That American business import, “the C suite”, gets some bad press. In the FT recently, Lucy Kellaway wrote a whole column about how she abhors it, prompted by the appointment of Charlotte Hogg as chief operating officer at the Bank of England. I confess I was a chief innovation officer for a while, though, in my defence, I never really called myself that. I don’t mind CMOs and CEOs, nor even COOs. But I do take grave exception to the latest addition to the C suite, the chief customer officer.

What would a chief customer officer do? Find out what customers care about, perhaps. Test people’s willingness to pay, so as to identify what they really value. Share this understanding with those who design and deliver the customer experience – whether that’s made in a factory or delivered via a call centre. Set up two-way communication with customers to shape their expectations and check that the business is meeting them. Drive the organisation to implement change for the better.

You know where this is going, don’t you? The Marketing Society’s manifesto for marketing leadership talks about mobilising the organisation and this is what we mean. It’s part of the marketer’s job to match the capabilities of the organisation to the needs of the marketplace. Marketing communication is when you tell people about that – it’s only part of the job. Brand management was invented in fmcg as the place where the whole enterprise came to a focus around meeting a promise – the brand – being made to a customer (originally the end-consumer but now encompassing the retailer or distributor too). So, learning my trade in fmcg, where brand management and marketing are synonymous, I never had any doubt that marketers were best placed to help the organisation identify and create market opportunities. Marketers carried both the responsibility and the authority to orchestrate the organisation and its resources to meet consumer needs better than competitors, so as to gain market share and grow the brand profitably. This meant a brand manager had to be connected to the marketplace and to the commercials of the business equally well, and able to share that understanding with others. We should not cede that ground. And yet, some chief marketing officers, including one in a highly respected fmcg business known for its smart marketers, have added a reference to customer to their title. As if marketing isn’t about the customer.

So what’s gone wrong? Part of the problem is that in the USA, and increasingly here too, marketing is used to mean the promotion of whatever the business is selling – but that’s just marketing communications, an important subset of marketing, not the whole thing. Perhaps it’s no accident that brand management was invented by an American company – maybe because marketing was already limited as a term.

I know from experience that it’s harder in other sectors like financial services where the authority of the marketing department is constrained. We have to find other ways to influence the rest of the business. A common response to this is to set out a brand vision or purpose-led brand promise, and then promote it internally as a unifying concept that can set the direction for the whole business. This rarely works (unless the CEO leads it), precisely because marketing as a function doesn’t have that kind of authority or credibility. It’s frustrating for marketing people in service businesses that other functions tend to see the brand as communications and design, maybe a promise, but not as an agenda for anyone else to follow. I used to share their frustration, but I’ve changed my view. Why on earth should other parts of the business see the world in a brand-centred way? I’d go further and say that brand can be a divisive concept inside a large business, especially in service businesses where there’s no pack labelled with the brand name. Such businesses often have lots of initiatives going on, led by different functions. This can be confusing for people in the business, at best, and they may cause different functions to compete for initiative supremacy – HR with their culture change, marketing with their brand-led change, perhaps customer service with something about service excellence, all of them with merit. Notice that all these initiatives have internally-defined reference points. However much marketers insist that brands are created in the minds of consumers, a brand vision is something articulated by the marketing department. Why should the other functions all accept marketing’s view of the world, as defined by their brand ambition?

The solution is to take an external reference point – your customers. It’s still strategic marketing, because no business can serve all customers equally, so the core disciplines of market segmentation and positioning are still vital. The benefit is that the customer, unlike the brand, cannot be owned by one department. Everyone plays a part in serving customers. If marketing see their job as being to identify the best fit between customers’ needs and the capabilities of the business, well, that’s an agenda that everyone can engage in. So I’m all in favour of every business having a chief customer officer, as long as she’s called the marketing director. Step forward, marketers – it’s our job to represent the customer. Sometimes it helps to spell things out so there is no room for doubt. But even if it’s not in your job title, it’s in your job.

Comment, Thought leadership | September 2013