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13 min read

Owning your marketing superpower


This article was originally a talk at the B2B Marketing Festival.

I'm so excited to kick off with my favorite topic: owning your marketing superpower. First of all, let me thank you for taking the time to read this article. There are so many things you could be doing today, but you chose to be here, and that’s super cool.

Why should you listen to me? Well, I've been a marketing practitioner since 2004, and I have some side projects, including working as a mentor to marketing graduates and executives. I love to talk about brand marketing. On top of that, I'm a mom of two daughters. They're three and six this year, so I have a handful at home as well as at work. I'm also a writer. Originally, I'm from Malaysia, I’ve lived in Australia, and now I’m in Stockholm, Sweden.

Today I'm working as Chief Brand Officer at Oneflow. I've been with the company for almost five years. When I started, we were just 13 people. We just went public this year, and now we number more than 100 employees in seven countries. We also have customers in 25-plus countries.

Oneflow is a B2B SaaS company providing a complete platform for automating contracts. Our mission is to remove all the friction associated with contracts so that you can feel the contract magic, as we like to put it.

You’ve probably heard about e-signatures before, with companies like DocuSign, for instance. What we want to do is not just automate the signing step, but also the pre-sign and post-sign. We digitalize the entire contract workflow so you can create, collaborate, sign, archive, and manage all in one platform.

What is brand?

That was my shameless plug for the day. Now let's talk about marketing and brand. So what is brand? My go-to definition combines the wisdom of Jeff Bezos and Seth Godin, the father of marketing: Your brand is what other people say about you when you're not in the room, which influences their decision to choose you over your substitutes.

Now, brace yourself for my first outrageous statement of the day: every brand has a substitute. It's a war out there. As B2B marketers, our job is to change the culture, build the audience, do outbound at scale, and be top of mind when our audience is ready to buy.

We all know how B2B buyers behave today: they don't like to be sold to; they want to make the decision to buy. However, most of marketing's job is ultimately to turn our words, designs, and messaging into cash.

The power of world-class copywriting

The first battle you need to win is the battle for attention, and you can do this through powerful copy. The highest-paid copywriter in history is Gary Halbert. His legendary sales letters generated over $1 billion in revenue. That’s the difference between good copy and world-class copy: sales.

World-class copywriting means knowing what a potential customer needs to hear in order to be sold to and how it needs to be said. Does your copywriter understand your customers? Can they get into the customer’s shoes and speak their language? Do you know what good copy looks like?

A simple test to determine if your copy is good is to show it to a target customer. If they say, “Oh, it looks good,” that's not a good ad. What we want them to say is, “Wow! Where can I get that?” A good ad produces sales, not compliments or awards. As David Oglivy said, “If it doesn't sell, it isn't creative.”

How marketing helps win the wars faced by every B2B company

B2B companies are facing two different wars – every single one of us. First, there’s the war for talent. Research shows that 78% of candidates rank a clear, articulate brand purpose as one of the top considerations they would evaluate when choosing a potential employer. Then, of course, there’s the war of innovation. Anybody can copy a good product, so the pace of innovation that is happening today makes marketing even more important.

We can win these two wars by winning the battle of attention, winning the battle of trust, and winning the battle of preference.

Despite all the war talk, what we ultimately want to do is to create love. I believe that love is the ultimate growth strategy. When you fall in love for the first time, you always remember the surroundings, the sound, the feel, the smell, and everything that was around you during those magical moments.

We feel all of this because of the chemicals released in our brains when we fall in love. There’s adrenaline, which gives us a kick and makes us want more. Then you have oxytocin, which is the hormone that new moms produce when they breastfeed their newborns. Why? Because it makes them feel safe. Finally, there’s dopamine, the memory booster.

What we want is for people to fall in love with our brands and our products. These hormones will make them want more, they’ll make them trust you, and they’ll make them remember you. On top of that, with love comes referrals. According to a study by Accenture, 55% of buyers would recommend B2B brands that they love to their friends and family.

The evolution of brand marketing

As I mentioned, a key part of marketing is winning the battle for attention. Take a look at the ads below. They’re from the 1950s and 1960s and they remain iconic to this day. If you've been in marketing for as long as I have, you probably have these ads in your swipe file. They’re well thought-out, intriguing, and they make you want to know more.

Let’s look at some more contemporary examples. As you can see, they have very little copy; just a message with a heading and a visual that work together.

Then, of course, the internet came along and transformed our ads. Now they look like this:

The worst thing is that, while these ads come from seven different companies, if we cover up the brand names, we can’t tell where the ads come from. That’s because the internet exposes our mediocrity. By default, humans are lazy, and we put effort into our marketing, it shows.

