Global creative leader Matthew Bull to present an in-person keynote at Nedbank IMC

In April this year, Starbucks published an announcement to investors about the promotion of the brand’s global chief marketing officer (CMO), Brady Brewer, to the role of CEO for Starbucks International.

Rather than replacing Brewer, the global CMO role is now defunct, with regional marketing support falling within the ambit of the organisation’s geographic CEOs. According to the announcement, the decision to drop the position of global CMO forms part of an organisational realignment that seeks to develop regional capabilities along with a strong partner culture.

AB InBev’s CMO for US operations, Benoit Garbe, stepped down from his position at the end of last year, and will not be replaced. United Parcel Service (UPS), Etsy and Coca-Cola have also recently dropped their CMOs. These companies follow Uber and Johnson & Johnson which both previously removed CMOs as a discrete role within their companies.

The Starbucks announcement has garnered some interest in the global marketing community; arguably less due to Starbucks’ new company vision, but more due to Brewer being among a host of CMO removals in recent months.

The reason given for AB InBev’s elimination of the US CMO officer role (which is distinct from the global CMO) is to reduce layers within the organisation and allow the company’s top commercial leaders to drive the business forward. Garbe’s resignation at AB InBev followed a controversial Bud Light marketing campaign that had a direct and dire impact on sales and shareholder returns. The CMO duties have now been taken over by the company’s chief commercial officer.

The UPS chief marketing and customer experience officer (Kevin Watson) was let go in December and the CMO position was eradicated entirely. Both Etsy and Coca-Cola have combined the CMO role into others: at Coca-Cola, the global marketing, customer and commercial, and strategy roles have been concertinaed into a chief growth officer role; at Etsy, the CMO and CEO position have been combined into one amid a spate of recent job cuts at the company. Uber replaced its CMO with a vice-president of marketing and public affairs.

An article published in Forbes magazine earlier this year reported that these company announcements have led to a growing discourse about the role of the CMO. These “attacks” on marketing, says the article, signify a foundational lack of C-suite understanding about the purpose of marketing. Marketing tends to be viewed at its most basic form, as a series of measurable actions or outputs: an advertising or social media campaign, for example, or a brand positioning exercise or product placement. But marketing’s role is far more than this.

In truth, marketing is made up of interoperable constructs that seek to attract and linger in the minds of consumers, ultimately driving a series of anticipated (and sometimes ongoing) consumer actions. The Forbes article compares marketing to innovation. While both may be seen as cost centres, each in its specific way serves as a key pillar of company relevance, competitiveness and sustainability. Removing or diluting the leadership of one of these key pillars appears to be shortsighted, at best. It remains to be seen what the knock-on effect will be at these major corporations.

In SA and the rest of Africa, marketing leaders continue to prove their hard-won gains at the boardroom table. The continent’s biggest marketing conference, the Nedbank Integrated Marketing Council (IMC) conference, seeks to cement the discipline’s importance as one of the cornerstones of business success, and to share, discuss and debate critical insights with corporate leaders and decisionmakers across the continent.

The 2024 edition will be held on September 19 at the Focus Rooms in Sandton, Johannesburg, and online. This hybrid event will bring together international and African thought leaders at the forefront of marketing. For more information visit the IMC conference website.