“Marketers’ overall economic optimism has rebounded beyond mid-pandemic and even pre-pandemic levels,” according to a new survey.

The CMO Survey, a biannual poll by Christine Moorman, a senior professor at the Fuqua School of Business, polled 356 marketing leaders in January 2021.

Roughly 95% of respondents hold the title of vice president of marketing or above. About 65% of respondents come from B2B companies, including both product and services organizations.

The survey tracks an index of sorts for optimism in marketing. According to this report:

“Optimism hit 66.3 (out of 100), up dramatically from the 50.9 value reported in June 2020 in which optimism plummeted nearly to Great Recession levels (47.7). Current optimism levels appear to continue the upward pre-pandemic trend from February 2020 at 62.7.

Optimism regarding the US economy’s next quarter (Q1 2021) compared to last quarter (Q4 2020) also showed a major increase with 55.3% of marketers stating they were “more optimistic”—a stark increase from 7.8% in June 2020.”

The full report exceeds 80 pages in length. In perusing the findings, here are several that I found most interesting.

1. High marks for effectiveness during the pandemic

Marketing is hard in good times and it’s even harder when you get hit with the unexpected. Add to that marketing leaders had little certainty as to how long this would take to play out.

Accordingly, strategies shifted, messaging changed and tactics were modified in an effort to navigate marketing through the unknown.

So, how did marketing do? Most leaders give their new strategies high marks for marketing effectiveness during the pandemic. About three-quarters (74%) ranked their efforts as a 5 or above, on a 7-point scale.

2. Marketing improved its standing

It seems the rest of the business agrees with marketing’s self-assessment. Some 72% of marketing chiefs said the “importance of marketing” has grown over the last 12 months or so. That view is quite uniform across companies of all shapes and sizes.

Moreover, the report suggests the trend will continue: “With customer demands for digital experiences growing, marketing has been placed in a stronger position to deliver strategic direction and growth.”

A client of mine [disclosure] produces an annual survey of creatives and marketers which had a similar finding in this area. Creative teams showed remarkable adaptability and “gained a higher standing in business, which relied on their expertise to support the remote work transformation.”

3. Marketing budgets are growing again

The combination of renewed optimism and greater confidence in marketing is showing up in the budget. While most marketers experienced about 4% cut in their budget last year – which should have never happened – they now expect the marketing budget to grow by 10%.

The average marketing budget accounts for 13% of revenue. It’s a little lower among B2B product companies at 10% – and a little higher among B2B services companies at 16%.

If your budget is less than this, this is a very useful metric to put on a slide for your board to demonstrate the delta.

4. The priorities of marketing

According to the survey, current marketing priorities are as follows:

  • 28% said retaining current customers
  • 28% said brand building
  • 21% said acquiring new customers
  • 16% said building awareness
  • 7% said improving marketing ROI

As the chart nearby demonstrates, this represents a subtle and balanced shift back toward new business. However, if the changes seem modest in comparison to the level of optimism, a separate section of the survey might offer an explanation: customer acquisition and retention are both up about 6% throughout the pandemic.

5. Inclusive decision-making is a blind spot

Marketing leaders give themselves an average score of 3.6 on a seven-point scale for “inclusive decision making.” Just about one-third (34%) of respondents give themselves a score of 5 or better in this area.

The survey defines this as “meaning you have established steps to review and/or evaluate marketing decisions from a DE&I [diversity equity, and inclusion] perspective.

This is a blind spot and area of marketing risk. As I write this, the Burger King initiative in support of International Women’s Day, is still fresh in the news. If you read beyond the headlines, then you know the company meant well but fell in execution. Perhaps, an inclusive decision-making process that reviewed the campaign would have prevented such a fiasco.

More importantly, it’s not just about avoiding controversy but ensuring you don’t alienate your audience and target buyers.

Create a process, a workflow, and a decision matrix with a diverse group of experienced marketing and PR professionals. If you don’t have diversity on the team now, that’s your starting point; go hire a consultant in the interim.

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The full report is freely available without registration: The Transformation of Marketing: Emerging Digital, Social, and Political Trends.

A version of this post previously ran on Sword and the Script.

Image credit: Christine Moorman [used with explicit permission]

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