New Paths to the CEO Office

Published on November 14, 2014

Marketing is more than a path to the top marketing position at a company; increasingly, it’s a path to becoming a CEO.

That was the message for students at Kilts Marketing Week, which featured eight days of presentations by industry leaders and faculty members, including talks by Brian Niccol '03, president of Taco Bell, and Mark Hoplamazian ’89, president and CEO of Hyatt Hotels Corp.

Many students hold a fairly narrow view of marketing and the careers it supports, said Art Middlebrooks, executive director of the Kilts Center for Marketing. “A lot of students don’t realize that if you want to run a company or start a company, marketing is crucial because you need customers.”

Marketing Week aimed to tackle these kind of misconceptions. By holding the event in early October, Kilts was hoping to influence incoming students “before they lock in on a career,” Middlebrooks said. To generate word-of-mouth marketing for the events, the Center gave out buttons at each and invited students to post photos from the events on Instagram and Twitter, tagged with #BoothMKTG, for a chance to shadow a Taco Bell or Hyatt executive for a day. Second-year students Hannah Goldberg and Ileana Funez won the contest, based on their number of posts as well as their creativity and engagement.  

Bookending the week were presentations by Niccol and Hoplamazian—strategic choices for speakers. Niccol serves as an example of marketing driving a career path to CEO, after his previous roles as chief marketing and innovation officer, while Hoplamazian’s career highlights that marketing is relevant in industries far beyond consumer packaged goods.  

Both speakers emphasized the importance of focusing not on the company and its capabilities, but on the customer. Niccol opened the week with a discussion of how Taco Bell successfully has inspired brand advocates, while Hoplamazian closed it by illustrating how Hyatt has shifted its focus to brand purpose.  

For Taco Bell, Niccol said, the key to growth has been developing genuine—and mutual—affinity between the brand and its customers.  

“The reason that people champion brands and care about brands is that they believe the brand loves them back,” Niccol said.  

The secret to building that affinity, he continued, is authenticity. When a promotion doesn’t ring true with a customer, it undermines the brand, even if it drives short-term sales. In Taco Bell’s case, authenticity has been the guiding principle that has kept the company from becoming distracted chasing growth opportunities.  

“Social media has really figured out how to amplify people who are advocates for you and people who are detractors,” Niccol said. For Taco Bell, many of those detractors are critical of a perceived lack of healthy options. To avoid becoming paralyzed by trying to address every criticism while also catering to its key consumer base, Taco Bell instead has asked itself what brings people to the brand. 

“I could make a broccoli taco or a whole-wheat chalupa, but that’s not what people come to the brand for. They come for indulgence; they come for fun food. They come late...” Niccol trailed off, to audience laughter. “We make craveable, affordable, fun, fast food. We get rewarded with loyalty, market share, and profits.” 

Similarly, Hoplamazian emphasized that Hyatt had shifted its marketing focus from broadcasting to listening and from the product to the customer. 

“Lack of resonance and alignment and authenticity is basically a death knell. It’s like sticking your finger into an outlet if you’re a brand manager.”

For Hyatt, that alignment has been centered on one brand purpose: not just extending service to guests, but offering genuine care. As examples, he noted several innovations that Hyatt has rolled out in response to guest feedback, some of which incorporate design-based thinking. One new feature is check-in at the airport, so that guests can go straight to their rooms upon arrival. Another is the “knock and drop” when guests request items delivered, a response to female travelers’ discomfort with opening the door when they’re alone. 

To uncover unmet needs and communicate authentically, speaking customers’ language is crucial. “I would encourage all of you to follow the Twitter feed of a 16-year-old,” Niccol said. Hoplamazian said Hyatt also rigorously monitors guest feedback, both through formal channels and through social media, and offered as an example Hyatt tweeting at a guest who mentioned being in one of their hotels drinking a beer. The guest happily accepted the offer of another beer, which was delivered 10 minutes later.  

As customer needs come to the fore, the role of marketers is larger than ever, both speakers emphasized. 

“The key ingredient for marketers going forward isn’t domain expertise in a certain area,” Hoplamazian said. “The key ingredient is being a great designer, which means being able to understand what’s going on with the people for whom you’re designing, and being flexible and agile to respond to those needs. That puts the person running the marketing function at the center of everything we do.”—Julie Ginsberg