You can control many things as a CMO, but unless you're heading up the marketing for a Fortune 500 company, it's unlikely you can have real control over the economy.

Instead, the economy dictates the decisions you have to make, and often they're hard decisions indeed. As CMO, you have three main duties of care: the brand, your customers, and your team, and at some point, those decisions are going to have an impact on them.

We spoke to Liz Tassey, VP of Marketing at BlueOcean.Ai, on how CMOs can navigate times of economic turmoil and uncertainty, while still doing their best for brand, customers, and team.

Originally an episode of the CMO Convo podcast, now available in written form, so read on to find out:

Prefer to listen? Check out Liz's appearance on the CMO Convo podcast 👇

Liz’s background and role at BlueOcean

Hi Liz. Welcome to CMO Convo. Before we get down to talking about navigating a brand through tumultuous times, maybe you could introduce yourself to our readers and tell us why we're talking about the subject today.

Absolutely. Currently, I lead marketing for a company called BlueOcean. We’re a provider of always-on brand intelligence for marketers, which is kind of fun after an almost 20-year career in technology.

I've marketed to IT pros, developers, CX professionals, and business decision-makers. It's fun to be targeting people like myself, who are trying to drive impact for an organization through marketing.

I didn't actually start out in marketing. I majored in economics, then out of undergrad, I worked for the United States Department of Justice, which is ironic because I was trying to sue Microsoft a few years before I ended up working for them. That was interesting.

I took a turn at consulting and then got my MBA, and that's how I ended up at Microsoft, where I first stepped into both marketing and the technology industry. I thought I was just gonna do that for a few years, and it ended up being 14 and a half wonderful years of working on different businesses and different audiences, predominantly in go-to-market, product marketing, and engagement marketing roles.

After nearly 15 years, I decided to go into a smaller company and I joined Qualtrics, which is focused on experience management. I spent four years there, leading product marketing. We went from 1400 people to nearly 5000 when I left. We also went through a big acquisition by SAP and then an IPO. It was great going through that high-growth late-stage startup experience.

Now I'm at Blue Ocean, which is at that early startup stage. It's so exciting to be at a company that’s building from the ground up. We're implementing our first marketing infrastructure, and we just had our first webinar a few weeks ago. It’s also exciting being part of a mission to help other marketers like me make faster, more confident decisions and quantify the impact of brand investments, something that's been super elusive in the marketing discipline.

The importance of a strong brand in tumultuous times

Thinking back over all of our challenges around the pandemic and the current state of the economy, the importance of the brand is something that all business leaders, not just marketers, need to be thinking about. A lot of organizations closed shop during the pandemic, but a lot of them managed to weather it because they were strong brands and they had strong relationships with their customers.

Now it’s the same thing. As we think about the increasing cost of living, pressures on budgets, the great resignation, and the reshuffling of employer brand, that emphasis on the brand has got to be front and center for organizations as they think about how to weather these times. It's a really exciting place for me to be in my career.

Definitely. And when we're talking about governing brands during these moments of turmoil, we're not just talking about externally with customers. You mentioned the employee, which is just as important. That internal branding is vital. We need to keep people engaged with the company even as they're worrying about the things going on in their own lives.

It's got to be doubly difficult in a smaller company because you have much more of a personal connection with the people you work with than in a big company. Is that something you've found since you've moved to BlueOcean?

Yeah, absolutely. It ties into some research we did recently. About 6000 brands are currently being analyzed on our platform, and we did some analysis on the brand health factors that were most important to driving revenue. The number one factor most highly correlated with revenue growth was employee support. I think we've all felt that over these last couple of years, but it’s striking to see it laid out in the data in such a stark way.

Spending time on re-recruiting, re-onboarding, and re-retaining employees when you have all this other stuff going on is such a drag for an organization, particularly if you are just starting out and trying to build your brand or you're trying to prioritize your resources. However, you can't deliver on brand expectations unless you have those employees in place.

The brand isn't just about that awareness campaign or the Superbowl ad. Yes, a lot of work is done to set expectations in the market and attract customers, but you have to deliver on those expectations through your product or service. You have to deliver on them through your sales and customer support experiences, and it’s employees who are doing that work.

Even as small as we are at BlueOcean, we're very much focused on how we're engaging, motivating, and cultivating our employees as the best ambassadors of our brand. And we’re thinking about how that employee support is helping us achieve the brand strength that we need to continue to grow and weather challenging times.

