Your Content Is Your Voice. So What Is Yours Saying?

3 steps to a brand voice that meets the demands of the moment

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Across the country, chief marketing officers are catching their breath. Finally. Holy hell, finally. After 18 months of pivots and recalibrations and budget changes and strategy rethinks, there’s finally a minute. A minute to look up to the sky and down to the ground and determine where the dust has settled.

There’s a lot of dust to sift through. Dust from the behavior, mindset and economic shifts coming out of the pandemic. From the toxic political divisiveness that continues to pervade American culture. And from the growing chorus that has reached a crescendo, demanding more inclusive treatment for Black and Brown people.

As CMOs look back on the year when everything changed and gaze ahead to a hyper-connected, data-obsessed world, where does that leave marketing? An inflection point has arrived. For many companies, there’s a scramble: to meet the moment, to harness the technology, to be simultaneously the voice of progress and driver of profit growth. 

CMOs know they can’t sit back and catch their breath for long. There’s no time to be idle when you’re in the hot seat, the shortest-tenured job in the C-suite. CMOs face incredible pressure: to perform in the areas of strategy, product innovation, customer relations and of course, communications. In all of those disparate areas, we’re sitting at the precipice of big change, a statement that’s true almost regardless of industry or function. Consumers are looking to brands as connectors and are open to giving brands a bigger role in their well-being. With mindsets shifting and loyalty up for grabs, many organizations are starting at the top, rethinking the very voice that defines them. 

For more than a decade, content marketing has been a primary showcase of a company’s voice. Content allows us to speak frankly to our audience, to acknowledge their needs, to showcase our expertise and to demonstrate leadership. At a moment when many companies are rethinking how marketing rises to the occasion, what does this mean for content marketing in particular? One thing is certain: Standard content marketing practice isn’t going to cut it as we look forward. It’s a cliche moment — the kind where if you’re standing still, you’re falling behind. 

Now is the time to consider how to shape a content marketing strategy that meets the moment and positions us to take on what comes next. Here’s how to do it.

Have a point of view

The days of companies, large and small, shrinking back from broadcasting an opinion on the social issues of the day are over. Pre-2020, a shift toward socially conscious brands was already underway, and 2020 accelerated the push, as consumers became exasperated with brands that appeared to prioritize profits over well-being. 

Today, the argument that it’s too hard to prove ROI from purpose-driven practices is quickly becoming a relic of the past. “Increasingly, shareholders, investors and employees genuinely care about how you do business,” says Leela Srinivasan, Momentive (formerly SurveyMonkey) CMO, citing a Momentive survey revealing that 78% of consumers have made a purchase decision based on values. “I do think there’s a virtuous cycle.”

Part of convincing the rest of the C-suite is bringing the data that illustrates the power of the positioning. For companies that still have doubters (I come across some of these occasionally), CMOs are now in a prime position to use data to help convince the rest of the C-suite of the power of a point of view. You are the conduit to the customer. Think of the role, Srinivasan says, as the voice of the market — the right seat to accelerate the brand’s stance on issues that matter to their audiences. In these conversations, which can occasionally become charged, “data helps bring that layer of objectivity.” 

Content has a big role to play here; it has the power to convey the changes you’re making. What sometimes happens, though, is that words lead rather than action. While many executives think they’re broadcasting strong messaging, consumers often don’t agree. “There is misalignment between consumers’ expectations of brands and the societal actions that brands report taking,” says Gartner. 

In short, it’s not enough to say that you’re going to pay more attention to the issues of the day. What consumers are looking for, notes Gartner, is concrete action. A shift in an internal or external policy, an event that’s canceled for a valid reason. That’s what people want to know about — that you’re putting muscle behind the words. A gorgeously shot video broadcasting your perspective, a perfectly timed social media campaign — they’ll fall flat if you don’t have the action to back them up.

Prioritize inclusivity

If inclusivity for your company means diverse images in your branding and a pledge to hire from a broader range of ethnicities and backgrounds, you’re missing the bigger picture — and a huge opportunity. 

Deciding how to get involved comes back to your point of view. For some companies, making meaningful progress within your own walls and in the communities where you live and work may feel like the right approach. For others, considering how inclusion ladders up to who you are as a company may reveal a bigger opportunity, as it has at Momentive, says Srinivasan. It sounds lofty, but the team at Momentive considers “commitment to raising the bar for human experience” as part of the company’s mission. Surveys, in their largest sense, can shine a bright light on people’s feelings, aspirations and doubts. Surveys, notes Srinivasan, have the ability to amplify voices that might not otherwise be heard.

When viewed through that lens, Momentive’s role — and power — as part of the movement toward diversity and inclusion became much more clear. The company, for example, launched a survey to gauge the Asian American and Pacific Islander community’s experiences with discrimination, to help elevate awareness of that issue. It was a way to contribute to the ongoing dialogue — an initiative that’s true to the company mission and helps further goals of diversity and inclusion. 

Srinivasan notes that it was important that the company not stop there. Listening is important. It’s the first step. But a commitment to inclusion has to go beyond listening, to taking action. For marketing departments, the lines can start to get fuzzy. What are the actions a marketer takes versus product or human resources? Srinivasan notes that while Momentive’s head of diversity and inclusion, Antoine Andrews, leads the way on many of the company’s internal initiatives and practices, Srinivasan picks up the ball when it comes to translating initiatives for external messaging. These days, when the marketing department creates a major piece of creative, such as the one announcing the name change and new brand, Srinivasan calls in the head of diversity and inclusion and someone from his team to review it. “We wanted to make sure we were rigorous,” she says, noting that the pair of reviewers caught a handful of things they thought should be changed.

Own your narrative

I hear a lot of chatter these days from clients about storytelling. Companies have bought into the power of a great brand story — the one that reveals, with a little tension and a problem to solve, how a product or service meets a need. 

