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The rise of the digital CMO: Marketing for a reimagined future
Digital Strategy

The rise of the digital CMO: Marketing for a reimagined future

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James Lawrence — March 2021

The role — and influence — of chief marketing officers has been dramatically elevated in recent years by the advanced technologies at their fingertips. Two leading CMOs discuss their journey to becoming digital leaders.


A powerful combination of digital technology and advanced data analytics has prompted a huge transformation in the world of marketing in recent years, as organizations leverage techniques such as mass personalization, automation, social listening and data-gathering at scale. What’s more, as with almost every business trend, such shifts have been rapidly accelerated by the enormous social changes brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic.

To understand better how some of the world’s leading companies are responding to the challenge of keeping pace with changing customer demands and maximizing the value of martech, we spoke to two marketing chiefs, from The Washington Post, one of the US’s largest and most respected news organizations, and Japan Airlines (JAL), the flag carrier of the world’s third-largest economy.

Q: To what extent do marketers need to have a good understanding of digital technology these days?

Miki Toliver King, The Washington Post
There’s really never been any part of my career as a senior marketer that didn’t heavily involve collaboration with engineering and technology teams. And my expectations for my team are very much that they can speak the language that our product and engineering teams do, perhaps not down to the actual coding of a particular function, but really in every other aspect. In fact, in the last three to four years, I have been exclusively hiring for a technical skillset in marketers that I wasn’t necessarily looking for seven or eight years ago.

“WashingtonPost CMO Miki Toliver King=

As we think about the next generation of marketers and business leaders, I often have conversations with interns or students about what sort of skills they need to have coming into the industry. I tell them, hands down, they’ve got to take basic courses in software development, and they have to know basic coding language.

There’s no way to function as a marketer and to grow in your career without having some degree of digital experience and expertise. My team members that are my most valuable players are those who are working in lockstep with our engineering team.

Akira Mitsumasu, VP of global marketing, JAL
Our relationship with technology is about both understanding customer needs, and meeting customer needs. So it could be things like bringing in ‘any time’ service during a flight, where customers are able to order from their entertainment system, instead of the old way of having set times for meals; but also using data to co-create a valuable understanding of how customers use our products and services.

The most recent example is our launch of touchless check-in kiosks in response to travellers’ needs during Covid-19.  We are also using extensively our JAL Sky Concierge, which, in addition to providing our customers with updates and notification, is also used internally amongst staff to empower them with information about customers. We use it to solve the problem of a fragmented customer experience at different touchpoints. To do so, we’ve built into the system the capability to pass on information from one touchpoint to another, so, for example, if we’ve learned of a customer’s preference in the lounge, we can then seamlessly pass that to the cabin crew.

“Akira Mitsumasu, VP of global marketing, Japan Airlines=
Akira Mitsumasu, VP of global marketing, Japan Airlines

Q: Who should take responsibility for martech within an organization? And how crucial is the relationship with IT?
Akira Mitsumasu, JAL
I think it depends very much on not just corporate structure, but also on corporate culture. So whatever works best in one company may not work equally well in another. In our case with JAL, the user department typically owns the technology, so with martech, it’s the marketing department.

However, to make that work, we form cross-functional project teams. For example, for our digital marketing platform, we bring in customer service because they own the customer data, the loyalty department because they have the loyalty data, the IT department because they will guide us with the right architecture and deal with any interoperability issues, and also our contact center and our revenue management teams. Then we have someone who steps back to have a bird’s eye view of the whole integration and how the work and data flow.

Miki Toliver King, The Washington Post
As a result of restructuring in 2019, my team is heavily integrated with our technology and product teams. We formed what we call ‘the sub hub,’ which is a fully cross-functional team of marketers, analytics professionals, engineers and product team members, who work together on bringing to our audiences the content that we’re producing. We work together on everything from testing and learning about what it is that our readers are most interested in, to building the products that we ultimately bring to market.

Our CIO and I work closely together and have mutual respect for each other’s areas of expertise. So we usually end up coming to a conclusion that we all agree on, believing it’s the right thing to do for our customer and the right thing to do from a technology and development standpoint.

Q: Data is, more than ever, becoming the lifeblood of marketing. How are you making sure you get the best value from this, and what challenges is it presenting?

Akira Mitsumasu, JAL
When it comes to market segmentation, it’s difficult in air transport — but our data can help a lot. Unlike, say, a fashion brand where you can more easily understand a core customer and their preferences, we have to serve people from all walks of life. Hence it requires using a lot more data to understand how we should actually work out the segmentation. Is it just demographic, psychographic and ethographic personas? Or is it based on how people typically behave when they plan their trips? And because we’re an international carrier, we have to work it out for many different markets that are very, very diverse.

It’s a daunting task, but understanding those behaviors allows us to work out ways that will reduce a lot of pain points when customers make bookings or when they search for information. Very often this depends on some good judgment when you look at all these data sets to see how you can make sense of it, and then try to apply it and test it to see if it’s working. If not, we change it. So we have in place a ‘kaizen’ continuous improvement process.

This has helped us understand, for example, that for regular users in one of our markets, a key reason they continue to choose JAL is because they have a sense of reciprocity, whereby they like their experience so much that they feel they want to continue the relationship. But for non-users, it mainly comes down to value, sometimes in terms of price, sometimes special bonuses, perks and so on. So the need there is quite different from a frequent JAL user, and data has helped us craft new ways of marketing ourselves to these different audiences.

Q: Real-time marketing, and the use of data to enable it, is increasingly important. Is the Covid-19 pandemic accelerating this, and in what ways are you adapting?
Miki Toliver King, The Washinton Post
Real time is increasingly important for us: business intelligence and dashboard-building, and everything related to understanding how our subscribers are behaving, what they are engaging with, where they are engaging, and so on. As a consequence, I often spend as much time with our data and research team as I do with my own, we are so closely integrated.

That said, as a news organization we’re used to operating at a high velocity, and have been doing so longer than just this period of Covid. So in many ways, when the pandemic began, our muscle memory kicked in and we knew how to manage through this.

Q: Amid all the great advances in technology, how important is it to ensure you retain a human element to your marketing?
Akira Mitsumasu, JAL
For our customers, the first thing that was top-of-mind in the pandemic was the very human question, ‘Is it safe to travel?’ That is, in terms of both hygiene and flexibility. We know this from the data that we have from social listening and other sources, that really keeps us informed of what our customers are currently going through. But, obviously, their sentiment changes by the week, so we have been keeping track of that.

We then learnt that they wanted to have more information about, for example, entry procedures: ‘How long do I have to queue to get into the airport? How long would the Covid-19 test take in Tokyo?’ Will vaccination certificates be accepted?’ Those kinds of things

Then, later on, we found that there’s a lot of communication fatigue, where after two months of constantly being bombarded with messages about Covid-19, people were getting stressed. And so we started providing more positive messages — for example, online mindfulness exercises, where you look at beautiful views of Okinawa and do breathing exercises. It was very much about listening to what consumers are saying, what the sentiments are, and trying to be really responsive to those sentiments.

In short, we’re trying to keep ourselves relevant, but at the same time have our own brand point of view throughout.

Miki Toliver King, The Washinton Post
Right now we are focused right on customizing the reading experience to really ensure that we are bringing the greatest value to our subscribers. We are figuring out how we can best deliver a product that speaks in a really relevant and important way to every reader. It’s about trying to understand how we best build a relationship so that we become a part of their lives in ways that keep us in their mind and make them feel like we are partnering with them.

• Miki Toliver King was a speaker at Collision 2020.

First published March 2021

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