How do you manage those expectations from the market and your teams? What is your duty of care when it comes to maintaining both those sides of your role as a CMO?

At the end of the day, you have to think about your accountability to the business and how you’re going to achieve the business goals. You also have to think about how you’re delivering on customer value. Even when there are tough decisions and trade-offs to be made, you need to keep that customer value front and center.

Sometimes people think those priorities are at odds with the decisions you make about your employees, but actually, I don't think they are. If you really sit down and ground yourself in how we deliver great customer value, it's about hiring, motivating, and keeping an engaged workforce to be able to deliver on that value.

We’re always rallying the workforce around the decisions that will drive success for the business and the customer. Sometimes we have to make trade-offs, and sometimes people are unhappy with those trade-offs. Product roadmaps can't always be delivered at once.

When you set those decisions in the context of the vision that you're trying to achieve, that can give employees a lot of comfort and understanding of why we're making these decisions. We're keeping the business and the customer at the forefront, and that's something that we can all get behind, right?

Everybody needs to be a steward of the brand mission and the goal to drive value, and I think if you make that the framework for decision-making, that helps keep employees motivated even during tough times.

The other important thing is always listening and being empathetic. In recent years, there's been a lot of conversation around customer empathy, which is very important, especially with all the hardships our customers are facing right now. We have to have employee empathy too, hearing them out and understanding that these are tough, scary, and uncertain times.

Again, we need to provide that vision and framework for decision-making, so it doesn't feel like a bunch of knee-jerk reactions because that just adds to the stress of it all. Ambiguity and craziness in decision-making are almost more harmful to employee morale than the trade-off decisions themselves, so having a structured approach and transparency of communication can do a lot to calm the waters for employees.

You’re aware of the importance of the brand and how certain decisions and trade-offs might reflect on the company, but other stakeholders might be more focused on the bottom line and the immediate business needs.

When it comes to making difficult decisions about the brand, staffing, or pricing – decisions that could affect customers or employees – how often does marketing have a seat at the table?

It's going to differ from company to company, depending on how they're structured. I've been fortunate throughout my career in that marketing has been involved heavily in those decisions. It's important for marketing to be very much grounded in the business goals and the overall strategies of the organization.

I've always felt very high accountability to the business results and I’ve carried that through to my team in ways that sometimes surprise other people in the organization, who don’t expect us to take on as much accountability. I think that leads to really strong alignment and partnership with the rest of the C-suite, so it doesn't feel like decisions are siloed or disconnected.

As the CMO is typically the spiritual leader of the brand, we hold an important responsibility in keeping the brand strong and keeping sight of that long-term vision in addition to the short-term vision, even through tough economic times.

There was an interesting article recently about keeping ad spend up even during difficult times. Doing that may not make much of a difference right now, but when you emerge from the economic hardship, you’ll be in a much better place. We need to make sure that marketing is bringing that kind of data to the table.

Data is so important because, even in the best of times, opinions have too much influence. Without data, when you're facing hard times, knee-jerk reactions or opinions can start to rule decision-making.

Marketing's in a really good place data-wise because of the evolution that we've made over the last decade or so. We have so much data that we can bring a strong case to the table to drive and inform decision-making and help make both short-term and long-term decisions.

If you're grounded in the long-term goals of the business, those short-term milestones should be stepping stones to achieving them. And so, even if you're making short-term decisions, if you make them in the context of striving for those longer-term goals, the trade-offs shouldn’t be too painful, and you can continue to move the business forward.

I think marketing's in a unique position, both in terms of the amount of data we have and the end-to-end customer journey that we're increasingly responsible for. We can really help to make decisions with that holistic picture in mind.

Transparency in decision-making

I'm going to circle back to a word you mentioned earlier: “transparency.” How important is transparency when it comes to the reasons behind decisions? Is it important to share the entire rationale, at least internally?

In general, I think more transparency is better. As we were saying before, we want employees to understand how and why certain trade-offs and decisions are made, especially if those decisions impact their work. They weren't just made arbitrarily, right? So I think involving them where appropriate to help inform decisions and then communicating those decisions is important.

I do think it is important to shield the team from some of the back and forth that might be happening. There can be a lot of debate, and that ambiguity and constant shift can be more damaging than the trade-off decision itself. That's a balance that, as a leader, you have to understand and navigate.

