Hey, CMOs: Who owns your brand?

I speak a lot about the ongoing battle for the heart and mind of the customer and the role that brand plays in this important fight. For all that chief marketing officers stress over their company’s brand and often talk in terms of ownership, the fact is that a brand is bigger than any one person. It’s bigger than executives, bigger than every employee.

Taco Bell CMO Marisa Thalberg nailed it when she told an audience at our company’s event last month that the community owns your brand. It’s imperative to remember that CMOs and marketers are just the keepers of the brand — the “heavy lifting” is done by a brand’s community, or “tribe,” of customers, fans, influencers and advocates.

I say “tribe” because great brands generate truly tribal feelings that define, inspire and empower. It’s distributed brand ownership, and it’s something you must work with, rather than against, to succeed.

The power of large and inclusive tribes

The B2C world is rife with examples of incredible tribes. Take the sports world. From baseball to badminton, it’s the fans — not the execs — who own the brand. Storied and savvy franchises like the Dallas Cowboys understand this and are skilled in cultivating a tribal feeling that keeps fans coming back to tune in, to fill seats and to buy logo’d merchandise that declares team — and brand! — allegiance.

Universities are another good example. Their brand is bigger than the staff, the faculty and the students. It’s in the hands of the academic counselors who point kids in the direction of the university early on, of the proud parents of those students, and eventually of the enormous alumni base who someday (hopefully) will write endowment checks. That’s a lot of influence!

But just because we have more affinity in our personal lives doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to cultivate this tribal feeling in B2B. After all, I often say that it’s not even about B2C versus B2B, because ultimately all interactions are B2H — business-to-human.

Still, I am consistently amazed by the passion and excitement I see at B2B conferences, like our Marketing Nation Summit. To get more than 6,000 people that excited means that we are doing something correctly on the path to tribe.

3 steps to inspiring the tribe to be inspired

So, what are the steps for making that happen?

If we as CMOs don’t own the brand, our job must be to focus on cultivating this tribal feeling and inspiring the tribe to action and advocacy.

1. Start with the mindset that you are the steward of the brand, not the owner. Then determine who your brand’s owners really are — i.e., who constitutes the tribe. What you’ll find is that the tribe is more than just the buyers and users of your products or services. It’s non-customers, too, such as prospects, partners and employees. It’s also influencers on social media, purchasing agents, former customers, public opinion shapers… the list goes on.

Don’t view the tribe myopically; the more inclusive the tribe, the stronger the brand.

2. Always appeal to a cause that is higher than what you are selling. You need to be altruistic to drive the tribal feeling. Have and express a higher calling, and own that calling as an integral part of your brand.

Before Marketo, my employer, ever sold a single product, we developed a blog with the express mission to empower marketers to be the best at their trade, not just the best Marketo users. That calling continues to drive our tribal vibe.

3. Let your tribe help shape your brand. Reinforce your tribe’s brand ownership through continuous and intelligent engagement. Engage with the tribe in the right way at the right time at every step — when you are rebranding, innovating around the brand, and so on.

Do this and you create a continuous loop of engagement and tribe building that leverages distributed brand ownership to help inspire the tribe to be inspired by your brand.

The CMO’s ‘tribe’ mantra

Finally, letting the tribe help shape the brand can seem scary. Giving up control, real or imagined, can be unsettling, especially for Type A marketers. But as we’ve gone over, you don’t own the brand! The tribe does, so let them in on the fun through transparency and engagement.

I’ll leave you with this mantra: Define the tribe. Inspire the tribe. Empower the tribe.

And you’ll be on your way to winning in the Engagement Economy.


Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.


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