Will Marketing Ever Be Customer-Centric?


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As a long-standing CRM consultant and more recently, as interim Head of CRM for an automotive bank, I see how the role of the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) has changed. And yet, how little has changed at the same time.

Let me explain.

Look back at the 1960s, at the writings of some of the giants of marketing, men like the late Ted Levitt, and you will see some familiar messages. Levitt’s seminal 1960 Harvard Business Review article, Marketing Myopia, contains statements like…

“the reason they defined their industry wrong was because they were railroad-oriented instead of transportation-oriented; they were product-oriented instead of customer-oriented“.

Levitt had the foresight, some 40 years ago, to see what was really ailing marketing. Not a lack of great products; powered by growing post-war prosperity and the baby-boom, the 60s was awash with them. Not a lack of great marketing communications; the baby-boomers were voracious consumers of TV, radio, billboard, print and direct marketing. No, simply a lack of customer-centricity.

How little has changed.

Fast forward to a new report on The Evolved CMO from Forrester and Heidrick & Struggles. The report makes the point that for CMOs to develop more influence in their organisations, one of the three things they need to do is to…

“seize the opportunity to lead the organisation towards customer-centricity”.

But according to the report, most CMOs are still focussed on managerial skills like visioning & strategic thinking (No1), people & team management (No2) and building relationships with the senior team (No3). Being the voice of the customer was only No6 in the skills list with less than 50% of CMOs voting for it. And listening and interacting with customers was only No9 in the list!

So there you have it. Marketing is less and less effective at influencing customers. Becoming more effective requires returning to the roots of Levitt’s original customer-centric marketing. So what are marketers focussing on? That’s right, more of the same disfunctional product-centric marketing! Talk about the tragedy of the marketing commons. As the German philosopher Hagel said…

“The only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history”.

What do you think? Is your CMO stuck in his own Groundhog Day? Or is every day a new customer-centric one?

Post a comment and get the conversation going.

Tip of the hat to Francois Gossieaux at the emergencemarketing blog.

Graham Hill
Independent CRM Consultant
Interim CRM Manager

Graham Hill (Dr G)
Business Troubleshooter | Questioning | Thoughtful | Industrious | Opinions my own | Connect with me on LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/grahamhill/


  1. Graham – Great question – one in fact that requires a book, not just merely a blog entry. This is a huge question, one we can discuss for a long time and has many different dimensions, but let me answer your question directly.

    No, I don’t see it, not in the short term any way. (Keep in mind, my expertise lies with complex, B2B type companies, so I could be biased).

    I think the head marketing role in organizations must change, or it will become extinct in the next 10 years.

    Today, the “brand” of a company is increasingly based on the “experience” a customer has working with that firm rather than on how cool its logo is, or how frequently it advertises. As this trend continues, someone must be able:
    1) to understand what the customer wants to accomplish and clearly articulate the role your company will play in meeting that need.
    2) Translate those requirements into details where people in development can build repeatable offerings
    3) Organize the portfolio in a customer-centric, rather than internal facing manner
    4) Create a logical framework to allow people on the front line to match customer needs
    5) Represent the point of view of the customer internally
    6) Create intern organizational structures (governance) to make sure business unit biases are not built into the go-to-market model
    7) Build metrics and flexible P&L’s to measure client and product P&L’s which roll up to income statements

    This requires marketers to get leave the comfort of the ivory tower and large advertising budgets and get “dirty” in the trenches. It requires building working relationships with sales, development, and finance. It requires ability to mental shift between macro-level business topics and micro-level realities.

    The bottom line here is that for a company to be systemically customer centric, fundamental changes must be made. When I visit vendors, “best of breed” programs are only slight improvements on the current model whose efforts are doomed to fail because the rest of the product-centric ecosystem tend to reject the effort.

    Scott Santucci

  2. Graham, your blog could just have easily been entitled, “Will Sales Ever Be Customer-Centric?”

    In both cases, the conventional approach is about telling, not listening. As long as it continues to work, why change?

    As you’ve pointed out elsewhere, customer-centricity is not the end all, be all answer. But I’ll bet that market forces will slowly but steadily work to move customer-centric firms, and their marketing/sales organizations, to the top of their industries.

    And that will be plenty of motivation for CxOs to change. If we can wait long enough for the old guard to retire.

    Bob Thompson, CustomerThink Corp.
    Blog: Unconventional Wisdom


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