In uncertain times, purpose can be the north star for brands. Deloitte US CMO Suzanne Kounkel tells Tanya why putting the customer at the centre and pivoting to meet their needs in the moment can drive companies forward.
Tanya Ott: About 20 years ago, Suzanne Kounkel bought her first really nice car. A few months later, she got a text from the company.
Suzanne Kounkel: They didn’t have permission, necessarily.
Tanya: It was very unexpected.
Suzanne: “You may or may not remember how to change the clock in your car. Here’s how you do it.” It was just a wonderful moment that they chose to intersect with me where they didn’t have permission, necessarily. It was very unexpected, but they were thinking about me and the way I would use that car, not about selling a car.
Tanya: Suzanne says she was really impressed. She’s bought four more cars from that company over the years.
Data is everywhere. It’s coming from sensors in our environment, on the products we use, on and in our bodies. It’s the Fourth Industrial Revolution and companies that leverage technology appropriately can enhance their relationship with existing and potential customers. But it can sometimes be a tricky proposition.
And that’s what we’re talking about today on the show.
Tanya: I’m Tanya Ott. And Suzanne Kounkel isn’t just an average consumer.
Suzanne: I have the privilege of being the chief marketing officer [CMO] for Deloitte in the US and in that capacity I have a number of responsibilities.
Tanya: Brands and sponsorships, communications, PR, marketing … it’s all under Suzanne. Earlier this year, Deloitte explored how brands can navigate the increasingly digitised space. Before we get to that, I asked Suzanne how the job of marketing has changed in the last decade or two.
Suzanne: It’s a big question. The digitisation of marketing and the difference between what CMO’s looked like 10 years ago and today is actually pretty profound. The first thing that data has done, that ability to harness data, has been to hold CMOs much more significantly responsible for growth than previously ever possible. That’s a big change to the CMO role and to marketing in general. The second thing is obviously that digital channel provides us the ability, if we use it in the right ways, to harness a very different reach than what’s historically the case. It also allows us to be more personable. There’s been a lot around personalisation, but the angle, I believe, that is a stronger one is this notion of being more human-focussed in the marketing and less the, “I’m looking for this particular demographic that would allow me to personalise.” Digital provides us a lot of great things that we don’t often talk about, but the cost per unit goes down tremendously and that theoretically allows us to do a lot more.
Tanya: We’re going to dive much deeper into a lot of this, like the human experience that you talk about, in just a moment. Your team interviewed dozens of subject matter experts around the globe to identify the key trends that businesses are likely to focus on over the next 18 to 24 months. Who did you talk to and what was the top line that you got out of those conversations?
Suzanne: One of the things that’s interesting in the Deloitte Global Marketing Trends report that we published in 2020 is this notion that the CMO role in the C-suite is very different. We didn’t limit it to marketing individuals. We talked to many members of the C-suite because we wanted to get the nuance of how marketing and the role of the CMO has changed the C-suite and that’s changed how the influence of marketing is both within companies and within the business world.
Tanya: One of the major themes that comes out of the work that you’ve done is this idea of purpose. When you’re talking about purpose in the context of a brand, what does that mean?
Suzanne: It sounds like such a simple question, but actually is relatively profound. What we like to say is your purpose is why you exist. It’s the heartbeat of the organisation that anchors everything you do. Purpose is important because it has been relegated primarily through a marketing lens. But it does a disservice if we keep it at just that pure sense of the conversation.
Tanya: So what you mean when you say it’s relegated in marketing sense, you mean it’s become a catchphrase that’s used in marketing?
Suzanne: There’s a lot of conversation around what is the role of purpose in advertising. That is actually a really important amplification of purpose, but it only works if you have purpose ...
Suzanne: … before you advertise that purpose and that sometimes gets overlooked. One of the things our global CEO, Punit Renjen, always says is an organisation’s culture and purpose answer the critical questions of who it is and why it exists. That’s really important because it embeds the notion of purpose in culture. Culture to me is really important because it talks about why we do the things we do, not what we do. That the foil for that is marketing is typically the part of the organisation that helps magnify and amplify and translate that to a broader audience. But it has to exist for marketing to be able to do that exceptionally well.
