Should a CMO see themselves as Cultural Entrepreneurs?
This was a question I was asked a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve been stewing on it – thinking about it. Senior marketing professionals control vast sums of money in media, and as a consequence, they can create a lot of conditioning that affects culture directly. Don’t believe me? Some simple things that are enduring as a result of ad men:
- The image of Santa Claus, largely replicated in nearly every medium since 1930, was first created by Fred Mizen, an artist working for Coca Cola, and latter Haddon Sundblom, an artist hired by Coca Cola’s ad agency, D’Arcy Advertising.
- Albert Staehle, working for the Ad Council on behalf of the National Forrest Service, created the figure “Smokey the Bear,” a figure so iconic, it’s actually protected by its own legislation – The Smokey the Bear Act of 1952. The figure was illustrated by two artists, Albert Staehle and Rudy Wendelin.
- You know Dasher, and Dancer, and Prancer, and Vixen, but you probably didn’t know it was Robert L. May who created the most famous reindeer of all – Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer as part of an advertising campaign for Montgomery Ward.
- What? Me Worry? Alfred E. Nueman, the iconic figure of Mad Magazine, which has been reproduced and used in nearly all media types to make fun of stupidity in politics, was created by Mad Magazine’s chief editor cartoonist, Harvey Kurtzman, to sell more magazines.
- The Girl Scouts, Kleenex, the United Way, and logos of so many organizations it almost boggles the mind, as well as the iconic posters of every Alfred Hitchcock movie, was created by legendary art Director and ad man, Saul Bass.
Marketing professionals can have a direct impact on culture. The choices made (and the ones not) always have cultural impact. For brand leaders who control millions in advertising dollars, this outcome is not casual – the very success of your career, and your company’s products, may in large part be determined by your ability to cement what you do as part of the culture of the marketplace. This is accomplished through one strategy – selling people on your cause and not necessarily on your company.
I see three brands, however, that seem to have accepted that challenge and might (with time) achieve that status of being champions of a cause: NubianSkin, Tom’s Shoes, and Chipotle.
In looking at these three brands, and the causes they’re trying to drive, they have created for themselves a market differentiation that draws in customers and revenue. In the end, what they sell is a cause, and the actualization of believing in that cause begins with the purchase of the company’s products. Ultimately, I think CMOs are uniquely positioned to be cultural entrepreneurs, and as these three case studies demonstrate, there is strong value in selling a cause, over selling a company.
NubianSkin is an innovative lingerie brand that aims to ’empower’ every woman with a new underwear collection not centric to pale skin tones.
Ade Hassan wrote on NubianSkin’s blog: “My nude isn’t the nude I see in shops. Despite the reality that women of color have the same needs as all women when it comes to lingerie and hosiery (and spend the same of their hard-earned money), the industry simply doesn’t cater to us. So, I thought, it’s time to rethink the definition of nude.”
Now think for a moment as to what the consequence of framing the product as a “cause” does for the brand. One, it causes a dramatic bifurcation of the marketplace – there is NubianSkin, and there is the rest of the marketplace. Two, the cause of NubianSkin is empowering women of color, the way that cause is satisfied is through supporting the company by buying its products.
It’s lingerie, in the end – bras, panties, etc. Probably not made any better than any other manufacturer of similarly priced products. Moreover, this is a field dominated by some players with very big budgets – Victoria’s Secret comes to mind. Yet, this brand has created a tremendous amount of buzz for itself by championing a cause, not by selling bras.