Stories can be wonderful things. They can drive emotion and connection and paint a picture that’s impossible with typical descriptions and approaches. They create relationships and indelible impressions. But when your company has reached higher, has aligned itself with purpose and inclusion and the things that matter most to consumers, stories are no longer enough. The brand itself needs a narrative. 

That narrative must be — I’m going to use an overused word here: authentic. We all know that these days, our customers can spot a phony from miles away, and they will. They’ll spot it, and then they’ll share it. “If you’re projecting diversity and inclusion and it’s not the lived experience … it will become a problem in the most uncomfortable way for you,” Srinivasan says. “There’s every chance that news will break when you don’t want it to, and that’s a different problem.” (Check out “Hit or Miss” for a look at where CVS went wrong during Pride Month.) 

Longtime (now retired) Deloitte consultant John Hagel III says a corporate narrative can’t be about you — it first has to be about your customer. It must convey the customer’s needs and aspirations and tie those to your needs and aspirations. It’s a rallying cry that’s true to who you are and compelling to outsiders. That’s the sweet spot. Think something like Whole Foods’ commitment to healthy eating, or Dove’s narrative on real beauty. These don’t feel like a stretch. They feel true to the brands they represent. They become the narrative that all of the company’s marketing must remain true to.

Once you’ve landed there, that narrative must be the embodiment of the point of view that informs all of your work. It’s about taking the purpose you’ve defined and thinking about how your company can bring it to life across nearly all of its interactions and manifestations. That’s a role that falls squarely on the shoulders of the CMO, says Mastercard CMO Raja Rajamannar. 

Rajamannar, who has lobbied loudly for marketers to lead on ethics and inclusivity, sees no incongruity in the coexistence of purpose and profits. It’s a rising-tide-lifts-all-boats argument: “If society’s not thriving, your company’s not going to thrive,” he says. Once you’ve made the broad-based commitment to societal good, the narrative should flow naturally. The narrative is the way that you build a bridge between the work your company does and society and culture. 

This doesn’t mean, Rajamannar adds, that every company has to pretend that it’s the International Red Cross. Who you are should dictate the narrative you represent, and once you’ve defined that key narrative, that should help you determine the priority areas of need for your organization. “You cannot go and say tomorrow that there’s some crisis and you should be jumping in because it’s politically correct to do so,” he says. Instead, pick the causes that map to your agenda. In other words, your narrative should be built within your business model, not in spite of it. 

International Women’s Day, Black Lives Matter, food insecurity, income inequality. There’s no shortage of causes to align with, and one of the struggles for a large organization searching for its purpose is the tendency to want to commit to just about all of them. Understanding your role, your narrative, means having a pressure test for the issues that make sense for your company and brand. In a world of shifting priorities, it falls to the CMO to keep the focus. 

It’s yet another role to add to your portfolio: the guardian of the brand’s true voice. “If you keep chasing the shiny pennies, nothing is going to stick to your brand,” Rajamannar says. “You have your clarity of thinking. The CMO has to do this.”

Rajamannar_Raja

A few more thoughts from Raja Rajamannar, CMO of Mastercard

The way consumers buy, the way marketing analysts measure, the skills required to lead the marketing department: It’s all changing, says Mastercard CMO Raja Rajamannar, who recently published a book called Quantum Marketing: Mastering the New Marketing Mindset for Tomorrow’s Consumers. If you’re like most marketers, he says, you’re “hopelessly unprepared” for the forces buffeting your world.

Here’s what he thinks is coming, and how we can ready ourselves and our organizations.

Q: You’ve talked about “reinventing marketing.” Why do you think it needed reinventing?

Rajamannar: Today almost 50% of what we spend in marketing is spent on channels that didn’t exist 15 years back. Virtual reality, smart speakers, blockchain, 3D printing — the list goes on. Each one has a profound impact. Marketing is going to be disrupted at an unprecedented level. It’s not just B2C. It’s both. It’s going to be a very different landscape. 

Consider the purchase funnel. It has collapsed. It needs a complete reinvention. 

In the past it was: First, people need to be made aware of a product. Then you need to do something to excite their interest. Then you create a desire to acquire the product. Then you nudge them to take action. Then you get them to use the product, and hopefully they’re happy. Today, think about Facebook ads. There’s no staged, gated process. You’re accomplishing everything in the funnel in a few seconds. I didn’t know even one minute ago that the product existed. I may still not know the brand name. I saw it, I liked it, I bought it. 

Q: Are marketers ready for this infusion of new tech?

Rajamannar: Marketers are hopelessly underprepared for this future. 

Q: Why is that?

Rajamannar: Marketers have historically been right-brained. They’re creative. Think brand and design. Many struggle with data and technology. Since the internet and the rise of data analytics, marketing has become more infused with the left brain, with data and analytics. This is being accelerated.

Many marketers I talk to, in a safe environment they’re able to admit that they don’t understand data analytics. I say, “Do you know how we’ll survive in a cookieless environment?” and many of them are not aware. They need to really start investing time and effort into upgrading their understanding, to train their teams, to have their tech stacks ready. I spend five hours every weekend educating myself. I read books or do courses, so no one can spin or give me some spiel.

Q: What will the CMO role look like in three or five years, versus today?

Rajamannar: The CMO will be a true general manager and true business manager. He or she will understand technology and data. He or she will understand finance, so they can connect the dots between marketing and business outcomes. It’s not just about performance marketing. In the past if you were a great marketing expert it was enough. Now it’s hopelessly inadequate. You must be a businessperson before being a marketing specialist. 

(This conversation was edited for length and clarity.)

Sources: KornFerry, Forrester, Gartner, Momentive, HBR 

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