Santa Claus Is Real, And 4 Other Ideas I Stole From The World’s Top CMOs

The author recently spoke with Olivier Francois, the marketing guru behind Chrysler, among other marketing bigwigs. Here's what he learned.

It was dawn in Detroit and makeup was being airbrushed onto my face. My skin appeared flawless, like that of a mannequin, so I’d look good on camera for the ninth installment of “Marketing Masters,” a video series featuring the top players in marketing and the brainchild of Rich Lobel and his Altitude Group at CBS.

My role as the interviewer for the series gave me a ringside seat to some of the heaviest hitters in the ad world and, as the head of my own marketing company, there was no better seat to have.

That day, I would be interviewing Olivier Francois, the marketing guru behind Chrysler and an almost absurd number of other high-profile auto brands. He knew a lot and I was eager to hear what he had to say.

As the makeup person continued with my resurfacing job, I reflected on some of the best interviews and tips I’d picked up along the way. Here are the top 5:

1. Santa Claus is real.

Martine Reardon, Macy's CMO, must have said the word "consumer" 50 times in our interview. For her, that is where everything starts. “What does the consumer want? How can we be part of our consumer’s life?”

That's where Santa comes in. And the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. And cause-marketing initiatives. And all that Macy's does to connect with their consumers beyond selling shoes and blenders. Through Santa, Macy's establishes a life-long emotional connection with their customers. Macy's is your friend--a friend from whom you will buy lots of blenders.

Takeaway: Create initiatives that aren't focused on selling a product and you will be part of your consumers’ lives in a real and meaningful way.

2. Be as good as Homer Simpson.

It was during my interviews with Lisa Cochrane, the SVP of marketing for Allstate Insurance, and Susan Credle, the chief creative officer at Leo Burnett, that I got perhaps the simplest and most important nugget of advice: Make your content as good as the content surrounding it.

People choose to watch The Simpsons. They choose to listen to the morning radio show. They choose to browse online. Ads are the uninvited guest. Make your ad as funny as Homer and people will pay attention.

Takeaway: Try to make your messaging as entertaining as the content surrounding it. You will do better work and engage more people.

3. Metal or metal, there’s no difference.

Eddie Combs, the CMO of Sears Appliances, has a bizarre past. He was the lead singer of a scarily named heavy metal band called Krome. Is working for Sears any different? Not according to Eddie. In fact, in his work for Sears, Eddie applies many of the marketing lessons he learned while audaciously stapling flyers to telephone poles during his metal years. To him, there's little difference between asking people to come to your gig at 2 a.m. and asking them to come to your store to buy a dishwasher.

It's all about connecting with your audience. Sears spends a lot of time connecting with consumers through what Eddie calls "contextual explosions," a term that refers to leveraging what’s in pop culture and marrying it with your brand. Leave it to a heavy metal guy to coin a marketing term with the word "explosion" in it. Insert awesome guitar riff here.

Takeaway: Marketing, like many other professions, is a form of entertainment. You have to connect with your audience and remain relevant. Tapping into the pop-culture conversation, where many brand decisions are made, is a great place to start.

4. Seize the day. Literally.

Some big companies own a stadium or a blimp. American Express owns a day of the week: Small Business Saturday. It’s a HUGE idea and it was the only topic of discussion during my interview with John Hayes, the CMO of AmEx.

For those of you who aren’t already aware, Small Business Saturday is the feel-good shopping day, sandwiched between the sinister-sounding “holidays” of Black Friday and Cyber Monday. It’s the biggest shopping day of the year for brick and mortar stores, and its success has been staggering. Why? Because it’s a perfect, big idea. It makes consumers feel good about using their AmEx card to support local merchants. It makes the local business owners feel proud to accept the card and it drives revenue. Plus, in what might be the best evidence of the brilliance of this initiative, local politicians and other community leaders willingly and enthusiastically promote Small Business Saturday. Not many brands get that kind of support.

Takeaway: One big, good idea is all you need. And, if possible, have your company own a day of the week. Thursday is available.

5. Jump off a cliff. It could be good for you.

I never expected the CMO of an investment company to be a creative dynamo who loves taking chances. But that’s exactly who I got with Jim Speros of Fidelity. Jim loves taking risks and defines it as “jumping off a cliff and building your wings on the way down.” I found that pretty surprising, especially coming from a man who is responsible for billions of dollars worth of other people's money. But to Jim, without risk-taking, there are no new ideas. There are no new opportunities. There is no possibility of magical things happening. It’s something I think about every day, as a creative person. Well, that and vodka-sodas.

Takeaway: Take risks. Otherwise you risk being mediocre.

These are just a few of the important things I have picked up from interviewing the best minds in marketing. I have stolen much more from them than I shared here. Including an awesome pen from Olivier Francois. Shhh.

--Tony Mennuto is Founder and CCO is MISTER:-|FACE, a creative agency based in New York, New York.

[Image: Flickr user Cyril Doussin]

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