July 15, 2013
CEOs Should Stop Using The “C” Word

Many years ago I read Theodore Levitt’s The Marketing Imagination. In the book, the renowned marketing professor said there was no such thing as a commodity, only people who think like commodities. Suddenly, a light went on in the corner of my mind. After that, as a matter of principle, I stopped using the “C” word.

This served me well as a CMO and a CEO. Make no mistake; differentiation is still the name of the marketing game. Distinction in service, image and promise is what makes one brand stand out from another—the difference between a product jumping into the shopping cart or collecting dust on the store shelf. Marketing is the creator and curator of that disparity.

The consumer packaged goods industry, at one time the mecca of marketers, has long given way to the goods and services of the exciting, fast-paced information age. Marketers of food, health and beauty aids and laundry detergents became so hung up with image differentiation that they overlooked the inherent value of the product, and private labels picked up the slack.

The focus of innovation within high-tech and new age companies is the product itself; once these companies carve out product differentiation, they call on marketing for the sizzle that sells the steak. Then they walk the talk all the way from their shipping dock to post-sales and service.

Walking the talk of unique advantages and customer engagement in every function of a corporation is a differentiator in itself. In today’s world of business, this happens to be the distinction that separates winners from losers. Promising service is easy. Airlines, cable providers, telecommunication firms and credit card companies promise customer service every day. Few deliver it.

We are in a day and age where brilliant marketing can no longer “sell ice cubes to Eskimos.” Yet, marketing is every bit as important today as it was fifty years ago.

The “C” word that must prevail in every business, every minute of the day, and in every nook and cranny of an organization is “customer.”

Customer insight is the precursor to product innovation within the high-tech and information age sectors. Successful companies don’t stumble upon insight. Inquisitive marketers burrow for it and conceptualize it. Then they act upon it. That can mean re-designing the traditional marketing department to include an infrastructure for social media and a chief content officer position.

Great marketing becomes the cultural glue that binds every department and every employee to the CEO’s vision—always has, always will.

John Bell
John Bell is a retired consumer packaged goods CEO and global strategy consultant to some of the world's most respected blue-chip organizations. A prolific writer, John's musings on strategy, leadership, and branding have appeared in various marketing journals and publications such as Fortune and Forbes. He has served as a director of several private, public, and not-for-profit organizations. John can be reached at

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