Last month, Forbes announced its list of the most influential Chief Marketing Officers (CMOs) in the world for the year 2022. I was honoured to feature in the top 10 in this list. It was a privilege to participate in the luncheon event at Cannes in France, where this list was released. Most importantly, I felt very proud that Tata, an Indian brand, is represented amongst the top 10 in the world.
At this event, I had the opportunity to meet up with CMOs of many of the world’s leading brands. We spoke about the rapidly changing role of marketers in today’s digitech age. There was consensus that marketing has now become a far more multi-dimensional pursuit, which requires knowledge of many new fields, including digital, technology, neuroscience and behavioural economics.
After my return to India, I have been faced with several questions from many young Indian marketers. How do we achieve sustained success in the field of marketing? What are the essential skills that define a good marketer? What are the pitfalls we need to watch out for?
I have been reflecting on these questions, based on three decades of my own experience as a marketer. I looked at two interesting dimensions.
First, across time. When I began my career as a marketer in the 1980s, it was still the era of Doordarshan, landline phones and kirana stores, well before digital, mobile phones or e-commerce took over our lives. So I have had to make several transitions to keep pace with these changes.
Second, across categories. I began my career by marketing tea and coffee, and then moved to marketing lifestyle products such as jewellery and watches. Today, I am responsible for a corporate brand which is represented in multiple categories. I have had many learnings as I have moved from one category to another.
Notwithstanding all the movement and change I have experienced across both these dimensions, there are three essential skills which have remained unchanged, and which have always held me in good stead as a marketer. These are customer obsession, curiosity and creativity. To all my young colleagues in the marketing fraternity, I recommend an undiluted focus on these three essentials, regardless of all the new-fangled noise around you.
Our fundamental role as marketers is to find and deliver solutions to problems that consumers face, or create new opportunities for consumers to live their lives more meaningfully. Only then will the products and services which we market achieve success. To do this, we have to possess deep understanding of our consumers’ lives, their motivations, dreams, challenges and pain points.
In my earlier years, this understanding came out of direct interaction with people or conventional consumer research such as surveys or focus groups. Today, in addition to these methods, marketers also have access to the power of data and analytics, and new technologies for consumer insight.
At the core of all this is an obsession with customers, a constant restlessness to know more about the people we serve. Successful marketers across the world nurture this obsession all the time.
As Steve Jobs famously said, “out of curiosity comes everything”. For marketers, curiosity is at the heart of discovery. Curiosity leads to exploration of new products, distribution methods, customer interfaces, promotional techniques. Many of these explorations are led by enquiry into diverse fields – for instance, curiosity about Chettinad cuisine or your autorickshaw driver’s viewpoint on Indian cricket may well lead to interesting discoveries that can be adapted to your own industry.
By its very nature, curiosity cannot be restricted to the category which the marketer is associated with. Also, curiosity may not produce immediate results, but my own experience has been that many of these dots eventually connect to deliver ideas for breakthrough products, services or experiences.
Curious marketers observe carefully, with a keen and fresh eye. They ask interesting and insightful questions. The best marketers I know have always been very curious people.
Outstanding marketing is inevitably powered by great new ideas which can shape and stimulate consumer demand. These ideas are often based on insights that emerge from either customer obsession or curiosity or both. Successful marketers work hard at converting these insights into ideas, by ensuring that their teams and they provide adequate time and space for creative ideation.
Creativity is a right-brained function, and the best marketers I know take special care to ensure that the multiple left-brained analytical demands of business do not crowd out this important skill. Ideation spans all relevant areas - product, pricing, packaging, communication, promotions, buying experience, after sales service, key processes, and so on – and these marketers are typically constantly restless about the next big idea that can power their brand.
Of course, in addition to these three skills, marketers particularly at senior levels, need to be commercially savvy, have strong team leadership and strategic capabilities, much like their colleagues in other business functions. But if you are aiming for breakthrough marketing excellence, there is no substitute for customer obsession, curiosity and creativity.
Harish Bhat is Brand Custodian, Tata Sons. Views expressed are personal.