “Bucket List experiences” and other extras that will help support the domestic tourism industry.

Agility based on insights

Agility and speed in turning insights into action was the second-highest priority among executives who responded to the 2021 Digital Trends Report, topped only by innovation.

For CMOs, such as Bangalore International Airport Limited’s Shalini Rao, that means using technology to track, improve and measure the customer experience.

Research conducted by Rao as the pandemic ramped up last year revealed just 24 percent of respondents were likely to fly once the airport reopened after lockdown, with most citing fears of being infected with COVID-19 (72 percent) as a key reason to avoid it.

In response, BIAL created a fully digitised “Parking to Boarding” customer journey that prioritises customer safety.

“We were the first airport to go completely contactless end-to-end,” Rao explains. “We went from having a digital transformation ‘plan’ mapped out over a year to suddenly having to do it all in three weeks.”

The transformation includes introducing QR codes at check-in kiosks, virtual video help desks to limit face-to-face interaction, digital scanners to read the barcodes on boarding passes and an improved system of managing queues and airport traffic to prevent crowding.

Efforts to engage customers during the pandemic using Adobe technology to help communicate and harmonise its customer safety messaging across platforms has helped the company grow its subscriber base by 30 percent despite the downturn.

“We’re still living in uncertain times – I can’t say for sure what the plan is, but I can definitely tell you we’re all asking ‘what does it mean for us today?’” Rao says.

Balancing short-term activity with longer-term brand outcomes

Rao’s comments point to the perennial tensions in marketing that have been exacerbated over the past year between short-term activities and the importance of continuing to pursue longer-term strategic brand outcomes.

Those brands that can quickly gain customer insights were more successful through the second half of 2020, the 2021 Digital Trends Report suggests, and their ability to prove the value of marketing is allowing them to increase budgets and continue longer-term brand-building activity.

Coles’ Lisa Ronson addressed the issue early by splitting the marketing team in two, with one team focusing on short-term COVID-related activities and the other looking at longer-term objectives.

Coles recently launched its new ‘Value the Australian Way’ brand positioning celebrating the Australian way of life, centering around food and gatherings of friends and family. The company has also increased its marketing and advertising spend as it looks to invest in its brand longer-term.

“[CX leaders] are more likely to be increasing spending on acquisition, retention and marketing overall,” the 2021 Digital Trends Report found.

In most cases, CMO success is built on data and understanding the digital-first customer - a position that many in the industry can build on in the times ahead.

Successfully identifying and working with peers to develop new revenue opportunities, as well as securing the confidence, investment and technology needed to support the brand, will also be critical as we move into the ‘new normal’ - and a new era for data-driven CMOs.