Three Top CMOs Share How They're Avoiding the Ivory Tower Trap

Marketing Chiefs From Verizon, Gap and Southwest on Staying Connected to Consumers and More

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2013 cmo event
Amy Randall/Erwin Penland
Verizon Wireless' CMO Tami Erwin, left, Gap's Global CMO Seth Farbman and Southwest's Senior VP-Business Development Dave Ridley at Erwin Penland's Food for Thought Conference.

Marketers need to work hard to stay close to their consumers and employees. Just ask Verizon'>Verizon</a>'>Verizon</a>'>Verizon</a>">Verizon Wireless' CMO Tami Erwin, Gap'>Gap</a>'>Gap</a>'>Gap</a>">Gap's Global CMO Seth Farbman and Southwest's Senior VP-Business Development Dave Ridley. The trio spoke at Erwin Penland's recent Food for Thought Conference.

It can be easy to lose touch with what the consumer is experiencing. What do you do to stay connected?

Dave Ridley: Well, it's axiomatic to say "get up and be with customers," and it's not so much walking through the airport and observing. It's listening. It's true of anybody who has a brand. But you can sit in a restaurant or whatever, and I hear the word "Southwest," and it could be talking about the southwest part of Asia, but you focus and you start listening. It's amazing how much you can learn by eavesdropping.

Tami Erwin: [I mystery shop] regularly, and it's one way to stay connected to the brand and to stay connected to what customers are saying. ... The other one is to spend some time in the call center. ... And then oftentimes when I get letters and correspondence, I pick up the phone and call the customer, and they are always shocked.

Seth Farbman: You've got to get out and shop, and I definitely don't announce myself. ... We also rely on technology, because how many stores can you possibly go to, and it's only one point of view. [We've got] an internal social-media network, and we encourage [employees] to post what customers are saying, images of [products] when they come in, their own personal interests in what the latest collection is.

Do you feel it's your responsibility to inspire and educate your employees?

Mr. Ridley: It's not endemic to the marketing department. ... It's the responsibility of anybody who has formal leadership, whether it is the front-line supervisor or the CEO, to empower, inspire, motivate, lead people to excellence.

Ms. Erwin: It's about being a servant to the business and really recognizing the importance of creating a culture where you can rally a team around a common set of goals and objectives and win together. I do think in a marketing role you are uniquely positioned to tell the stories of what your brand enables and have people feel a sense of pride in the brand.

Mr. Farbman: We are all the flag in front of the army. We can create the vision. We can create the stories and the communications that get people really aligned around something bigger. I also think that the CMO has to take a responsibility, a very active role in helping the CEO form the vision of the company as well.

What are you most excited about and what are you most frightened about?

Mr. Ridley: I'm most excited [about] the fact that there is finally some rationality in the airline industry. There has been enormous dislocation, a fancy word for meaning a broke industry where more money has been lost than has been made. But because of the consolidation that's taking place in the industry, there is going to be some rationale in the supply and demand, so airlines can actually make money and reinvest in new equipment.

I'm concerned about the U.S. economy. I happen to be one that thinks we are on a slow, slow, slow boat. ... If you are in the domestic U.S. marketplace, I would aim low rather than high.

Ms. Erwin: I'm excited about the incredible change and innovation that is happening around the globe today, and the role that mobile plays in that space. The ability to connect anytime, anywhere is changing people's lives.

The piece I worry about the most is, everybody wants to be in that space. So how do you maintain relevancy with your customer? How do you maintain your relationship with your customer? How do you make sure that you continue to matter?

Mr. Farbman: I'm excited about the global opportunity [for Gap]. ... I get to see what happens when you take an iconic American brand that stands for democracy and individualism, and you put that in a place like China, like South America, and you see people lined up around the block.

I do worry about what I will just call "shiny object syndrome." And I see it in every business. ... There is so much focus on newness right now, and we rush to find the next big thing, the next whatever. I do worry it takes away from what's most important: the core of your business, your brand, the relationship with your customer.

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