Ten Key Roles of a B2B Corporate Marketing Function

Ten Key Roles of a B2B Corporate Marketing Function

Several months ago a senior marketing executive from a global business-to-business corporation shared the following experience:

“Over the last year, I have brought three good ideas forward to our company leadership council – each founded on fact-based market research and strong customer insights – and yet these ideas just didn’t get any traction. Each time the idea was received with lukewarm interest and summarily relegated to a parking lot. In fact, my favorite concept fared so poorly that it was relegated to long-term parking!  I believe ignoring marketing contributions like these will ultimately put my company at a great disadvantage.

I know marketing can make a difference to our organization.  I just don’t know what to do to get our voice heard, get a buy-in to our ideas, and ultimately have a greater impact.”

This executive’s lamentation is not uncommon. For many years, we have heard similar stories leading to similar concerns.  How to address these concerns is not straight-forward because marketing leaders in business-to-business firms deal with complex customers in complicated markets.  As Emerson’s chief marketing officer, Katherine Button Bell, said “While it’s our job in marketing to demand that the voice of the customer is heard when developing strategy, not a lot of B2B people understand how to get the magic out of these customer messages.”

Furthermore, not all business-to-business executives recognize the potential contributions marketing can make to the firm’s bottom line. Business-to-business corporations that have historically enjoyed great success due to their engineering prowess, manufacturing competencies, or scientific heritage often allocate their time, talents and scarce resources into these areas rather than into marketing initiatives. Al Saltiel, Navistar’s chief marketing officer explained that “the SG&A crunch comes whenever a firm faces tough times, and very often the marketing group’s budget becomes a major source for these cuts.”

Most marketing leaders, nevertheless, aspire to build state-of-the-art marketing expertise for their company that can have a positive bottom-line impact.  Furthermore, many know that this expertise must be in place both at the corporate level and at the business unit level.  Even knowing how to allocate the roles and responsibilities between these two levels can be confusing.  Rick Carpenter, vice president and chief marketing officer of Briggs & Stratton Corporation, explained:

“I believe that it is the Corporate Marketing executive’s job to understand what functions and skillsets should reside centrally versus locally or regionally. This [corporate marketing role] is different for each company and may be different depending on where the company is in its organizational development.”

Across the many business-to-business corporations with which we have worked, we observe that in general marketing professionals at the business unit level are responsible for delivering market and customer research, analytics, insights, plans, and go-to-market strategies that are specific to their business unit.  In contrast, chief marketing officers (or their equivalent) aspire to have their corporate marketing organization be the firm’s center of marketing expertise and to take on roles and responsibilities that allow the business unit marketing leaders to become more productive – and consistent.

Over the years many business-to-business executives have asked:  “What is best-in-class when it comes to the corporate marketing function in a business-to-business firm? And, more importantly, how can a superior corporate marketing function help us fuel our company’s growth and ensure that we are a world-class leader?”

To accomplish this goal, these corporate marketing organizations must have superior marketing competencies and capabilities which require time, investment, and patience to acquire.  Building a best-in-class business-to-business corporate marketing function is a dynamic journey involving a continuous improvement attitude and philosophy. It doesn’t happen overnight.

According to John Jacko, CMO at Kennametal, marketing is becoming less about communications and more about leadership.  He stated:

“Depending upon the size of the company, marketing should lead the development of corporate strategy and own the planning process – it belongs here versus in finance where it will become tactical strategy.

Marketing should also take the lead [on] the development of company culture in support of the mission and brand definition – in other words, [lead the company to be] open to innovation, risk taking, investment outside the core, and incubate new business models.”

Our research and observations have identified ten best practices are the building blocks for a best-in-class corporate marketing organization, one that can deliver the contributions cited by the executives quoted earlier.

1. Drive Marketing Planning:  Corporate marketing drives a systematic approach for developing company-wide marketing plans.  In close collaboration with their business unit colleagues, the corporate marketing leader leads the approach to engineer the planning process, and builds the tool sets to support the marketing planning effort.  As Bell suggests, “Corporate marketing needs to give everyone lines on the road,” the framework for great marketing initiatives.  This framework involves an understanding as to how to address various planning options, including decision “rights” at various levels of the organization, expectations as to the level of detail that is required, promulgation of the tools to be used within the corporation, templates illustrating the recommended approach to plan design, etc.

In that corporate marketing will be ultimately judged on both how well the plan is developed and also on how effectively it works with the business units, the organization must display flexibility to accommodate a broad variety of business unit planning requirements.  It must also bring expert marketing competencies to the table in order to make recommendations and drive the discussion and decision processes forward.  Once the plan’s framework, processes, and tools are developed, corporate marketing must take responsibility for training business units on how to use these tools.  At Emerson, Bell observed that “teaching and training marketing principles were key, because 90% of the population were engineers and had very little understanding of marketing”.