Tanya: So I’ve been involved in quite a number of one- or two- or three-day retreats done with staff over the years where we develop the mission statement or we revisit the mission statement from the similar retreat we did four years ago. That’s not an unfamiliar experience for a lot of people. What’s the difference between the mission statement and the purpose?
Suzanne: It’s a great question. The mission statement is typically relatively focussed. And for sure, there is a strong linkage between the mission and the purpose. But the purpose again is sort of broader. It is why you exist. The mission is a little bit more how do you vector that against a particular outcome. Lots of corporations have corporate values and guiding principles and things like that and these things are all very interrelated. But a purpose is a little bit more fundamental, I believe.
Tanya: So a little more fundamental, not just an advertising gimmick. But it sounds to me what you’re saying is the purpose has to be not just something that you create in order to make marketing materials or advertising materials or to be able to have it solely outwards focussed. It is something that truly permeates throughout the organisation in terms of everyone, at every level, understanding that that is the overriding purpose of what we’re doing.
Suzanne: That’s well said. Let me give you an example: Deloitte’s purpose is to make an impact that matters and that impact needs to be felt by our clients, our people and our communities. So if you think about the interpretation of that, that really guides a lot of our activity and certainly influences how we spend our time and prioritise time and investments and all those sorts of things. That means that as we deliver work, we are very much focussed on the impact of the work we do, not just the work. That sounds really simple, but it actually is very deliberate. It means that we go about delivering that work in a much different way. The community piece, for us, is very important. We’ve had Impact Day for many, many years, where everyone in our global organisation spends time giving back to their community.
The research and I’ll cite some of the research that we specifically did to support the Global Marketing Trends report, is really incredible about the outcome and the positivity of purpose, when you actually do truly understand it and embed it in the way your organisation runs. One, purpose-oriented companies report 30 percent higher levels of innovation and 40 percent higher levels of workforce retention. Fifty-five percent of consumers believe businesses today have a greater responsibility to act on issues related to their purpose. And purpose-driven companies witness higher market-share gains and grow three times faster on average than their competitors, while achieving higher workforce and customer satisfaction. It’s really an incredible fundamental shift in the conversation.
Tanya: How do you look at a company and decide this is a purpose-driven company versus one that’s not a purpose-driven company?
Suzanne: It’s easier to see it when it’s not than when it is. Certainly we’ve all been around organisations, either personally and professionally, where it becomes something they say and not something they do. Usually that’s when you see the cracks in the armor.
One of the things I’ve thought a lot about in current times and under the influence of COVID-19 is one of my favourite quotes: “Adversity does not build character, it reveals it.” I think a lot about that, through the lens of purpose, is you really need to think about how purpose is interpreted in the actions at the individual level, at the leadership level, at the external level, at all levels, because that’s where you see purpose. Then when people don’t land it right, it typically is because it’s not really believed. It’s something that you’ve said and put to the side, but it hasn’t been really infused in the fabric of the company.
Tanya: How does a company or a brand stick to its purpose in the face of adversity? You know, a global pandemic like we’re in right now.
Suzanne: It’s a great question. I would turn it a little bit on its head, because I would say that if you really have purpose, it really is infused in why people joined your company. It’s infused in the way decisions are made. It’s infused in the way that there are cultural norms about how people treat each other. It’s also infused in knowing what the role is that you should be playing at a particular time.
