We live in turbulent times indeed, and there are many worthy causes out there in need of support. But what responsibility do brands and CMOs have in supporting those causes, and being a positive force for change in society?

According to Katie Klumper, founder and CEO of Black Glass Consulting, there's plenty they can and should be doing. Whether it's from a cynical angle (customers care about the values brands support), or optimistic (it's the morally right thing to do), all CMOs should be looking at what they can be doing to improve society.

Originally an episode of CMO Convo, you can now read everything we discussed below.

CMO Convo | How to drive societal change as a CMO | Katie Klumper
Seen the news lately? In case you missed it, there’s a lot going on, and a lot of causes that need support. But what role can CMOs and their brands have in driving change and benefiting society? According to our guest, Katie Klumper, plenty!

Katie’s background and mission

Hi, Katie, thank you for joining us. It's gonna be a very important conversation about how CMOs can drive societal change. But before we get down to the nitty-gritty, maybe you could introduce yourself to our readers? Tell us a bit about who you are, and about Black Glass.

Thank you so much. I'm Katie Klumper, and I'm the CEO and founder of Black Glass. We’re a marketing consultancy that’s purpose-built for CMOs, and what we mean by that is marketing departments and marketing challenges are our core focus. We help CMOs of all varieties with strategy, including team transformation and data and technology. I’m excited to be here to talk about some of these questions.

Societal change and the role of CMOs

So before we get into the meat of it, let's define what we mean by societal change. We're not expecting CMOs to solve all of the world's ills, so what do we mean by societal change, in the context of what CMOs can be doing?

If we think about CMOs and marketers in general and the volume of interactions they have with customers every single day, they can start to shift perceptions, not only for their brand and their products but for all of the other topics that surround that. It’s very much a part of the conversation every day, not just when there's a big trigger moment.

It really stems from society and culture. CMOs are trying to figure out where they insert their brand and what that looks like. They’re thinking about how they can use their brands for good, how they can drive more progress, and what their legacy is going to be.

What do we mean by progress in that respect? Do you maybe have a specific example?

Absolutely. Thinking about recent events with Ukraine, we've seen T-Mobile step up; they're giving free long-distance calls to their customers to create access. So it’s not only about short-term progress and how to do good in the world today – there are also larger-scale brands who are trying to make a large, longer-term impact. They’re all trying to figure out how they can use their purpose and values to drive good. So it's progress on all spectrums.

CMOs’ motivations for driving societal change

It's not just doing good for good’s sake. It has benefits to brands as well because more and more consumers are paying close attention to what brands do, the kind of actions they’re taking, and the causes they support.

Is that something that CMOs should be thinking of? Should they be cynically attaching themselves to the things their audiences are going to support? Or should they just think about how this is the right thing to do?

Yeah, it definitely cannot be an advertising play. “Authenticity” is the top word that these marketers look at, because they're getting judged on not only what they communicate in the world, but also how they behave internally.

The most recent stat that I saw was that 95% of CMOs feel like their brands should take a stance on societal issues. They need to connect with their consumers on the real human things that they care about, but it's really tricky. There are a lot of polarizing topics, and there are a lot of things out there that can be very challenging to navigate. But it’s become a much bigger part of the conversation over the last two years than we've seen before.

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Presenting an authentic message

Authenticity. That's the word we want to focus on because it is so important, in part because consumers are so tech-savvy these days – they can find out everything they need to know about a brand very quickly.

You can't say you're doing something and then not do it. If you support a cause locally, you need to walk that walk globally too. You can't just have a banner up during Pride month in places where it's okay to be gay – you need to project that message globally, otherwise, users will pick up on that. That's one of the main challenges for CMOs: not just presenting a message, but also actioning it.

I totally agree. And to your point, it's about more than just a message: it's about what relevant functionality or utility you’re giving to your customers. For example, OkCupid not only stand for inclusion as one of their values but on their app they also have a functionality that allows you to identify your sexual preference. It's those types of things that are important, where you drive a benefit to your customer because you care, versus just a message. It can be challenging as a brand to ask yourself what is your role here.

When they don't walk the walk, it can be absolutely devastating for brands. We're thinking of the infamous Pepsi commercial with Kendall Jenner, where they attached their brand to the imagery of the protest movements that were going on at the time without having any real substance behind it. That had a massive negative impact on the brand for a while.

Avoiding those pitfalls has got to be key when it comes to planning these campaigns. Do you have a process to make sure you don’t fall into those traps?

Absolutely. I would say the first step is to be crystal clear on your purpose as a company. This isn't a marketing message: this is a representation of your company's values, heart, and soul. So what is that purpose? And what are the things that you do want to attach yourself to? If you're clear on what your purpose and values are and what your customers care about, it creates some guardrails around what you will support or won’t support.