Employees aren't stupid. They know when we’re facing challenges and budgets are under pressure. They’re going to see our wins coming in (or not) so I think being transparent about the headwinds that a company is facing is important. But you have to back that up with, “Here's what we're doing, here are the decisions we're making, and here's why,” and show realistic optimism.

Don't be overly cheerful and pretend that everything is great because nobody's gonna buy that. It also seems like you’re invalidating the uncertainty and fear that employees are feeling. Stick to realistic optimism.

As leaders, we need to believe in the vision and the mission – if we don’t, who will? Use that shared vision to inspire employees, but be realistic about the headwinds that we’re facing and how we're approaching them. I think that employees will appreciate that, and it will give confidence that leadership knows what's going on, but they're taking steps to make the right things happen.

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The tough decisions CMOs are facing today

Let's dig into some examples of the tough decisions that marketers are having to make at the moment about their departments. What are the big things that CMOs have to be thinking about? What are the Sophie's Choices that they're all facing?

That’s funny – I legitimately use the Sophie's Choice reference in talking about difficult trade-offs. It's always hard. Everyone feels pride in the plans that they make, and then you have to go and change those plans and make those trade-offs happen. I think first and foremost, it’s important not to get too caught up in the “This was my plan, and now I've got to do something different from the plan” mentality because that causes a lot of angst and anxiety.

I think it helps to focus on always having data available. Understand the levers at your disposal and what you can expect out of each of those levers, and then you can decide, “Okay, I might take away from doing as much paid media, but I can go make it up here, here, and here with these other levers.”

Even in the best of times, you have to be agile, right? You're gonna have new competitors and new customer perceptions. These things are always changing, so thinking more about your strategic framework for decision-making and having the data to help you make those decisions along the way is important.

But certainly budget is top of mind. I think I read that in 2020, marketing budgets were cut by half in terms of percentage of revenue. You have to think hard about where you’re going to cut that from.

And then sometimes you have headcount decisions. A lot of companies are having to go through layoffs right now, which is hard to do in the best of times, but knowing it's a challenging time for everyone makes that even harder. Still, we need to be evaluating program spend and budget spend versus headcount spend and looking at where we can get the kind of ROI we need.

Right now, my team is doing a lot of our content in-house because that's a more efficient use of resources, given our knowledge of the target audience – we're all marketers so it's convenient that marketers are our target audience too. That allows me to allocate a budget to things that we don't have the in-house expertise for. So thinking about what can be done in-house versus what you need to outsource is a good idea in this climate.

We have to make decisions around paid media too. We're an early brand right now at BlueOcean, so I'm better served by focusing on sponsored content opportunities and fishing where the fish are, rather than spending dollars trying to get people to come to my owned properties.

It's about looking at the budget and the ROI of each tactic, then stack ranking and making decisions about what's gonna give you the biggest bang for your buck. You also need to have a clear sense of where your brand stands. Are you an early brand that's still building? That's going to drive different trade-off decisions from those at a more mature brand.

One of the guiding principles that I try to use is being aware of what we can scale. When you have resources available, it’s easy to try lots of different things, but we need to focus on trying things that we can easily amp up if they work and that will pay off for the business.

When it comes to these contingencies and being aware of what to scale, is it important to have these plans in place in advance? Like a "break the glass in case of economic turmoil" kind of strategy – is that even possible considering all the different variables?

I don't know that it's possible. I mean, who would have planned for a pandemic that was supposed to be a couple of weeks? Gosh, I still remember that note from the school like, “We're just closing school for a week.”

I think it goes back to having a deep understanding of your business goals. What do you need to achieve? What's the plan that you're trying to implement to achieve those goals? Then you need to have that ongoing data to say, “We need to dial up over here,” or, “This thing is not working – we can drop it, right?” It's important to always have an agile mindset when it comes to your brand and your marketing plan.

It’s also about staying in tune with the customer. If you're connected to the customer’s value drivers, what they care about, and how whatever is happening is impacting them, that's going to help you respond to these circumstances and stay relevant.

For instance, we've been shifting some of our content messaging to address the issues organizations are facing right now – how to weather these times, what it means to have a strong brand, and how to activate that brand efficiently.