Winning the war for talent

Ultimately, marketing has become the battle of clicks, and that’s not going to help you win the war of talent or the war of innovation. If you look at a typical CMO job ad today, you'll see that the list of responsibilities and requirements is longer than ever. Here’s the list of responsibilities from an ad I found on Glassdoor:

  • Develop and own our growth strategy
  • Build up a truly amazing marketing team
  • Managing and control the execution or marketing budget
  • Provide a relentless focus on metrics and data-driven decision-making
  • With the support of agencies, further establish our brand identity, including tonality, design/visual, messaging, etc.
  • Continuously develop the customer experience, including in-app and post-purchase
  • Negotiate and build relationships with agencies and other marketing partners
  • Collaborate closely with founders and cross-functional teams (in engineering, operations, and partnerships) to identify new opportunities to collaborate and drive customer acquisition, retention, and reach

That’s a whole lot of responsibilities!

The Harvard Business Review has done research on this. They analyzed an enormous number of CMO job ads and interviewed 500 CMOs and found that all CMO jobs are not created equal. There are three types of CMO roles; some focus on strategy, some on commercialization, and some on both.

The biggest chunk of CMO roles are commercialization roles. They involve spurring sales through marketing communications, and being responsible for advertising, digital content, social media promotions, and events.

Typical B2B marketing orgs

Let’s take a look at the different marketing organization structures you can find in B2B companies. Zendesk has the CMO at the top, overseeing the heads of product marketing, web development, corporate communications, and content marketing. It’s a bit of a mix.

Now let’s look at HubSpot, an inbound organization. Here, the CMO looks after the VP of Demand Gen, the VP of Product Marketing, the VP of Brand and Buzz, and the VP of Content. A lot of the SaaS companies I know are forming their marketing organization around HubSpot’s model. Again, the CMO has a lot on their shoulders.

GitHub has a very flat marketing organization, but with a range of different marketing-related roles under the VP of Marketing. They’ve got events, outreach, PR, branding and art, video, UX research, training, content, customer marketing, and sponsorship and field marketing.

What we're seeing here is a wide range of roles under the responsibility of the CMO. It’s time for another outrageous statement: in my opinion, CMOs breed mediocre marketing, but it's not their fault. Let’s look at why this is happening.

CMOs are being set up to fail

Research by Spencer Stuart and Gartner shows how out of whack with reality expectations for CMOs are in some organizations. As Chris Ross, Gartner’s VP analyst noted, CMOs are being set up to fail. It’s no surprise that the average CMO tenure is just three years and four months.

Harvard Business Review also published a series in 2017 called Why CMOs Never Last. They noted that the number of years on the job drops sharply after year three and that the CMO has the riskiest job in the C-suite. This is because the CMO role has changed more profoundly than any other C-suite position, and CMOs typically aren't given enough authority to do what's expected of them.

CEOs today want CMOS to be growth officers, but not all marketing executives have the capabilities, experience, and leadership style needed to lift revenues and profits and simultaneously learn to navigate and inspire a new culture. No wonder CMOs never last – there's a lot on their shoulders.

The evolution of the CMO role

Let’s look back at the evolution of the CMO role. From the 1950s to the 1970s advertising agencies were huge. Marketing was all about ad campaigns, and only consumer products could afford ad campaigns at that moment. We all remember all the huge headlines, big idea campaigns, and beautiful visuals from that era.

In the 1980s, Porter’s Four P’s were introduced, and marketing organizations started to realize that strategy without tactics wouldn't work. Sun Tzu, author of The Art of War, noted centuries earlier that, “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory,” and “Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” Marketing organizations eventually caught up and realized that they couldn’t just run ad campaigns over time; they needed quick sales activations as well.

And so, the first CMO title was coined in the late 1990s. After that, social media became big, and all of a sudden there was a data explosion, and CMOs found themselves scrambling to meet all the channel, platform, and distribution needs. Marketing became about much more than just the Four Ps.

We need to understand which channels work best for which audience segment. Of course, there’s been a technology boom as well, so we now have more tools to help us to identify what works and what doesn't.

Today, we’re starting to realize that the CMO title doesn’t really fit the bill anymore. We’re now seeing the rise of Chief Commercial Officers and Chief Strategy Officers. Then you have Chief Revenue Officers, or should it be Chief Customer Officers because the CMO should be taking care of the customer experience?

We’re seeing Chief Growth Officers too because more and more SaaS companies are leaning into product-led growth. But should they be Chief Digital Officers because everything we do is digital today? And what about brand? Where does that come into all of this? My point is that there is an explosion in C-titles and everybody's confused. What’s worse is that CMOs themselves are confused.

CMOs’ roles have become more complex and ill-defined due, in part, to the fact that the B2B buying journey is not always predictable. There is no straight line from awareness to purchase. The line is as linear as our thoughts and behaviors and the events that happen in our lives, so how do we capture every single touch point of this journey? We can’t, which is why brand is so important.