Secondly, this can't be a knee-jerk reaction. And the hard part is that a lot of these things come up unexpectedly, and we see marketers say, “Okay, well, what's our response to this?”

The last part is to make sure you align with the CEO and the board. They're the big decision-makers when it comes to what you can say publicly, and getting aligned on that early and often will help the marketer to be able to activate all sorts of great ideas that help drive society and culture forward because they know exactly what can and should be said.

Let’s get back to company values and deciding what those values are. As you said, a lot of CMOs do want to drive societal change, but what if the values that a CMO wants to project don't align with the values of the company? What if you're in a particularly large company where you might not have control over everything the company is doing? How do you navigate that as a CMO?

CMOs are a manifestation of the brand, and that’s where it can get complicated. Where do you draw the line between what the company stands for and what the CMO stands for? I would say there's no right answer.

For marketers, we always recommend that you find a company that your values align with, otherwise, you're going to struggle and it will be a constant source of friction. You need to make sure that's part of the decision process when you take on a role, because you represent the heart and soul of the company, both internally and externally. Being clear on the company values and what you care about will help you succeed.

And what about the reverse situation, when maybe you're feeling pressured to put out a message regarding something that's going on in the news right now, but you don't want it to be a knee-jerk reaction. Or, what if it’s something that the rest of the company wants to ignore?

Yeah, you're right, often you'll have the board come down and say that the company is not going to present a point of view on this issue, and then you've got customers on the other side who expect you to take a stand.

At the end of the day, the marketers are closest to the customer and what they need and want, so marketers should be able to use that data to build a business case, showing that this is important to customers. This will help everybody understand that it’s not so much about a company stance as it is about what customers need from us in this moment. It’s about how we can help them and what value we can drive, what utility we can drive, and how we use this as a moment to support the greater good.

Marc Pritchard talks a lot about a force for good and how to use the assets you have as a marketer to drive good in the world and for customers too because that's where customer loyalty will increase. It’ll give customers a brand preference and that will push all of the other business metrics.

A great example of that is when COVID hit, and every company was putting out messages like, “We're here for you, we're still connecting you.” Zoom, for example – their message was very much about keeping you connected, and it got a really positive response. Whereas when Tesla put out that kind of message, it rang hollow, especially coming from a very rich man who wasn't going through the same kind of issues that other people were.

Is that something to be aware of? How do you find the right positioning when it comes to these kinds of societal messages?

The questions that I always say marketers should start to ask are, “Does it impact the brand?”, “Does it impact the brand values?” and “Does it impact the customer?” If the answer to one of those questions is yes, then you are in a position to say something.

That being said, you need to look inside first and look at how you’re showing up as a company. That's not to say that you shouldn't have a stance, but maybe your stance is we're going to fix ourselves first; maybe the message is that we've got work to do. That self-awareness is key, and not just putting out messages but taking action to drive behavior change.

To your COVID example, I just read that 62% of customers expect brands to educate the public on public issues – that's a pretty big base. They're looking for brands, not only for a point of view but to help educate them, which is an incredible place to be.

To your point about Tesla, you also had GM out there saying, “We are going to pivot and make ventilators because our role is to help our customers; it impacts our brand and impacts our base.” That’s great because it’s different from a facade of messages about connecting people. That's why we have to dig deep and ask ourselves what is our role and what are we going to do to solve this issue and help our customers?

We're sure that's thrown some people for a loop that so many are looking to brands for moral guidance! Is that a recent development, or is it something that's been in the woodwork for a while and we're just waking up to it?

I think that it's increased over the last few years as people look to new sources for content that aligns with them. So I think brands have an opportunity to use that trust to play a more integral role in customers' lives. We've seen that across the board, and that's why taking a stance is so important: because it not only helps the business, but it provides benefits to the customers as well. But yes, I do think it's a newer thing that has appeared over the past few years as we've seen the political climate shift.

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Getting the whole team to walk the walk

We've talked quite a bit about the external side of things, but let’s look more at the internal side. Do you need a plan of action to make sure that everyone within the company is aligned with this kind of messaging? Do you just issue a blanket statement saying, “Listen, everyone, we're supporting this movement now”? Or does it have to be a bit more subtle than that?

That's a good question. I think the brief should be done in the C-suite. We need everybody within the C-suite to band together and agree on a commitment before we even look at brand alignment and execution. You need to be able to go and get support from the CEO and the CFO because it's an internal ethos, so relationships with the C-suite are key, and these conversations need to be proactive so you can get ahead of hot-button issues, rather than just giving knee-jerk reactions.

With some of these subjects being so divisive, you have to be sure that everyone in the company is going to be willing, at least professionally, to support the company’s stance. How do you go about navigating those kinds of murky waters?

