The CMO Is the Chief Language Officer


What killer competency distinguishes the best marketing teams? Popular answers include technological savvy, ability to innovate, and strategic partnerships with other business units. A less common but more fundamental answer—the ability to speak in a clear and compelling fashion—trumps all other components of marketing excellence.

“The best marketing organizations, including those at Coca-Cola, Unilever, and the Japanese beauty company Shiseido, have invested in dedicated internal marketing academies to create a single marketing language and approach,” write  Marc de Swaan Arons and Frank van den Driest, cofounders of EffectiveBrands—now marketing consultancy Millward Brown Vermeer, and Keith Weed, chief marketing and communications officer for consumer goods company Unilever, in the current issue of Harvard Business Review. The trio’s article is based on the results of a survey of more than 10,000 global marketing executives and examines the characteristics that differentiate marketing functions at top-performing companies (determined by three-year revenue growth).

Developing a common marketing language isn’t the only winning characteristic that the research uncovered; but to me, it’s the most important. Language is a fundamental driver of marketing success. How can marketing connect to corporate strategy without translating strategic imperatives into marketing objectives? After all, more than half of “over-performers” (52%) say that marketing is considered a strategic partner for growth by their organization, according to the research; however, only 38% of “under-performers” answered the same way. And if that linguistic alignment isn’t in place, how can marketers leverage the right data analytics to improve marketing effectiveness? According to the research, 52% of over-performers say that their organizations leveraged data and analytics to improve marketing effectiveness, compared to just 35% of under-performers.

I’m no doubt biased in placing great value on language. But I’m also not alone: Leading marketing executives express similar opinions on its importance. For example, Rick Jackson, CMO of open cloud company Rackspace, personally reviews almost every core messaging/positioning document in the marketing function and edits the language so that it’s clear, brief, and compelling. The 30-year marketing veteran knows that fluffy, lazy language continually worms its way back into messaging. To guard against this, Jackson holds impromptu language lessons by reading aloud to his team anonymous pieces of content that has succumbed to what he calls fluff creep.

Capital One SVP of Brand Marketing Peter Horst also sounds a bit like an English Lit professor when discussing how his team speaks and writes.  “As a former student of history and literature, as well as somebody who got paid to write in a past life, I’m obsessive about language,” Horst said in the April edition of Direct Marketing News’s CMO Confidential, “Language is a huge part of the medium we work in as marketers. Have we found the most powerful expression? Have we put too much in there? Have we gotten sloppy with how we express it?”

Getting the mechanics of marketing language down pat enables marketers to flex their creative muscles in crafting compelling narratives. Simon Fleming-Wood, CMO of personalized Internet radio service Pandora, spent much of 2013 taking the fast-growing company’s raw narrative ingredients into a cohesive brand story. As he explains in the July edition of DM News’s CMO Confidential, the brand story “was ultimately delivered as a succinct articulation in a traditional brand strategy document, but the story was also conveyed more creatively through a video.”

In other words, the right language begets the right narrative, which begets the most authentic and compelling brand story.  Fleming-Wood points out that the language and the stories that companies generate belong to everyone—not  just to marketers, but to all employees and to all customers. Not surprisingly, de Swaan Arons, van den Driest, and Weed all reach a similar conclusion in their piece: “Marketing has become too important to be left just to the marketers,” they write. “All employees, from store clerks to IT specialists, must be engaged in it.”


Freelance journalist Eric Krell works with Mitel CMO Martyn Ethrington to produce DMN’s Diary of a CMO.

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