Do Brands Need a Chief Digital Officer?

Brands are creating chief digital officers to help them cope with the many changes digital is forcing on their businesses.

Companies as disparate as Starbucks, L’Oreal, Office Max, CVS and Bertelsmann have these positions. These roles set digital strategies — from revenue-generation to branding opportunities — across the Web, social media, e-commerce and mobile. They are typically tasked with peeking around the corner of the next big digital innovation. Some, like Starbucks, have had the position since at least 2009; others ,like CVS, which brought on a digital head in early 2013, are just jumping in.

Digital is a challenge for most companies because it stretches across the organization. Advertising and branding, while important, aren’t the only groups in the company facing upheaval from technology. Digital chiefs are different from the typical CIOs, which are focused inward. There could be an inherent tension between the CMO and the head of digital. The CMO touches every aspect of a brand’s message; the digital chief, naturally, is focused on digital.

“I’m skeptical of the chief digital officer [role]. It’s a redundant position,” said Carmen d’Ascendis, svp and global managing director of Vodka at Brown-Forman. “If I have a CMO and CDO, who makes the decisions when it comes to brand look and feel? Who’s in service of the other?”

Brands that have digital heads seem to be those who have been asleep at the wheel for the last decade. Execs say that since digital is a piece of the communications tool bag, just like TV, print or outdoor, having a digital person sit at the top level makes little sense. Brands don’t have chief television officers or chief newspaper officers, so why have a chief digital officer?

Some, however, like Stephanie Kovner-Bryant, CEO of SKB Consulting and a former senior manager of digital marketing at Unilever, believe that the two roles aren’t redundant. She argues that since the CMO looks at long-term brand plans and strategies, it’s difficult for them to also be at the forefront of digital change.

“Having someone who’s focused on that can only help,” she said. “The chief digital officer at some companies can be more of an educator, keeping everyone abreast and explaining the pros and cons of new technologies.”

And there’s also a structural opportunity here for brands. Having a digital chief means that there’s organization and coherence of a brand’s digital strategy, as well as giving the digital team some table stakes within the company.

“You need to have someone at an elevated level to have authority and make decisions,” said Lee Nadler, marketing communications manager at MiniUSA. “Maybe that’s where the trend is coming form, that they can make certain calls and have certain budgets, and that’s where I think it’s welcome.”

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