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CMO Summit Recap: Marketers brace to take on the metaverse in a big way

Two years on from the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s clear that many of the shifts in consumer behavior that were precipitated by the crisis are here to stay. We can also say with confidence that a good number of the habits and instincts marketers developed and improvised in response will be the industry standard for years to come. Of course, there are still countless questions facing brands as they push on into 2022 — and plenty of competing opinions about the best path forward.

From January 25-26, Digiday Media’s CMO Summit brought marketing leaders from around the United States together virtually to discuss the issues of the moment, from data and diversity to TikTok, the metaverse, and the challenge of rallying remote teams. We’ve picked out some of the themes that our guests brought up repeatedly throughout the summit, including their thoughts on how their brands will improve in 2022.

01
Leveraging consumer data has never been more necessary — or difficult.

In 2022, data — how to gather it, understand it, and use it to maximum effect — will be top of mind for many marketers. Developing and testing solutions for the post-cookie world remains a priority for many brands, but consumer privacy is just one facet of the data equation. Consumers are also demanding increased personalization, and marketers are figuring out how data can inform their response.

Emily Essner, CMO at Saks, talked about how the brand’s digital styling program, Saks Stylist, connects customers with a real-life stylist who can help them discover and express their personal style. The customer completes an introductory quiz that not only informs the stylist’s recommendations but helps the brand identify which stylist to pair with the customer. Essner said that combining data-driven insights with a human touch can be powerful.

Vice Media’s Chief Digital Officer, Cory Haik, said that mutual trust between consumer and brand will be at the core of success in the post-cookie era. “Our business can only move at the speed of that [trust],” Haik said. She said Vice has developed a contextual solution that allows the company to “discover the why not just the who” behind customer behavior.

We also heard from Jason Kwong, chief digital and strategy officer at Redbox, who gave us a glimpse into how the company is evolving into a “multi-faceted entertainment company” with a 100-plus channel linear TV service, an in-house studio acquiring content, and forthcoming third-party subscription offerings. In 2022, the company aims to allow advertisers to target viewers by leveraging its wealth of first-party data, a legacy of its DVD rental business. “One thing that we do have is 20 years of rental history from that Redbox consumer,” Kwong said. “We were able to really leverage that data set to get a lot smarter about understanding who that customer is and what they like to watch.”

One theme that came up at the summit was to stay focused on outcomes. Don’t collect data for data’s sake — know what you want to learn and don’t get lost in the numbers. As e.l.f. Beauty CMO Kory Marchisotto told us, insights must not be left to gather dust — move swiftly from insights to action plans.

02
Entering uncharted territory is the new norm.

Emily Essner talked about how Saks’ marketing team had to sharpen its ability to be “scrappy” during the pandemic, and that’s a description that will resonate with many marketers. Whether it means dropping an approach to content that doesn’t work, generating new ideas, or experimenting with a new technology or format, the confidence to pivot is a reflex Essner said she hopes will become a part of Saks’ DNA in a post-pandemic world. “The concern is after the pandemic goes away as a front and center issue, do you just immediately go back to your old ways of working,” she said. “I think shame on us if we do that.”

Thankfully, marketers are learning the virtue of early adoption. Brands that embraced TikTok early are reaping the rewards. Having “learned the language,” many of these brands have established an authentic rapport with Gen Z, and some are already seeing the results show up in sales. The metaverse is the next frontier, so if your brand was slow on the uptake with TikTok, learn from that and start developing a metaverse strategy now.

Of course, the potential for experimentation isn’t limited to a paradigm-shifting concept like the metaverse. Today’s marketing landscape already encompasses a proliferation of channels, technologies and opportunities that your brand may not yet be leveraging to maximum effect. The message we heard from speakers at the CMO Summit: get involved, test and learn. 

Emily Essner told us Saks has been “really excited” by the results they’ve seen from leaning into influencer strategies in a bigger way over the past year, as well as dipping into podcasts for the first time. The company is also discovering the benefits of using video. “Video is a fantastic opportunity to test,” Essner said. “We’re able to run dozens and dozens of variants of content and really test messaging and lean into what’s working.”

Limited edition drops are a great way of experimenting with new ideas and taking the temperature of your audience. Salt & Straw CMO Alison Hiatt talked about how the ice cream brand approaches its regular releases of limited edition flavors. In some cases, a release will be driven by a time-sensitive pivot. Other times, a release will prove so successful that the flavor may be graduated to become a mainstay of Salt & Straw’s offerings.

As you venture into new realms, keep in touch with your consumer. You have to stay relevant to their needs, and you have to move at their pace. Claire’s CMO Kristin Patrick talked about maintaining a dialogue with consumers across a range of age groups and drawing inspiration from learning about Gen Zs and even the younger Generation Alpha cohort. Cory Haik talked about making sure Vice Media has “permission” from its audiences as the company is “going hard” at diversifying revenue across all of its brands, including Vice, Refinery29 and i-D. Vice doubled its revenue through commerce (affiliate revenue) in 2021 and aims to double that again in 2022. Ads and direct-to-consumer are the other core streams forming the company’s three-pronged strategy.

In developing these streams, Haik said Vice had to figure out where each brand has subject authority and consumer support to enter a new category of commerce. “It’s that trust piece that we have with our audience,” Haik said. “They know if they have a question about what sex furniture to buy, they’re gonna ask us because Vice has that authority.”

03
Rallying and inspiring a team has become more challenging.

The pandemic introduced many marketers to the challenges of managing remote teams. But with work-from-home now a norm for many CMOs and marketing departments, motivating dispersed teams to produce great work is an essential part of the modern leader’s skillset.