It's still in line with our approach, but we're staying in touch with what customers care about and reorienting to focus on what matters. That's what’s most important for organizations to figure these times out: staying in touch with your customers, seeing what your competitors are doing, and having the agility to keep following a strong plan but point it in the direction you need to.

Stakeholder alliances that will help you weather the storm

As a CMO, maintaining a relationship with internal stakeholders has got to be important. Who are the most important when it comes to weathering these trying times?

As you think about the business and what you're trying to achieve in terms of revenue and free cash flow, it’s important to have a strong partnership with the CFO. You want to help them understand everything that we see, end-to-end, from a marketing perspective. What are our goals and expected return on investments? Where is the brand driving value? That then makes things smoother as concerns increase around the pipeline.

Sales, of course, in the B2B world, is always an important partnership because marketing sets the table for sales and helps accelerate the progression of opportunities. They’re on the front line, so they hear firsthand what's happening with customers, how they're reacting to changes, or if there are concerns about budget and ROI. That's really valuable information for us to feed back into our marketing approaches.

Similarly, it’s great to have an alliance with post-sales teams, like customer success. They can share with us how our customers are extracting value from the product, where there are challenges in the value exchange that need to be addressed, and what is really singing for customers. Again, we can roll that back into marketing efforts.

Back to the research that BlueOcean did, of all the brand health factors, audience reviews are the third most correlated with revenue growth. Think about the dark funnel – prospective customers do deep research on your organization before you even know who they are. Before they’ve filled out a form, they're looking at those review sites.

Something like 60% of B2B buyers want six good reviews before they make a decision, so having a strong, engaged customer base that can advocate on your behalf is super powerful, and it's a kind of marketing that doesn't cost a lot. As you think about budgets, spending, and media campaigns, you want to activate the best representatives of your valued customers to help share the news, so a partnership with customer success is super important.

Of course, as a lifelong product marketer, I also have to call out the product team. They’re essential to building and delivering on value in new ways, so you can stay competitive and respond to changing market conditions. And again, marketing plays an important role in working with the product team to help bring fresh insights. Of course, once we have those new products and features, we have to bring those to market in a way that resonates with customers.

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Golden rules for sailing stormy seas as a CMO

We've covered a lot. We've covered internal branding during trying times; we've covered customer relationships; we've covered key stakeholders. Can you tie this together with some golden rules for navigating difficult times as a CMO or head of marketing?

As I was preparing for my role at BlueOcean, I was thinking about how the role of CMOs has changed over the years. There's been increasing pressure, and we've hit the lowest average tenure in a decade – it's like writing my own obituary every day. So I was getting grounded in a couple of themes around what it means for a CMO to be successful, and I think those are extra important now.

The first theme is business accountability and being very much grounded in the business goals. We need to be familiar with the daisy chain of numbers that gets marketing impact that drives business outcomes. That's becoming more and more critical as CMOs are asked to be more accountable to the business and show the ROI of investments.

The second theme is around that holistic approach. CMOs are in the unique position of looking at the end-to-end customer journey and partnering with sales, product, and customer success teams. As you think about building a strong brand that not only sets those expectations but delivers on them, it’s important for CMOs to be customer-obsessed and really think about the end-to-end connected experience that the organization needs to build for their customers.

This last one is less specific to CMOs, but do think about leadership and how you build and motivate your team during tough times. My years of leading during the pandemic were some of the most emotionally draining of my career, but also wonderful in a way. The team was so connected because we were going through this awful time together. We spent a lot of time building empathy and making sure we understood what each other was going through.

Then you layer onto that some professional questions like what are people trying to do in their careers? What energizes them? What drains them? Make sure you're building a team with those questions in mind, and keep those communication paths open. Driving clarity and reducing ambiguity when you can is always important.

We have a privileged opportunity as leaders of people to help people grow their careers. That’s extra critical right now when there’s so much going on that impacts people's personal lives as well as the business.

That's a great note to end on there, Liz. What we’ve talked about is relevant to CMOs and business leaders in general. Thank you so much for joining us and helping to guide CMOs through today’s challenges as well as any challenges that the future might bring.

Want the chance to speak to leading CMOs in person on how they're planning to navigate the economy of the future? Make sure you attend our first in-person event: CMO Summit: San Francisco on September 8th!

Can't make it? Get yourself on the CMO Alliance Community Slack channel to connect with a network of CMOs and marketing leaders.