I’ll give you an example. I talked about our purpose, which is impact that matters to our people, our clients and our communities. One of the things that we knew when COVID-19 first hit, is we had done a piece about resilient leadership and the way we think about the response to COVID-19 is respond, recover and thrive. We knew that in the response portion, that it was largely a medical response that was required at scale globally. And in that world, we had a role to play but it was a relatively small role, while the medical community responded to the pandemic. There were very specific things we could do to help our employees respond and help our clients respond. We weren’t critical, we weren’t, at the center of that: Our best and highest purpose was to make sure that we helped our people and our clients, but sort of put our heads down and did that and weren’t confused about the role we played. As we move to recover and thrive, we believe our purpose, interpreted through what the world needs, is different. That’s what we do. We help organisations come together to solve complex business problems and we believe we do have a much more significant role to play in those worlds. So, again, purpose allows you to make better decisions about what your role is and, as things change, to prioritise what you do and how you do it.
Tanya: We talked earlier in the conversation about the human experience and how all of the data and digitisation can go a couple of different ways. But one of the ways is that brands can really leverage that to make their customers human to them, to the brand themselves. But how can brands emphasise this human experience at a time when I’m sitting in a little closet in my house with a microphone? I haven’t seen my coworkers at the university where I teach in six weeks or longer and I won’t see them until August.
Suzanne: I totally get it. It’s a challenge for us. We globally have a lot of people and so maintaining that connectivity to both our people and to our clients is obviously top of mind. I’d say a couple of things: One, even though we’re physically apart, there is a really unique human connection that’s going on right now because this environment is hitting everyone, collectively. That’s pretty unique. The last time something significant happened like this was 2008. But it was very lumpy. It impacted certain people very significantly and [for] other people it was less of a cause. I think [we’re] really leaning into the fact that we’re all experiencing this in big and small ways and that’s really something to think about.
The second thing is that if you keep really focussed on human needs, you’ll notice that the needs don’t change, but the way you meet them might.
Tanya: Tell me what you mean.
Suzanne: We still have the need for financial security. We still have the need for health. We need entertainment. All of those human needs are the same. The mechanism to do that is very different. I’ll give you [an] example, we did a management committee meeting virtually last week on Zoom. It’s a lengthy meeting. It’s typically a five-hour meeting. And we always have said we needed to hold those in person because it was about the connections and the people being there together.
But interesting enough, when we did that on Zoom, people reported back that they were actually more engaged and got more out of it than the last time we had the management committee meeting in person. Because we can’t physically be together, it’s important to think about two things. One is what are the things that you need to do differently? And what are [the] different things you can do in the time? Let me give you a couple of examples.
So doing things differently: In that same management committee meeting, we did breakouts. We’ve always done breakouts, but the way we did the breakouts virtually was very successful. We used electronic whiteboards so we could quickly see the data that came from those breakouts in a way that if we were in-person, we would have done them on flip charts that may or may not have been appropriately covered. We could immediately poll the audience on whether or not it resonated. Just to be super candid with the breakouts on Zoom, the breakout ends and you’re immediately put back into the plenary, which never happens in a physical thing. It was an optimised experience on doing the same things, but doing them differently.
With respect to doing different things, though: I have a large family that’s distributed around the world and we have never gotten everyone on a phone call, even though we always could have done our conference call. But in today’s times, we’re getting on once a week on a Houseparty or a Zoom meeting to connect. We’ve all had inclusive goals for a long time, but in this world in which you can’t physically be there, it’s actually a great time to amplify truly inclusive behaviour because you literally can get more people virtually or digitally there.
Tanya: My mother-in-law had her, well, I won’t say how old, what her birthday it was.
Suzanne: She appreciates that ...
Tanya: About a week and a half ago we actually did a Zoom birthday party for her and were able to pull in some of her family and friends from all over the country. It took my 21-year-old daughter doing a lot of Zoom coaching with the 70-plus crowd, but everybody got the platform. Everybody got logged in. Everybody eventually got their audio and their video working. And it was just a really cool experience. And that kind of speaks to what you’re talking about.
Tanya: One of the words that we’re hearing a lot and we’re talking a lot about these days on the podcast is agility. What does agility mean in the marketing context right now?