First, you need to make sure your team is equipped for the challenges your brand will take on in the year ahead. Kory Marchisotto of e.l.f. Beauty talked about instilling a growth mindset and building a team of “like-minded, like-spirited disruptors” capable of responding quickly to events and turning out great creative work in a matter of hours. “It’s getting people to have the passion, the fire in the belly, the emergency mentality that we have to move fast… It takes a lot of hard work, and it takes teams of talented superheroes,” she said.

Emily Essner of Saks and Cory Haik of Vice Media both offered a reminder that the customer must remain the central figure in the work of marketing teams. “This is all about the customer journey, where you find them and how ultimately they get down that funnel,” Haik said. “Everybody on the team, everybody in the business has to understand that, because all roads ultimately need to drive to that.”

CMOs should also recognize that there are times when it pays to have fun with your brand, and those moments can be inspirational and morale-boosting. Of course, it’s up to you to judge when that lighter touch is appropriate. “Our brand is incredibly important, it is incredibly valuable, we are very protective of it,” Essner said. “But what are the places where we can be a little bit less protective, we can have a little bit more fun and a little bit more flexibility with the brand, and where are the places where we really have to hold it incredibly tight.”

04
Speed is of the essence.

Our CMO speakers frequently touched on the importance of speed as a facet of marketing in 2022. That means developing the reflexes to respond rapidly to changing circumstances, to jump on opportunities and execute quickly. Brands are increasingly comparable with media companies in terms of generating content, and there are rewards for reacting to cultural moments via social channels. 

Kory Marchisotto talked us through e.l.f. Beauty’s response to the brand being the subject of a pivotal question on Jeopardy. Almost immediately — “within about 12 hours,” Marchisotto said — the marketing team had engaged the contestant in a light-hearted social media ping-pong match. Then they changed e.l.f.’s branding on its social channels to riff on the moment, before presenting the contestant with an $8,000 check, which he donated to charity.

The boom in CTV advertising should also be prompting marketers to bolster their capacity for creating campaigns quickly, especially in response to cultural cues. Ali Haeri, VP of Marketing at MNTN, said speed is the key to effective CTV advertising, contrasting sharply with linear TV advertising.

05
WTF is….

Fastvertising

Advertising creative is increasingly intertwined with the cultural zeitgeist, feeding off social media’s revolving door of memes, jokes, discussions and debates. To do that effectively, marketers have to be proficient at monitoring the culture, identifying a moment that invites a response from the brand, then converting that impulse into action quickly without compromising on quality or brand safety. 

Ali Haeri, VP of Marketing at MNTN, Haeri said advertisers have to bring themselves up to “the speed of social,” especially as CTV advertising becomes more important. He said the “fastvertising” concept espoused by Maximum Effort, Ryan Reynolds’ creative agency, is a model for how to win in the CTV advertising space. MNTN acquired Maximum Effort in June 2021, with Reynolds becoming MNTN’s Chief Creative Officer as part of the deal. “They’re really good at capturing cultural moments and turning around ads that are related to those cultural moments,” Haeri said.

06
Overheard

“When somebody looks at a piece of our advertising, whether it’s on their mobile phone or a catalog that they’re getting, I very much want them to be able to see themselves in it, and so to be able to do that, we have to be very aggressive in making sure that we are really representing the broader community.” Emily Essner, CMO, Saks

  • Many brands are still reflecting on what actions they need to take to advance diversity and representation, both inside their organizations and in terms of how they present to the world. No matter how far you feel your brand has come in this regard, there’s a good chance there’s still more to do. Emily Essner said Saks has been making a big push in terms of who is featured in the company’s marketing materials. “That’s diversity of ethnicity, diversity of age, diversity of size,” she said, adding that representing aspects of diversity that are less visible is another area the company is taking action on.

“There are so many ways we can slice and dice and overthink [data] … find the actionable pieces and run to it.” Cory Haik Chief Digital Officer, Vice Media

  • Data plays a critical role in successful marketing these days, and will only become more important over the coming years. However, the risk of data overload is very real. Cory Haik said CMOs should adopt the mantra of “actionable over comprehensive” in order to leverage data effectively. Ashley Deibert, CMO of Piano, said the cumulative impact of small, iterative changes informed by data can be huge. “We just need to do more with what we actually have,” she said.

“Get points on the board. Get a story, one of those small wins where you can tell that story, where people can see the results, and then they want to do more of it. After you start to build that narrative, then it just becomes ingrained and built in. People want to know what bold thing you’re going to do next, and they become excited for it.” — Kory Marchisotto, CMO, e.l.f. Beauty

  • One of the perennial challenges for marketers is getting buy-in for new ideas from the boardroom. As experimentation and early adoption become table stakes for marketing teams, CMOs have to be adept at explaining bold initiatives to leaders and winning trust and support. Kory Marchisotto talked about leading bold changes at e.l.f., using the brand’s early embrace of TikTok as an example of an experiment that initially puzzled, then delighted the brand’s leadership. 
07
Stat to know

39 million.

That’s how many people are signed up to Redbox’s loyalty program. Loyalty programs will be an essential tool for brands to capture first-party data in the next era of marketing, and Chief Digital and Strategy Officer Jason Kwong told us Redbox’s loyalty program will be central to the brand’s bid to reinvent itself as a full-service entertainment company.

Editor’s note: The title of Emily Essner, CMO of Saks, was updated.

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