We could rely on Google Ads as the solution to all our problems – they’re just a spending competition, right? Put in as much money as you can, and you’ll be ranked number one. However, if it were as simple as that, SEO would take a hit – you wouldn't be able to scroll past the ads to get to your first organic rank. Ultimately, brand is the only asset you can control.

As Marc Benioff, CEO and founder of Salesforce says, “A brand is not just a logo. A brand is the company's most important asset. A company can’t ‘own’ its facts. If the company's facts (speed, price, quality) are superior to the competition, any good competitor will duplicate them, or worse, improve upon them as soon as possible.”

There’s research to back this up. McKinsey & Company found that companies that are perceived as strong outperform weak brands by 20% in profit margin. Brand is not just fluff that eats up your budget; it has a significant and tangible impact on your bottom line.

How strong brands influence buying decisions

Your brand has a real impact on the sales funnel. If buyers know about your brand, you’re going to be on the shortlist as soon as they decide they’re in the market for a solution like yours. That will give you a shorter sales cycle and a higher win rate too. Another advantage of a strong brand is not having to compete on price; people will pick you even if they have to pay a premium. Think about Starbucks vs a normal coffee shop.

Take a look at the chart below. If you paid attention in marketing 101, there’s a good chance you've seen it before. It’s from a study by Binet and Field, the godfathers of marketing effectiveness. It illustrates the different timescales that brand-building sales activation work on. Sales activation gives you a short-term sales uplift while brand-building provides long-term sales growth.

It’s like the difference between a sprinter and a marathon runner. Sprinters have well-developed upper bodies compared to long-distance runners; their legs and glutes provide them with that explosive start necessary for a successful sprinter. They’re also significantly larger and stronger than long-distance runners, who tend to be smaller and leaner. What type of runner are you? Could you be a sprinter-turned-distance-runner?

The rise of multitasking CMOs in B2B

As an ever-growing range of tasks and responsibilities fall onto CMOs’ shoulders, we have to be able to multitask, especially in B2B. We wear our financial hats as we work to increase pipeline and revenue, align go-to-market strategies with cross-functional teams, manage budgets, maximize ROI, and build our teams.

We also wear a creative hat as we innovate to guard and increase our brand equity. Our creativity allows us to align strategic narratives and positioning that grow with the product. It enables us to win the hearts and minds of stakeholders, influencing their decision to choose us over our substitutes.

Marketing is a huge profession. You have content, communications, channels, and campaigns, to name just a few of our specialisms. Content and communications create the message; channels and campaigns spread the message. They’re all measured on different KPIs and metrics.

I said a moment ago that we have marathons and sprinters in marketing; however, that distinction is not just about short-term versus long-term. In The Long and The Short of It, Binet and Field found that a 60:40 split of investment in long-term brand awareness to short-term sales activation balance will give us the kind of growth curve we want to see.

Take a look at the graphs below. The red curve is the sales activation curve, and then you have the staircase, which is the brand-building curve. As you can see, at the beginning of your journey, your sales activation activities probably won't give you the results you’re hoping for, but long term they’ll start working together in perfect harmony with your brand-building activities.

If you have a new CEO or even a new Chief Sales Officer on board, they might want you to do a lot more activation in the beginning because that will give them a quick win and some fast recognition. Short term, that’s fine; however, if you keep pouring money into activation and underinvesting in brand, you’ll see lower and lower returns.

We can’t be good at everything

What I really want to talk about today is superpowers. As marketing leaders, we have a lot on our plates; unfortunately, we cannot be good at everything. Of course, you can lead a marketing team and know a bit about everything, but trying to be an expert in everything is a one-way ticket to mediocre marketing. Would you rather create mediocrity or mastery?

According to neuroscientists, multitasking has a profound effect on our brain activity. When we drive without distraction, many different points in our brains are activated. If we’re chatting while we drive, our concentration is not that great and there seems to be less overall brain activity.

Neuroscientists have actually found tons of reasons why humans shouldn’t multitask. A New York Times article by Mayo Oshin lists some of these reasons:

  1. Multitasking can lead to permanent brain damage.
  2. Multitasking reduces efficiency and mental performance.
  3. Multitasking reduces focus and concentration.
  4. Multitasking could make you dumber.
  5. Multitasking creates stress and anxiety.
  6. Multitasking kills creativity.
  7. Multitasking can reduce emotional intelligence.
  8. Multitasking causes overwhelm and burnout.
  9. Multitasking leads to stupid decisions.

Do you really want to be that CMO who’s known for making stupid decisions? No.

Sadly, we can’t master sprints and marathons, so go and think about what your superpower might be.

Written by:

Mai Fenton

Mai Fenton

Mai Fenton is CMO at Superscript, a Series B London-based insurtech scale-up that provides flexible, customisable business insurance for small businesses and for high-growth tech firms.

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Owning your marketing superpower