Chief marketing officers move up the corporate ladder – but is that the reason why the world is overwhelmed with ‘customer-facing’ bullshit?

Marketing is making a comeback in the C-suite stakes (the people with ‘chief’ in front of their job description (CEO, CFO, COO even CMO) which should surely be a force for the good, shouldn’t it?

You have to say, no it isn’t.

The world’s bigger corporations, and lots of the other ones too, have never been more intent on trying to persuade us that their only focus is the consumer, the poor saps who buy their products. But they don’t mean it. They just want to present a united front to dissatisfied customers who complain about poor customer service, rip-off deals and bottomless pits called offshore call centres that let them down. As Virgin did to me when their Indian call centre lost my blueyonder email account; because they couldn’t reset the password!

No comeback, no nothing. It just disappeared.

And it’s the voice of ‘marketing’ that covers this ordure in superficially sweet-smelling breaths of warm air.

Phone up some big corporation and ask them, politely, why they’ve just poisoned thousands of people in India or been party to running a minerals business somewhere outside Europe with a fatality rate of 20 per cent or just increased their prices for some domestic fuel to an extent that will penalise old people so much that some of them die.

But what do these over-mighty corporations do? Decline all interviews, even with big powerful broadcasters like the BBC, and issue a pre-prepared statement from their highly-paid PR advisers saying “X Utilities is committed to working in the best interests of its customers at all times. Any increase in prices (and even greater reduction in customer service, although they don’t say this) is entirely out of our control.” And, PS, the CEO has just had a £1m pay rise.

Marketers are moving up the corporate ladder because, in a world economy that’s not growing as fast as we’d like it to, marketing (selling, essentially) is deemed to be important. For the past 20 years companies have grown on deals, financial engineering. Now to get bigger you need to sell more.

But the mealy-mouthed platitudes of marketing are a disaster when applied to the big issues facing companies and even whole countries.

Here’s one from new Avis gal Jeannine Haas, who’s dropped ‘We Try Harder’ after 50 years in favour of a campaign showing some middle-ranking corporate dickheads bunking off to play golf. Well why not? It’s not the end of the world is it? But it’s the language, and the assumptions behind the language that grate.

“Consumer-centric brands must always evolve in order to keep pace with ever-changing customer needs and preferences. Avis is evolving as a premium brand to better meet those needs. The new tagline (‘It’s your space’) is reflective of Avis’ ongoing mission to be a customer-led, service-driven company, and presents the brand in terms of the customer experience and the advantages inherent in renting from Avis.”

What does this mean? Precisely nothing. If anything it says that they’re running the company for the benefit of the customer rather than the company, But any company that doesn’t doesn’t deserve to be in business anyway.

But I’m sure Ms Haas is an intelligent person. So why does she come put with such rubbish? Doubtless on the advice of loads of ‘communications specialists’ whose role in life is clearly to place such nonsense in the mouths of their clients.

It’s unarguable that any company that wants to succeed has to be good at marketing. This should be a fantastic opportunity for CMOs.

But unless they can find a way to stop talking crap, it’s only going to make our over-mighty but under-performing corporations even bigger disasters.

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About Stephen Foster

Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.

One comment

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    Hey Stephen,

    Thanks for the article. I like the way you cut through the bullshit and tell it how it is. Why would Avis drop “We try harder?”. What a great positioning. It not only says everything to the customer, but also gives the company (and its people) something to aspire to. Isn’t it the ultimate challenge to do better every day. Whilst senior management with marketing backgrounds are growing steadily at the top of the corporate ladder, it can also set organisations off on some stupid rose coloured glasses tangent. Namely what Coke-Cola has done with its latest videos on content… and now Avis. One thing I learned earlier on in my career is set achievable objectives/visions/goals. A company that makes a bold promise must ultimately deliver upon the promise. Which is why you see people move off to other roles in different companies after they’ve put plans in place.

    Right now… i’m off to achieve our ‘The World’s Smallest Global Creative Agency’ proposition.