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The Changing Role of Chief Brand Officer

In this article, we discuss the changing role of the Chief Brand Officer into a philosopher, coach, scientist and creative director.
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In this article, Robert Jones argues that the role of the brand director, sometimes called ‘chief brand officer’, is changing dramatically, and suggests a way of thinking about the new role, as ‘four hats’. How far do you agree?

Philosopher and coach

The task of brand management is changing. The role used to be relatively easy to define: writing the brand strategy, achieving consistency in the branding work, policing every piece of design, and tracking the brand’s performance.

But the scope of branding in many organisations is much less clear-cut than it was twenty years ago. At one moment, big long-term questions of meaning and purpose are central to the CEO, while at the next moment, the pressure shifts to short-term results, and branding is little more than a sales gadget. Brand managers therefore increasingly have to hold the high ground, to remind their CEO of the long-term value to be derived from investing in the brand. They argue for the importance of values, meanings and ideas in the minds of consumers – and of employees too. Often it’s the head of brand who’s reminding the organisation’s leaders how critical it is to building purpose, confidence, conviction and unity among employees. Their current keyword is ‘purpose’, which has more currency for many chief executives than ‘brand’. As the champions of meaning and purpose, and the posers of ‘why’ questions, brand managers are almost the philosophers of their organisations.

At the same time, the reach of brand managers is widening. When branding was essentially about communicating, the job could be done within the brand department. But increasingly, customers believe deeds not words: the whole customer experience, rather than the latest advertising campaign. And this means influencing colleagues in many other departments, including product design, engineering and customer service. Many organisations, as we’ve seen, are keen to build the right brand in the minds of employees, just as much among consumers. They use branding to change how employees think, feel and act. Often, they produce a set of guidelines for how employees should behave – even in meetings that no consumer will ever see.

So the brand manager’s task becomes an educational one. In some cases, this means teaching the whole organisation to collectively deliver the best possible customer experience, in order to build the right brand for consumers. In others, it goes even further, and means building the right brand for employees too, getting them to ‘live the brand’. To control communications, brand managers used to deploy brand manuals and guidelines. Now, they’re much more likely to talk about practical tools and online learning. The brand manager has become, in effect, organisation’s coach – its teacher and trainer – using an array of educational media and practical toolkits.

Scientist and creative director

Today, brand managers are also learning the habits of the scientist. This is because CEOs increasingly demand ‘scientific’ data from their marketing people – not just impressions and instincts but evidence and quantification – to justify their budgets. Brand managers are therefore getting interested in a range of new scientific disciplines. Consumer neuroscience is still too young to be of much practical use. There’s an emerging science called computational aesthetics, which aims to be able to predict which designs will work best just by measuring their features (line widths, curve angles, colours, brightnesses and so on) – but that’s still a long way behind the effectiveness of the human eye.

But another kind of data – often described as ‘big data’ – now plays a central role in branding. Much of what a company does in the market – communicating, selling and delivering its product or service – now happens online, which means it gets tracked, which means there’s data about it. Big data can tell a brand manager which online campaigns get most clicks, which tweets get most retweets, which discounts work best, which sales channels are most efficient, who the customers are, where they are, what else they like, how much they use your product, and what they say about it on Facebook.

Using this data, the brand manager’s goal is to build a brand that’s ahead of people’s changing needs. Ford, for instance, is monitoring its customers’ driving habits from its R&D centre in Silicon Valley. Big data can help you identify new trends and new needs, for example by analyzing what people are searching for on Google. Big data can help you get pricing right, and to experiment with new products. And of course it can help you target communication at exactly the right people – for example, showing people advertising based on what they’ve been writing about in their emails. This kind of personalized brand-building is now commonplace – and so easy to do that brand-owners worry about ‘the creep factor’, the tendency for consumers to feel intruded on by brands that know too much about their lives – and therefore to reject the companies that do that.

So brand people are increasingly becoming data scientists. In fact, in many companies, the marketing department is now the biggest buyer of IT. The only trouble with big data is that it’s big – there’s far too much of it for it to be quickly useful. A 2013 IBM study suggested that 40% of companies don’t yet have the tools to understand all this data.

And the truth is that branding will always depend on creativity. Branding now depends as never before on innovation: constantly offering the next flavour, the latest store format, the newest technology. Brands that don’t change die – in other words, companies have to keep trying to update the ideas about them in people’s minds. Steve Jobs used to quote his favourite Bob Dylan line: ‘he not busy being born is busy dying’. Many brand managers therefore focus on stimulating the organisation to constantly renew itself. They push for rapid experimentation, and they often try and speed up the organisation’s body clock. Indeed, it’s often the brand manager’s role to push for renewal – to be the organisation’s creative director.

So brand managers today are a fascinating combination of philosopher, coach, scientist and creative director.

© Robert Jones, adapted from Branding: A Very Short Introduction
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