Successful Marketers Don’t Jump on New Trends—They Build on Heritage

How Coca-Cola and GE used hundred year-old brands to their advantage

Former chief marketing officer of the Coca-Cola company Marcos de Quinto. PATRICK KOVARIK/AFP/Getty Images

It’s no secret that new CMOs pose a major health hazard to brands. When a new executive comes in, he or she is often eager to put their own stamp on things as quickly as possible. It’s important to them that the industry and their company’s senior management recognize that there’s a new sheriff in town.

Unfortunately, this plan can leave consumers as the last consideration. In an intense industry where executives often live in cosmopolitan bubbles populated with people who also work in marketing and business, it can be easily forgotten that consumers don’t think about your CMO. Even if they did, it wouldn’t help build the brand or sell more products.

One of the first steps many new CMOs consider is what to do with legacy brand assets. Even if that tagline or spokesperson is strongly associated with a brand—and tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested in them—the idea of something fresh and new can be seductive. It’s even more compelling if you believe that newness might land you an AdAge cover or a speaking slot in Cannes. After all, many senior executives use their current roles as springboards for the next one, and it never hurts to be seen as a strong, shrewd marketer.

Thankfully, there are executives who know better and do better. Their approach focuses on what will help the brand succeed rather than making a big self-promotional splash for themselves. They also don’t discard valuable brand assets and instead find ways to extract even more ROI.

Coca-Cola (KO)’s Marcos de Quinto, who recently retired after a two-year tour of duty with the company and remains as a senior adviser to the CEO, provides a masterful example for other CMOs. He held agencies to a higher bar of performance and shifted the brand’s campaigns away from ideals-driven ads and toward spots focusing on enjoyment of the product.

Taking a newsworthy stance that has now become seen as thoroughly sensible, de Quinto also spoke bluntly about the limited value of digital advertising to brands like Coca-Cola’s—and came out fighting in defense of TV advertising. In a move many CMOs would be afraid to make, de Quinto revealed the company’s ROI numbers. They showed that Coca-Cola saw a return on TV investment of $2.13 for every dollar spent, versus $1.26 per dollar spent on digital. It provided strong back-up for de Quinto’s assertion that TV advertising is the best marketing investment for brands—contrary to industry conventional wisdom.

And in stark contrast with how other CMOs approach revitalizing a brand’s marketing, de Quinto knew it would be foolish not to make the most of the company’s heritage. At every step, de Quinto said he was dedicated to “re-Coca-Colizing Coca-Cola” and “going to the roots of what made this brand big.”

Linda Boff, who has been at the helm of GE’s marketing for less than two years, might at first seem to be all about the clean slate. She talks about “ripping up the marketing plan” for the brand and driving disruption.

But Boff is a CMO who knows what made GE great and makes it the foundation of the brand’s image and advertising. “Innovation, technology and progress have been in our DNA for 124 years. We try hard to reach both core and new audiences in ways that underscore that,” she says. Boff introduced an agile approach to marketing, establishing three labs—disruption, creative and performance—to walk the “test and learn” walk other companies only talk about. She has also attracted attention for contradicting the ideas that “content is king” or “distribution is king.” Instead, Boff says, “Really it’s about the user and how we are serving him or her.”

Boff wouldn’t dream of discarding the legacy brand elements consumers so strongly associate with GE or replacing their brand story with a new narrative just to make her mark. Instead, she says, the trick is “getting [people] to know us as we really are: a brand that’s been about invention and innovation since day one—that’s human, quirky, and a little bit unexpected.” The brand demonstrates its experimental core by being first on digital platforms and doing unexpected things with virtual reality, drones, artificial intelligence and live video. GE isn’t dabbling in the latest shiny thing; they are renewing their claim on what they’ve been synonymous with for more than 100 years.

As de Quinto and Boff exemplify, making your mark as a marketer doesn’t require scrapping what’s taken years and millions to build. That might be the most obvious way to stand out, but it might also be the costliest one. Revitalizing a brand while retaining its most valuable elements is more of a feat than any new brand identity or slogan ever could be—and is the true mark of an exceptional CMO.

Jeri Smith is the CEO of advertising research firm Communicus. Her clients include Fortune 100 companies and the top advertisers in the United States. She has contributed to Fox Business News, Wall Street Journal Live, Forbes, Ad Age, The Drum, and more.

Successful Marketers Don’t Jump on New Trends—They Build on Heritage