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March 10, 2008
Marriage Counseling

We are united until death do us part.

We are bound in a marriage of convenience, desire, denial, intrigue, anger, joy and apathy as we market and are marketed to.

God bless the relationship we call advertising.


So here's a thought: Consumers are the new CMOs.

(I'm not sure they want the job, mind you. The tenure has been a bit dicey. The average CMO tenure lasts, what, 23 months now? And declining?)

But the fact is, consumers have always been in charge; Howard Gossage said as much in 1963, “Our first duty is not to the old sales curve, it is to the audience.” Advertisers and marketers have simply ignored this reality, opting to tell, yell and sell for the past century. Now consumers are posting, commenting and creating--ignoring much of what marketing has to say. They've seized their right to be heard.

As author Joseph Jaffe puts it in Join the Conversation, “Don’t think for a second that consumers are the lame ducks that mass marketers would like to believe they are.”

This isn't to diminish the value of paid advertising or the Big Idea--expensively produced and distributed. Leveraging big budgets to promote and dramatize and compel isn't going away any time soon. Nor should it. It's just not the only, or most important, option anymore. And neither is it solely the role of the marketer or ad agency to promote, dramatize and compel. Consumers can do it just as well and oftentimes better. They are “merchants of conversation,” as Jaffe describes them. And they generally work for free.

Now here's the catch: CEOs have always been the CMO.

The buck stops up there, whether the CEO truly understands marketing and advertising or not. Such is life.

Trouble is, if a CEO believes the brand is theirs only to convey (or the company's only to convey), well, then some really uncomfortable marriage counseling is in order.

And thus we find the state of most brands today. The relationship is well past sour. A battle of sorts is being waged over ownership and voice--agencies of all stripes are stuck in the middle, playing marriage counselor. Or social media guru. Or participation marketing strategist.

Technology's partly to blame or praise. But let's also fault the rampant success of business itself. "The 20th century was about sorting out supply," writes Gavin Potter in his book Business in a Virtual World. "The 21st is going to be about sorting out demand." The struggle in figuring out demand includes realigning the balance of power between marketers and consumers; sorting out what stories matter, who creates them and who gets to tell the stories to whom.

There's a real need today for CEOs and brand leaders to acknowledge the Customer as CMO, lest they discover their brand isn't wearing much if any clothes at all.

Here are three basic steps marketers can take towards solving the marketing marriage puzzle.

1. Listen It's as simple as Google Alerts. As Jeff Weiner, Yahoo's SVP or Search puts it in the latest Wired, “I'm amazed people don't get it yet. Never in the history of market research has there been a tool like this.” Technology's made it ridiculously easy to hear what consumers have to say about brands. Is your company listening? Put your collective ear to the virtual ground, and keep it there.

2. Acknowledge/Respond After listening for a while, it's time for brands to respond. Not as corporations, but as humans who work at corporations. Here’s an example.

3. Enable/Engage/Inspire And all of a sudden you're living in the Conversation Economy. It's a place of mutual benefit, but there's more opportunity for and more responsibility on marketers to continue fueling and guiding the conversation. Ask questions. Admit you don't have all the answers (crowd sourcing, anyone?). Develop relationships above and beyond CTRs and lead generation.

Every marriage has its difficulties as well as its brilliant moments. The sooner marketers and advertisers honor the value our partner (the consumer) is bringing to the relationship, the better marketing and advertising will be.

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As a writer, creative director and drummer, Tim Brunelle started in advertising in 1993 after receiving a B.A. in Jazz from the University of Cincinnati. Since then, he's worked with TBWA/Chiat Day, Heater/Easdon, McKinney & Silver, Arnold Worldwide, OgilvyOne, Mullen and Carmichael Lynch. Tim now works for his own entity, Hello Viking.

Tim has provided strategic and creative leadership to A.G. Edwards, Anheuser-Busch, Brown Forman, Goodyear, Harley-Davidson, Porsche, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and Volkswagen.

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