How to Stay Relevant: Keeping With the Times as a Marketer

More often than not, a CMO’s tenure, in years, can be counted on one hand. So how, then, can a new CMO set themselves up for a long tenure built on effective marketing, and healthy collaboration? Well, the best place to look for an answer may be with Kathy Button Bell, who has served as CMO of Emerson for 19 years and counting. That tenure’s roughly 5x greater than the average Fortune 500 CMO’s.

Bell’s significant stay at Emerson can’t just be traced to one secret to success, or one crucial quality—it’s the result of multiple methods and approaches to marketing. Between her penchant for courageous, sometimes risky marketing, or love of research-based initiatives, and her valuing of regular and in-depth collaboration across the C-suite, the company, and agency partners.

How do you shift the company culture?

I think one of the key things you have to do is put your wet finger in the air and feel where the wind’s blowing. When business is good you have to take huge advantage of that moment to fill the organization with optimism. And if they’re at a jog, try to get them to a run. You always want to accelerate positive change. And if things are tough, like 2009, you need to use try to be the thing I said we tried to be the optimistic face of global business, to try to help our customers innovate their way out of trouble. But most of all, to keep the organization going and happy and enthusiastic about what they’re doing.

How’d you go about that?

A bunch of different ways. One thing that we did, especially, with our values rollout is, we went to the organization and actually, both through tough times and good ones, surveyed them for how they feel. It was a time where we went through transformation tension, as we shrunk the company before we grew again. So, we asked them, ‘What is hurting?’ And then asked, ‘What are we best at, and what do we need to do to be more successful?’ And 13,999 employees told us the three things that we were made out of, and the four things we need to do better to be successful. They wrote their own plan.

Is this survey annual?

No, we did it as soon as we came through the transformation, flattening the enterprise and splitting it into two pieces to make us much more focused instead of five pieces. And it seemed the perfect moment to unify the organization with one set of values.

How’d you act on the findings?

We did two big things. First, totally started from scratch on our website and, at the same, time we implemented our Values Initiative. Emerson.com had 750,000 pages—a nightmare. Now the website looks and feels better. That wasn’t the best benefit. The best benefit was them having employees work together to do it. And it drove so much unity and it drove so much collaboration. They didn’t have a choice. Same thing with the Values Initiative—in a year the organization needed something to hang on to, these programs just knitted everyone together.

And how did you communicate the values story to your employees?

I think you have to always do the thing that is a little unexpected to keep people’s attention and keep it interesting for people. When we launched our values, we used the children. We interviewed 72 kids about values. Who wants to hear me or even Dave Farr, our CEO talk about values—that is incredibly boring. So, we let the children of the organization do it, which if you haven’t seen the video, you have to see, it is just awesome.

Do you have overarching principles when it comes to messaging?

First and foremost, we try to keep a lens. What lens are you’re going to put this through? It should always be about something we can see in the future. It’s a promise to go forward. We try to pick topics that are very sensitive to the environment like helping a billion more people breathing free with China replacing all the coal-fired heating, and things like that that are just positive, purposeful. We’d link everything to our five ‘Noble Causes,’ one for each of our businesses. Those are the guardrails. As for look and feel, we go for clear, clean and uncluttered. And we love people being in the center.

You’ve been at Emerson for about two decades, how do you stay fresh?

Well, you hope to learn and change. The world is so demanding now. I tell everybody especially in our executive leadership programs, the world is so transparent, you know how much you’re worth, you know where the jobs are, you know how much they pay, you know the questions they are going to ask you in a job interview. The world is made out of glass now. I think staying fresh is being able to stay transparent yourself. The world is pushing me to change every day now, and I’m in love with some of the new things we’re able to do with voice, search, paid and earned and make it all sing.

You’ve enjoyed tremendous longevity as CMO, is sheer likeability a part of that?

Do you know what I tell everyone about marketing? It’s more important to be a good Pied Piper, sometimes, than to be correct. And it’s more important to be consistent, because, especially at an engineering organization, it kind of demands consistency, and it demands a discipline on the marketing that that engineers can believe in. And that’s why I would say research is your sword and your shield. 

How do you, as a CMO, make those around you brave?

I think I live the example. I always tell employees and our creative agencies especially, ‘scare me and let me pull you back.’ Take it to the edge. It’s so much harder to make something more interesting. It’s a lot easier to tame something extraordinary back a little bit. One of the best things is, I’ve been with the same CEO for all 19 years, and he is the only person who has to approve what we do. We’re able to hang on to a single point of view and he is really brave and that has made a huge difference. And he we have great trust to one another on that.

Do you have any advice for CMOs when facing down this kind of change?

I say just don’t be afraid to do the next thing. Because, I think I look at ad agencies, look at the makeup they use to cake on people to do a commercial, now it’s high def, right? You look terrible with that make up on, you don’t do $500,000 productions over and over again, you do fast quick light things. It’s different and you just gotta run as fast as you can with it. And you know I think I think one of the things that’s great that’s happened is the return to purpose and how important that is now for people. And as I said I think it says the authenticity. I always say if you only have one dollar spend it on PR, don’t spend it on advertising because you need it. You know it’s just like reviews online now of who do you believe and how do you believe them. You won’t advertise yourself to greatness. You have to behave yourself to greatness first.

Can you come up with two do’s and one don’t?

I’d say the number one thing is to be the chief complexity reduction officer. That’s number one. Great marketing is a reduction in complexity. You should make things easier to understand, make it easier to do business. Everyone appreciates that because it’s financially efficient. I care actually much more about the understanding that people have about a business. We sunset more brands and then we invent. We’re very acquisitive, so we acquire so many businesses that we have to cope with swallowing them whole and emerson.com has driven a lot of discipline on that. We’re much better when we acquire companies on that.

And here’s a don’t. I think the number one enemy of a CMO is defensiveness. I am like the marriage counselor a lot of the time, and chief integration officer too. Defensiveness is the enemy. It makes you inauthentic, and actually it means you’re not listening.

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