We've seen a lot of CMOs align with heads of HR to better understand the pulse of their internal groups and their stances on these values. This is great because you need your team to live up to the values that you’re messaging externally. It’s important to look to your talent partners to get a good reading of your employees, in a similar way to how you would get customer data. Companies need to look at how internal teams are living the company values and start to understand the temperature and climate of their internal base, which is just as important as the customer base.

And how do you go about making sure your team's aware enough about these issues to be able to create content marketing about them? Is it just a matter of sending them off to do research, or should you have some sort of internal advisory team? Say you're doing a big push on inclusivity in the workplace, would you have a specific team within the marketing department to work on content related to that? Or would it be more about disseminating that ethos across the team?

In the beginning, we saw the appearance of a lot of new teams dedicated to certain issues, but we realized that this was creating a silo around the solution, as opposed to ownership of the entire problem. This is no longer a niche challenge – this is something everybody needs to take ownership of.

To play out your example, there were a lot of inclusion teams within marketing departments talking about showing up, diversity messaging, and diversity plans, as opposed to saying, “We all need to live by these principles, and we need to look at our advertising agency and the people who are producing our advertising.”

Having principles and programs for everybody across the board to execute raises the bar for everyone involved because they're able to action these values every day. So as we talk about some of these other societal and cultural issues, we need whole marketing departments to show up and represent the company’s values in the channels they represent and the content they create, because it needs to be across the board.

It’s interesting that you mentioned silos, especially going back to what we were saying earlier about consumers being a lot savvier when it comes to doing research on brands. If they see you've got an inclusivity team, that could be a red flag, it's just something to put on the website. It's not really being inclusive, it’s just using inclusivity as a label. So, like you said, having that siloed team could even be detrimental in the long run.

I totally agree, and I’ve seen this happen before. We were working with a marketing department that was quite small and was augmented by a large agency infrastructure. Inclusivity was very important to this client, and they had a diverse team. But when you looked at their vendor landscape, it was not diverse at all. Their vendors weren't living by the client’s principles and they were driving the majority of the communications, the messaging, and the media buys. It’s so important to look at these metrics internally and externally, taking teams, vendors, and partners into account.

Measuring your impact

Let's talk about metrics because it wouldn't be marketing about metrics and KPIs. Is there a way to measure your impact when it comes to trying to change society?

Absolutely. This shouldn’t be a hobby for clients; this needs to be in service of driving business metrics. And we've seen that when a brand stands up for its values and those values are aligned with the customers’, it drives the business: you get more loyal customers, more repeat purchases, brand advocacy, and you have organic sentiment lift.

Still, it always comes down to authenticity. You can't just treat this as a marketing program and talk about societal issues as a way to hit all of these metrics. If this is how you show up every single day, you'll see incremental lift across the board. But it is challenging, right? There are some brands and some issues that you just can't take a stance on because it would have a negative impact on your business and your customers. That's why finding that sweet spot of what we care about and what our customers care about and staying laser-focused on that will help.

These metrics could also help dispel negative noise in response to these kinds of campaigns. Thinking back to when Nike came out very proudly about supporting Colin Kaepernick, loads of people were on social media, protesting and burning Nike products, but sales went up overall. Even though there was this loud, and in certain corners of the internet very negative, response, the numbers show that this was an effective way to go, besides being the right thing to do from a moral standpoint.

Here's what I would love to know: what is the impact of the marketer that's brave enough to be the first, versus the second, third, fourth, or fifth. I'd be so curious to understand what is the benefit of being the first person to take that leap? Because it's always the case: there's one brand who does it, and then everybody else feels brave enough to do the same because all of a sudden the board gives them permission.

There's a variety of different factors that marketers are trying to juggle. I would love to know if they get the same lift or if there’s a point of diminishing returns based on how many people jump on certain societal challenges? It's just fascinating to see at what point it becomes noise as opposed to a brand value. Are you the brand that doesn't say anything because there's a point of diminishing returns? Or do you have to say it now, because everybody else has said it? That's where it gets fascinating, and I commend the CMOs who are brave enough to say, “We're going to do it first.”

That sounds like a great call to action, something to leave our readers with. Katie, is there one last golden rule that you'd like to share on how CMOs can approach societal change?

Absolutely. I would say there’s one golden rule: be real. If you’re not being real, customers will sniff that out. Just be real, be authentic, be vulnerable, be human. All those traits that make great leaders also make great brands, and when we can bring that empathy and heart from the marketers and have that live within the brand, that's when it's magical.

That's a perfect note to end on there, Katie. Thank you very much.

What work are you and your brand doing to drive societal change? Maybe you're struggling to align your organization in the right direction. Let us know, join the conversation with CMOs all around the world on the CMO Alliance Community Slack channel.