2. Be the Brand Steward: Corporate marketing is the custodian of the corporate brand.  Custodianship begins with clearly articulating what the firm wants its corporate brand to mean, and building the tools, techniques, and training to communicate this to all constituent audiences.  In today’s business-to-business environment, the brand is reinforced and maintained through many employees of the firm.  Bell says, “My job is to simplify the company, to make it easier to understand outside and inside.” Corporate marketing must not only establish the meaning of the brand, but also teach business units how to create customer experiences in such a way that the brand promise is met.

Beyond setting corporate brand direction, corporate marketing also involves setting the ground rules on the use of the corporate brand, nurturing and protecting the master brand, and providing overall quality control, brand architecture, and decision making relating to building the corporation’s brand equity. This includes creating frameworks for how to handle brand transitions (for new product development, for acquisitions, for sun-setting brands, etc.) as well as for measuring and monitoring brand equity (e.g., brand assessments, customer satisfaction, etc.).

This role goes far beyond being the ‘logo cop’.  Instead, it is a role that effectively establishes the principles for brand stewardship and helps the business units create their own policies for brand management.  In today’s world, marketers need to understand the rules of the road for managing the brand across a multitude of venues, from the traditional arenas such as packaging and building signage to new arenas including social media and apps.  Saltiel, whose background includes executive positions at Ford, where brand discipline is well understood and established, observes that most business-to-business firms “are struggling to unify their brands under one well-understood brand architecture”.

3. Ensure that Voice of the Customer Informs Business Strategy:  When corporate leadership decides to update, re-think, or re-establish the fundamental strategy of the business, corporate marketing should be deeply involved in this endeavor.  Marketing represents the voice of the market and customer as business strategies are developed, as goals are set, and as opportunities for growth – both organic and inorganic – are discussed.  This can include the creation of a clear and genuinely differentiated statement of the mission and vision of the firm, but goes beyond that.

The voice of the customer championed by corporate marketing should be viewed by executives as crucial to helping build market-driven differentiated strategy.  Bell put it most succinctly in the context of contributions to product development:  “Listening to the customer has to be the ‘0’ gate in the product development process”.

4.Train and Develop Marketing Talent:  Corporate marketing must partner with human resources to recruit, hire, on-board, train, and develop career paths for talented marketing professionals. Marketing leaders establish career paths that enable marketers to have a well-rounded view of the company, and that bring a marketing point of view – and marketing talent – into key positions throughout the firm.  These companies aspire to have a marketing career ladder, similar to the “technical ladder” where senior technical people can move to higher level of responsibility and impact, as individual contributors.

Many firms that fall short of the level of world-class business-to-business firms sometimes “park” executives in the corporate marketing role, if they have no other logical place go.  Stronger organizations recognize that a person with an engineering background, but with no particular skill, talent, or understanding of marketing may not always be the right person to be slotted into a senior marketing role.  Progressive companies include marketing positions as one of the must-have stepping stones for fast track managers.

5. Deploy Specialist Teams: Marketing specialists can run the gamut. Some organizations create enterprise shared services.  As Saltiel explains, “To get synergy we have established centers of excellence in order to build internal competencies.  Our internal teams are experts on everything from collateral design to film to digital communication.”

Other marketing organizations have built SWAT teams that are deployable resources with strong, practical marketing competencies. These teams are often sought after by business unit leaders to solve strategic problems or address special opportunities that might arise. These resources are called in routinely to assist with growth challenges that the business leaders face.  They are trusted advisors who can see past obstacles, take a broader view, and provide a focused team of talented professionals, beyond what a business unit may be able to find (or fund) in the normal course of business.  These issues can range from needing a plan to expand into adjacent markets, to grow faster than the market, or to reposition a brand that is facing a crisis.  This team is not empowered to simply be the arms and legs and extra resources for the business unit; instead, the goal of the team is to give the whole corporation a leveraging effect by working with business units on the big issues that can yield positive ramifications across the entire company.   Jacko’s mention of the role of “incubating new business models” is a key element of the competencies that such teams can bring to business units.

6. Teach and Communicate:  Corporate marketing must seize the opportunity to bring a common language of the marketing discipline to their firm. In business-to-business firms, very often the whole concept of “marketing” is quite misunderstood. It’s not uncommon, for example, to find that people across the organization in different job functions use similar marketing terminology, but have vastly different interpretations. For example, the term “brand” to one person can be interpreted as the promise, expectation and relationship with external constituents. To another person in the same organization, “brand” can simply mean the company’s logo, tag line, etc.  Corporate marketing must facilitate common language and learning across the company, and take accountability for communicating what marketing is about.

The success of most messaging programs begins with the company’s own employees and close-in stakeholders.  They are responsible for ensuring that their colleagues know of corporate-wide changes taking place, whether fundamental changes in the firm’s business model or changes related to new corporate marketing communication efforts.  Providing information about the changes allows for internal build buy-in to the new directions. They help employees answer questions from customers and suppliers, because, as most business-to-business marketers know, third parties are most likely to first turn to employees to get answers.  While managing messages to the external world is always important, best practice organizations make sure that messages to the internal organization are given no less priority.