Suzanne: The pandemic hit quickly everywhere. It’s changing rapidly. It is absolutely something that no one was prepared [for]. That doesn’t mean people hadn’t planned for it or people didn’t have strong business continuity plans. But nobody really understands where it’s going and the impact that it will have. In times like that, agility is important because there are no playbooks. You don’t know where it’s going. Things are unfolding so rapidly. In times of crisis, strong innovation happens. For us, it’s been a time to fully embrace this and incorporate a lot of the data and the sensing that we had been doing, but we’re doing in a much more material way because things are changing so quickly. Agility, in my opinion, means experimenting more. Really experimenting and knowing when to dial up and when to dial down and off things is important.
One of the things that we did when we were a couple of weeks in and we knew immediately this was not just sort of a shift, we immediately took a look at our portfolio of activity and we put it into three categories. One category was reposition. That’s an important category, because we don’t believe anything we were doing three weeks ago is appropriate to do today in its previous form. The second category was what do we need to start? What is it that are the needs of our people and our clients in this world that we need to start? Which also implied we needed to stop, because there was no net new resources or moneys in this world. Last but not least, what are the things that we’ve been working towards for a while that the crisis unfortunately, but opportunistically, enables us to do much more quickly and at scale than we ever could do before. How are we using it as an opportunity to set a new normal? Again, that agility, that pivot had to be done on a dime and throughout the organisation at scale, which obviously for Deloitte is a very large organisation. And we did it and it’s been very refreshing.
Tanya: You talked about having the ability to experiment, but experimentation comes with risks. All kinds of experimentation do. I’m wondering, if there are moments that brands shouldn’t market for. Like, if there are times where it’s super important to understand, hit the pause button on this.
Suzanne: I think it’s a great question and it’s a hard answer because it gets back to, it sort of infuses some of what we’re talking about from a purpose perspective and actually being very human at the center. I wouldn’t say that there’s any moment categorically that a brand shouldn’t market for, but knowing your purposes means that it should be more evident where you, personally, as a brand, can be authentic in meeting a human need. And that can be very surprising what that is and what isn’t.
Tanya: Are there examples of brands that you think are really doing it right, right now, in the face of COVID-19?
Suzanne: Let me answer that question slightly differently and talk about what I think are some of the characteristics of brands that are landing it right. We talked about being really focussed on what people need and then the way brands participate. Twitter released a study recently which I thought was pretty fascinating, where they said 64 percent of their users said that brands should continue advertising as normal. That, that was comforting to them. And 77 percent wanted brands to be making an effort to support society. The reason why I bring that up is that there has been this confusion about can you advertise and be active in the marketplace and not look like you’re taking advantage of the times? Again, if you keep really focussed on how can you help and provide marketing to ease the access points to get that help, I think you’ll land it right.
Another piece that is very near and dear to us with respect to our brand is the notion of coming together. We absolutely believe in this world that no one company or one community or one person will get through this on their own, but we will get through this together. We’ve done some amazing things with alliance partners, clients and local governments to provide solutions that have helped people, displaced workers get back to work on a solution that the communities needed. So things like that, the brands that are really doing it right know that coming together in this moment of need is a really powerful way to make sure that you’re actually helping. And obviously, that advantages all of the companies that are involved. But the reason why they’re able to do it well is because it helps the people whether those are customers or their people or communities. So, if you stay super focussed on that, you’ll land it right.
Tanya: Suzanne, thank you so much for this conversation today. It’s some really useful [information] for a lot of people in the audience.
Suzanne: Thank you, Tanya. Be well and stay safe.
Tanya: Suzanne Kounkel is the chief marketing officer for Deloitte US. You can find Deloitte’s Global Marketing Trends report at deloitte.com/insights … where you’ll also find more coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic, including the implications for the commercial real estate market and how to build resilience within your own company.
We’re on Twitter at @DeloitteInsight and I’m at @tanyaott1. So glad you joined us for today’s conversation. I’m Tanya Ott and we’ll be doing this again in about two weeks. Don’t miss it. Subscribe to the Press Room podcasts wherever you get your podcasts. It’s easy and free.
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