A Code of Honor for All CMOs to Follow

With the Rise of Citizen Consumers, We Must Be More Transparent and Honest

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Imagine a world in which collateralized debt obligations and subprime mortgages were consumer packaged goods, instead of financial instruments. Given what we've come to know about these products, what would we think of the CMOs who promoted them? 

I'm grateful to the banking industry for shifting the harsh glare from the lesser angels of global marketing. But too many of us in the marketing profession are promoting products that we know are inferior, with messages we know are deceptive.

Will years of ethical neglect bring about our day of reckoning? Or will we reap the moral satisfaction -- and commercial potential -- that comes with basing our communication on truthfulness and authenticity?

Some may scoff and say that there's nothing illegal about selling inferior products to ignorant customers. I understand their logic: "Give the people what they want; let market dynamics dictate decisions." But just because a practice is logical doesn't make it ethical. Perhaps the exponential pace of change in the age of social media extends to the moral fiber of marketing. Is it really sustainable for a $500 billion-plus industry to continue to produce so much that is patently defined by manipulation?

Consumers don't trust us. That's hardly a surprise, but recent numbers are particularly grim. A 2010 study from Lancaster University found that 95% of respondents did not trust advertising; less than a tenth (8%) trust what companies say about themselves; more than half (58%) agreed with the statement "companies are only interested in selling products and services to me, not necessarily the product or service that is right for me."

Can we as individuals accept that this situation is no longer tenable? Circa 2012, can we knowingly be part of an industry that contrives to promote such absurdities as "green" coal? Can we stand by passively as cereal filled with sugar is advertised as healthy for our kids?

The roles of citizen and consumer were long seen as separate. In today's interconnected society, the roles have merged. Citizens are aware of the impact that corporations have on the development of a prosperous society; consumers are aware that , via their purchasing decisions, they can influence how corporations act. It is just a matter of time before a paradigm shift will emerge. CMOs not looking ahead will leave their brands behind.

As a marketing professional, I am nothing if not pragmatic. Change in any industry defined by legacy will not be easy; it will be a process that happens over time. The first step, for anyone in this role, is to accept that you are an integrated part of the problem as well as a fundamental part of the solution.

So here's a thought experiment. If you're a chief marketing officer, ask yourself the following question: Is my CMO title better described as "Chief Manipulation Officer?" And if so, what can I do about it?

The first step is to be more transparent. By being more transparent, we generate more trust for the brands we work with. As marketers, we all know trends will come and go, but telling the truth never goes out of fashion.

I implore you to advocate for the virtues of honesty in marketing, and make it a personal pledge that you bring to whatever company you represent. It's not just a piece of paper your team signs. It is something you commit to and live by every day.

Since we all know that strength comes in numbers, let's do something we've never done as marketers and come together as a group defined by a shared credo. United, we can solve these challenges and win back both the trust of citizen consumers and our self-esteem. Effective immediately, I ask my fellow marketers to join me in developing and committing to the world's first "CMO Transparency Pledge."

Let me get the ball rolling with my first articulation of our key principles. I will as a CMO:

1. Acknowledge that I have a moral obligation and professional duty to create a more honest global marketing environment 2. Never oversell products or declare them to be something they are not to gain business advantage 3. Encourage my employees to at all times be true about the product and corporation they are marketing 4. Evaluate marketing not just strictly on ROI, but with metrics that measure the credibility and fact-based content of my marketing 5. Stand firm on the principles of the CMO Transparency Pledge in any dialogue, discussion or decision making process with my superiors.

So . . . over to you my colleagues: challenge the pledge, tweak it or sign up to it. The CMO role comes with the power to change society for the better. Let's join forces to make use of it.

Morten Albaek is senior vice president, group marketing and customer insight, Vestas.
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