7. Drive Internal Integration:  Corporate marketing must also create cross-functional integration, which is absolutely essential in executing marketing plans. They understand that good marketing plans are not developed and then “handed off” to other functions. Good marketing plans involve tight integration with many functions across the corporation – most especially the sales function – as they’re developed.  Marketers receive inputs from finance, operations, research and design, engineering, corporate communications, and other functions as plans are developed.  They are vigilant in linking marketing plans to the key functions that will implement or execute them.

Furthermore, best-in-class marketing functions understand clearly that the sales function does not execute marketing plans – it executes sales plans. The translation of a marketing plan to a sales plan just doesn’t happen; it requires tight coordination with sales management.

Lastly, corporate marketing also understands how to facilitate a link to the CFO’s office and ensures that a member of the CFO’s team is part of their team – at least as an “adjunct” member.  Jacko’s comments about the “tactical strategy” that emerges from the financial function represents a good piece of guidance; whether the plan is executed or not often depends on the translation from marketing to finance (and other business functions). Learning the language of the CFO and how it relates to marketing is important

8. Communicate During a Crisis:  Along with the public relations department, corporate marketing owns the responsibility for the company’s communications during a time of crisis.  This role is often shared or tied to public affairs, whose responsibility is to communicate with various stakeholders including investment analysts, local communities, and sometimes employees.  But since crises often impact customers, suppliers, distributors, and other constituents, it’s critical that a well-coordinated crisis communication plan, with protocols and practiced processes, is in place well in advance of a crisis. Marketing helps to plan, design and resource this process, and is a key player on the crisis team when a situation arises.  In some organizations, we have noted a trend toward aligning the market communications and public affairs groups to foster an “integrated strategic communications” function.

9. Introduce New-to-the-World Trends and Tools:  Companies that are passionate about deeply understanding new trends, new ideas, and new tools rely on corporate marketing to bring this learning to the table in a balanced and actionable way.  These topics can include the need to understand global changes, assess the economic outlook, address technology trends, think about the implications of new business model concepts, keep abreast of changes in the competitive environment, etc.  From recent social networking phenomena to the economic global shifts underway in the 21st century, corporate marketing must create a forum so that this information can be leveraged and shared throughout the corporation, and help businesses grapple with concepts that might well first appear to be “out in left field”, but which in truth can profoundly impact on future success.

10. Understand Marketing Funding and Measurement:  Corporate marketing functions pass through a variety of maturity levels as to how they’re funded, and how their success is measured.

If the funding model for the corporate marketing function involves ongoing cycles of justification with business units, all of whom contribute to the corporate marketing function budget (by way of an allocation or what is often viewed as a “tax”), the real leverage of this function is highly limited.  While this methodology does ensure ongoing contact with the business units, this model can often lead to on-going wasteful discussions and a corporate function whose fate rises and falls with the state of the economy, and business-unit-specific politics. It is organizations in this category that are subject to the “SG&A crunch” that Saltiel described.  In general, in such organizations, tactical imperatives will often outweigh longer range, more important strategic efforts.

As corporate marketing organizations mature, they typically have a mix of funding, including a corporate-funded budget in place, separate from business unit budgets.  In world-class organizations, these resources are not spent on projects created by the corporate marketing function itself, or on unfocused experiments.  In a situation where corporate funding is in place, the corporate marketing “client” is the CMO’s peers in the C Suite, and the investment is focused on initiatives recognized as critically important to the success of the entire firm.  In this situation, the success of the corporate marketing function is tied to the success of specific projects, as well as their performance in helping business units achieve specific, high-level objectives beyond the day-to-day performance of their function.

From an aspirational point of view, corporate marketing functions sometimes have special “corporate matching fund” which is a budget that is to be used in tight collaboration with the business units. This enables the corporate marketing function to identify and work in partnership with business unit leaders on initiatives “above and beyond ordinary practice.” Jacko’s suggestion that corporate marketing play a role in higher-risk innovation programs would represent an example of such an opportunity for collaboration with business unit leadership.  Such activities enable a special level of learning, exploration of an opportunity, or mobilization of a high-level of resources to allow for rapid capitalization on an opportunity that might arise.

When a corporate matching fund is deployed well, it enhances connection between the corporate and business unit functions, greases the skids of execution, and can result in healthy synergistic relationships.  When this is takes place, the success of the corporate marketing function is measured by how well the business unit leaders support the function, and by the bottom line results that have been mutually achieved – and reported to the chief executive office and the chief financial officer.

In summary, in the business-to-business environment corporate marketing must bring superior competencies, stronger processes, crisper language and brand direction to the forefront.  The journey toward world-class corporate marketing takes time and investment, but involves a path that does not detour into the long-term parking lot.  By focusing on the top ten best practices described here, a corporate marketing leader can begin a journey toward contributing enormously to the enterprise’s goals.

Authors: Atlee Valentine Pope and Ralph A. Oliva

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