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CMOs are in trouble. Should anyone care?

As CMO tenures shrink, brands also damage their ability to create meaningful change in the world—which is bad for everyone.

CMOs are in trouble. Should anyone care?
[Source photo: Getty Images]

It’s been a strange few years for chief marketing officers. Not only are they being replaced faster, but some businesses are even rethinking the role altogether. Over the past several years, everyone from Starbucks to Johnson & Johnson to AB InBev has questioned the need for a CMO. And even when brands do have a CMO, they face crushing expectations and have to deliver short-term results quicker than ever before.

But should anyone care? The truth is that most consumers (understandably) don’t. A brand’s marketing efforts seem trivial compared to the issues we face daily. In fact, according to a study that made huge waves when it was released in 2017, people wouldn’t care if 74% of brands disappeared altogether.

But they should care—especially if they value social impact. Because while most attention turns to founders and CEOs when it comes to championing “brand purpose,” CMOs play a crucial role as well. Much of a business’s approach to sustainability, diversity, equity and more has roots in marketing—reflecting a company’s relationship with the society it serves. For some of the world’s biggest companies, whose cultural and economic influence is vast, the devaluing of CMOs also means a weakening of companies’ ability to effect meaningful social change.


In partnering with brands, I’ve seen the shift in how companies think about growth firsthand, with businesses creating and delivering on initiatives for the next quarter versus ones that deliver long range impact for the brand. There’s a real, growing pressure on CMOs to solely focus on programs and campaigns that support short-term sales goals. The result is that all business efforts become rote and executional instead of strategic, innovative, creative, or invested in anything long-term—including social or environmental initiatives that by their very nature take more than a few months to bear fruit.

This sentiment is fairly new. Shareholders have always demanded quarterly results, but they generally also wanted to build connection and loyalty with audiences. For most, it was important to play a part in the long-term endeavor of impacting the broader culture by addressing the important issues of the time. This approach not only protected the brands from competition and delivered long-term growth, but gave birth to initiatives that impacted lives locally and globally.

It was a CMO-level effort that now allows travelers to make sustainable travel decisions with Google’s Travel Impact Model—a standard that has been adopted by Booking.com, Expedia, Skyscanner, Sabre, and Travelport. The same can be said for Uber’s effort to aid victims of the war in Ukraine: It funded 500,000+ rides to bring refugees to safety, doctors to hospitals, and relief aid to frontline communities as well as raising more than $10 million (to date) for ambulances.

Unilever’s marketing initiatives have sparked far-reaching conversations about race-based discrimination, leading to nationwide legislation. And Mailchimp’s marketing elevated local businesses, spurring a 199% increase in donations to local organizations. (Full disclosure: My firm worked on Mailchimp’s campaign and was partially involved in Uber’s efforts as well.)

In a sea of performative purpose-based marketing—rightfully criticized for signaling support without actually making a difference, these initiatives are positive examples of the good that can be accomplished when brands fully commit to social impact. All of this will be lost if brands’ relationship with audiences and CMOs become overwhelmingly transactional.

As the push for “faster” continues, putting purpose on the chopping block, CMOs can be a moderating influence. They understand the power of a brand and its ability to transcend product and have a real role in affecting issues and culture at large. In the fight for “conscious capitalism,” CMOs can help transform a transactional shareholder who values profit at all costs into someone with a stakeholder mindset—who understands that what’s good for people, community, and the planet is also good for employees, profit, and shareholders.


Beyond driving sales and growth, a CMO is the key to keeping purpose top-of-mind within an organization. It’s a position uniquely suited to making internal business changes that can have an enormous external social impact—in part because they interact with all teams, including the CEO and board members, to make decisions quickly.

As importantly, they often own consumer and sales data, making CMOs the center of knowledge on customer insights and culture—informing everything from product innovation to a business’s sustainability, diversity, and equity. This data is essential to taking meaningful action on a variety of causes while demonstrating to leadership and shareholders how purpose is key to driving business.

Though you may not realize it, when a brand makes good on its responsibility to the world, a CMO is often driving that effort, working collaboratively with leadership across the business to ensure alignment. It was P&G brand and marketing legend Marc Pritchard who spearheaded an effort to start a dialog about unconscious bias with “The Look,” while also calling for brands to be a positive force on everything from gender equality to sustainability. Across various social good areas, P&G’s local and global impact is considerable.

Meanwhile, Hinge’s CMO Jackie Jantos and Head of Impact Josh Penny led an effort to positively impact Gen Z’s relationship with health and loneliness with “One More Hour”—committing $1 million to social groups and organizations helping Gen Z find community in person. Hinge also recently joined the Coalition to End Social Isolation & Loneliness, collaborating with other brands and organizations to advocate for policies and initiatives to reduce loneliness.

And Chipotle CMO Chris Brandt’s “For Real” campaign has seen them embrace unprocessed ingredients and produce creative marketing work over the years. It’s also become a platform for championing “realness” when it comes to diversity and inclusion and ethical, sustainable farming practices. In fact, they spend $400 million more annually on responsibly raised ingredients than conventionally raised ones. As the CMO role faces growing headwinds, trading long-term brand growth for short-term wins, these types of successes are at risk—undoing the hard-won social and environmental progress made in the era of brand purpose.

It’s unlikely that the CMO role will get less volatile anytime soon. But even so, it remains the function within a business with the most potential for short and long-term social and business impact. So, it’s crucial we pay attention to their evolution to make sure progress is enduring and not ephemeral.

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Sophie Ozoux is the co-founder of Kin, a creative company that partners with brands, organizations, and innovators to develop ideas that drive business growth and social change through culture. More