Today’s CIO may be tomorrow’s CMO

They may not be “structured, enabled or empowered to take a leadership role,” but IT organizations, and CIOs in particular, are now playing a central, if not the central, role in building effective brands, according to Andrew Zolli, lead partner at Z + Partners, a marketing, research and forecasting firm in Brooklyn, N.Y.

During a presentation titled “Brand and Deliver: IT’s Role in Creating Killer Brands,” Zolli told hundreds of senior IT managers attending the Computerworld Premier 100 conference here this week that the traditional role of the CIO is changing. “The [CIOs] in this room are tomorrow’s chief marketing officers,” said Zolli. “The marketing people don’t have the technical skills to manage today’s brands.”

Why is that important? According to Zolli, who researched dozens of the world’s most recognizable and successful brands for a book, in a technology-enabled world “information technology is the new glue that holds brands together.”

As an example, he cited Mountain View, Calif.-based Google Inc., which doesn’t rely on an advertising agency but was still named the nation’s top brand last year by Interbrand, a New York-based brand and marketing consultancy. “What’s remarkable about [Google] is that they are No. 1 in loyalty and preference and they do not have an advertising agency,” said Zolli. “This is all about the customer experience enabled by their information technology infrastructure. This is an IT-defined brand.”

Another example is Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart Stores Inc., said Zolli. “What makes Wal-Mart a really powerful brand? It’s not the customer experience,” said Zolli. “What makes Wal-Mart a powerful brand is that they manage their entire inventory every 90 minutes. They have created a culture inside the organization and an IT infrastructure that allows them to merchandise and market and do dynamic pricing almost on the fly. That is the core of what Wal-Mart is about, and that’s what makes Wal-Mart successful.”

To back up his argument about the importance of an IT-enhanced customer experience, Zolli said an analysis of the top 20 global brands shows that each spends less on marketing than its next nearest competitor. But they all spend on average 18% more on IT infrastructure than their next nearest competitors.

“There’s an overwhelming need for IT organizations and CIOs to show value,” said Zolli. “This is the value. Because the brand is the most important asset that companies own today.”

Marina Levinson, CIO at Palm Inc., agreed with the idea of placing IT in a strategic support role. But she disagreed with Zolli’s conclusion that a corporate CIO should or would one day be leading the marketing mission from the front.

“IT is not really positioned to be successful on their own in this particular area,” said Levinson. “It has a lot to contribute if there is a partnership between the marketing organization and IT. But I think it’s a path of failure, a path of death, for CIOs to be out front without first building the consensus that this is what the company needs.”

Although IT and marketing don’t currently share a common vocabulary, culture or business process, Zolli said he is convinced that visionary CIOs will become the “chief catalysts” of the coming revolution in marketing of brands.

Levinson acknowledged that in her role as a CIO in the high-tech industry, there is an opportunity for her to take responsibility for promoting technology, educating users and facilitating corporate communications from the product marketing perspective.

“For a CIO to be successful, whether the company is marketing a product or selling a service, [he] must know the environment and how it works in order to develop the best platform to deliver the product,” said Steve Sommer, CIO at New York-based law firm Hughes, Hubbard & Reed LLP. Sommer said CIOs are instrumental in helping companies understand how to best respond to customer inquiries, scale to user demand and deliver a product or service.

“Some of the best CEO’s today are former CIOs who managed to get there only through an in-depth understanding of how their company works from the ground up,” he said.