When it comes to consumer products, many C-suites continue to pursue growth by committing massive resources to 20th century engagement strategies. They claim tech upgrades and new tactics as innovations while marketing — once entrusted with the sacred responsibility of shepherding consumers’ relationship with the brand — reactively supports new launches. But we’re entering a new age of consumer mutuality, wherein the growth game will be won or lost based on insightful, real-time plays. There may be good reasons marketing lost its way in the maze of the early digital age. But looking ahead, it’s time for C-suites to recognize the need for deeper insights at every decision point and elevate this uniquely human practice to the role of strategic quarterback.

The Retreat and Return of Marketing as Strategic Lead

It’s perplexing that marketing, already positioned to interface with every other division, business unit and capability, hasn’t continued to strategically guide C-suites. When the 20th century saw the rise of the CMO, marketing proved uniquely capable of unlocking empathy and navigating the mysterious forces behind brand-consumer bonds. But as the digital age dawned, centralized strategies gave way to micro-targeting and birthed new C-suite peers, the CTO and CIO. New channels and technologies fractured marketing’s focus and energy.

As diminished as marketing’s influence became, it remains the discipline best suited for wringing value from every consumer touch (which is critical as the number and variety of those touches only increase). Whether they recognize it or not, brands need marketing to identify trends from inception, looking consumers in the eye, assessing conditions on the field, and calling out integrated plays.

No other discipline is more qualified to take on this far-ranging responsibility, and there are few examples of others even attempting it. As a result, many large brands leave themselves surprisingly vulnerable. They’ve tied up their best insight experts in activations while mounting forces indicate their expertise should sit front and center at every C-suite meeting.

Five Marketplace Forces Demanding Strategic Resolution

A convergence of trends clarifies why brands must sharpen their strategic intent relative to consumers, urgently. Many C-suites only address these forces individually, if at all, as they’ve grown accustomed to capabilities launching movements. But in the current environment, successful innovations focus all efforts on understanding the individual.

1. Digital Creates More Dots — and Opportunities — to Connect
Digital tools and channels spawned whole new divisions and cottage industries. But with no centralized discipline aggregating findings, too much data supports no greater business strategy.

2. Thanks To Social, the Consumer Speaks Through Megaphones
Today’s social media users form informal focus groups to talk about brands and even engage them directly. They want to drive change, but many brands provide only an inadequate response.

3. Transparency Raises Expectations Beyond Products
Today, the entire product value chain is a consumer touchpoint. But many brands still treat transparency as a risk rather than an asset, perhaps not realizing: everyone can see that, too.

4. Competitive Acceleration Means Infinite Choice, Especially Now
E-commerce already offered consumers near-limitless choices. COVID-19 poured gas on this trend, with shoppers racing to secure goods from the brands that appeared to care most.

5. The Speed of Data Will Remain Disruptive
Big Data, AI, robotics and the Internet of Things have created billions of interconnected networks. They’ll provoke innovation. And most significantly, they’ll yield new, complex insights that hold keys to the future.

Living within these collective forces, people, technology and brands are now partners in a relationship, each bringing a distinct set of traits and priorities that should interact with fluency. Increasingly, it appears that consumers of today and tomorrow will choose brands that are “consumer-conscious,” who demonstrate deep curiosity about them and bring unprecedented rigor to developing foresight for their needs.

What’s missing is an as-yet-unseen form of strategic 21st century marketing leadership — a C-suite level influencer with the consumer insight and authority to clarify this integrated big picture to the organization and recommend how to operationalize against it.

The “Five Drivers” for Transitioning to 21st Century Marketing

Mindsets, accountability paths, and collaborations will need to change for marketing to elevate its insights and successfully assume accountability for business growth. A new “Five Drivers” framework details the necessary reorientation of thinking and action across all levels within the company.

Reimagining Marketing for the 21st Century

The C-suite will likely discover that it needs to both up-level its talent and rethink marketing’s purse powers. Some CMOs will rise to the strategic quarterback role naturally. But whoever leads, the organization must imagine (and budget for) a practice that resolves flaws or gaps across the entire consumer journey, enhancing everything from products to supply chains. This is no time to allocate marketing funds based on precedent, limiting its activity to communications.

Today, the consumer relationship is with the business, not just its products, and bedrock competencies are only as valuable as their alignment with human hopes. Marketing must demand the ball and run with it — as the strategic quarterback that can integrate the needs of today’s remarkable consumers across the organization and its brands. When they do, businesses will finally join their consumers in the 21st century.


Eriko Clevenger Pope WG99 is the CEO of Katalyst STL and has held senior marketing positions for 20 years, most recently as head of global marketing for Nestlé Purina. Michelle Hayward is CEO of Bluedog Design, a dynamic growth consultancy solving complex business problems for Fortune 500 companies.