If you are a senior marketer and your chief executive announces the appointment of a heavy-hitter to the newly created role of chief customer officer, should you feel pleased or affronted? Deep shame might be more like it, since it implies that the company’s current marketing capability has a hole where its heart should be.
What does it mean to be a marketer? The foundations of the modern discipline were laid down in 1960 by the late Theodore Levitt, in his paper Marketing Myopia. At that time, business was so narrowly focused on what it made and how it made it, that it was blind to the needs of the person who bought it. Marketing, where it existed, was basically sales dressed up in fancier garb.
Levitt’s great contribution was to reverse the arrow of application: businesses reared on thinking outwards from historical capability were enjoined to work backwards from consumer need. Levitt’s distinction between selling and marketing, which has never been bettered, should be pinned on every marketer’s screen. Never mind the changes that have cascaded down on capitalism over the intervening years; every word still applies.
"Selling focuses on the needs of the seller, marketing on the needs of the buyer. Selling is preoccupied with the seller’s need to convert his product into cash, marketing with the idea of satisfying the customer by means of the product and the whole cluster of things associated with creating, delivering and finally consuming it."
Aside from that main idea of customer focus – revolutionary at the time – note the comprehensive sweep that marketing was deemed to embrace. Even the prescient Levitt is unlikely to have foreseen the maze of social and digital byways that modern brands need to navigate in their interactions with customers. Nevertheless, what he saw plainly was that marketing should influence "the whole cluster of things" associated with brand consumption.
If today’s CEOs increasingly feel the need to insert a specific "customer" role into the already crowded "chief officer" corridor, what part of "marketing" do they feel they are not getting from their current professionals?
Any marketer not working backwards from a deep understanding of their customers’ needs, lives and the cultural milieu that surrounds them, is failing at the most elemental part of the job they are paid for. It doesn’t take a fancy new title to solve that problem, just a big old broom.
Some claim the CCO role is more about a focus on the customer experience, ensuring that the brand’s meaning is manifested at all touchpoints. But if a specialist is required to mastermind that, then the day-to-day marketers have clearly failed to embrace the Levitt "cluster" – instead honing in on just media communications. Today’s myopia.
The CCO title is relatively new in the corporate pantheon, but not so new that it doesn’t have its own industry body. What does the Chief Customer Officer Council deem to be the essence of the role? What is its definition of the accomplished practitioner? "An executive who provides the comprehensive and authoritative view of the customer and creates corporate and customer strategy at the highest levels of the company to maximise customer acquisition, retention and profitability."
Leave aside the eye-glazing deadness of the language; the irony of this definition, set next to the classical Levitt definition of marketing, is that it brings the focus full-circle back to the "needs of the seller".
Where Levitt was giving and humble, with his emphasis on "satisfying the customer", our eager CCO is busy "maximising" for the corporation’s benefit. Acquire! Retain! Turn product into cash! It’s an inwardly directed, sales-led view.
Perhaps it doesn’t matter. Perhaps this is just a topical example of the current tendency to give long-worn concepts new names. We’re tired of hiring vanilla "marketing directors"; let’s go one better and attract a "chief customer officer" to work alongside our "chief culture officer", our "head of success" and our "VP for organisational reach".
And, given that some forward-thinking brands are doing it, perhaps there’s an argument to leave well alone. But when you see the BBC jumping on the CCO bandwagon, even though, strictly speaking, it has no customers, you do start to wonder whether this is another example of marketing’s tendency to grandeur and self-delusion (see panel).
Personally, I would rather simply call myself a marketer. If it’s done in the spirit of the classical Levitt definition, it is still a noble calling.
Chief customer officer
The role is rapidly on the rise. According to the Chief Customer Officer Council, there were only a handful of CCOs in the early 2000s. Now there are about 500, with newly minted appointments every month.
The reporting line should ideally be straight into the chief executive. Karen Quintos, CCO for Dell, is the only woman on the tech giant’s executive leadership team, and reports directly to Michael Dell. She claims the role "brings marketing, customer-facing and operational experiences together".
Blurred lines between marketers and the CCO could become an issue. Feargal Mooney, CEO at Hostelword, claimed that the appointment of Kristof Fahy to the newly created CCO role would see him taking responsibility for "all aspects of marketing and our customer interactions and engagements". Fahy, meanwhile, acknowledged that Hostelworld "already has a brilliant marketing team in place".
As reported in Campaign last month, the BBC has just appointed its first CCO, former Virgin Media and British Airways marketer Kerris Bright – despite the fact that citizens compelled to pay a non-negotiable annual levy, no matter how little of the service they use, under threat of imprisonment if they fail to comply, are not, even by the loosest definition, customers.
Helen Edwards: The PPA and BSME business columnist of the year has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand