CMOs’ low-risk strategies may stymie growth in 2021

A Gartner survey also finds marketers may be too ambitious in trying to reinvent the digital strategies that worked last year.


Chief marketing officers are expected to take a more cautious approach to their growth strategies in 2021, putting inordinate focus on customers in existing markets instead of new ones, according to new research from Gartner.

For its CMO Strategic Priorities Survey 2020-2021, the consultancy surveyed 381 North American and European marketing executives at companies with $500 million to $20 billion in annual revenue – with Canadian marketers representing 5% of respondents – and found that a majority of CMOs (73%) will focus on existing markets to fuel growth this year, through deeper market penetration or the introduction of new products.

Among those surveyed, 39% said they plan to grow market penetration by selling existing products to existing customers – with “significant variance” across industries, including an overrepresentation in certain sectors, such as financial services (74%).

Gartner also dug into how marketers expect to enact the strategy, finding that 48% plan to do it through increasing promotion and distribution efforts, 30% through decreasing prices to attract existing or new customers, and 22% through acquiring a competitor in the same marketplace.

Gartner Survey

The second-most popular tactic will be introducing new products to existing customers, cited as the primary strategy by 34% of all respondents, including 50% of CMOs in travel and hospitality – a sector hard hit by health concerns and pandemic restrictions on travel.

Of the marketers who plan to pursue this strategy, 47% will do it by investing in new research, development and promotion to create and market those products, 27% through strategic partnerships to gain access to distribution channels or other brands, and 25% by acquiring a competitor or merging resources to create a new product that better meets customers’ needs.

Though these strategies can help mitigate risk during what is expected to be another year of disruption, Gartner warns that they “may not be sufficient to support organization’s growth goals in a volatile environment.” CMOs must ensure their approach matches their company’s growth aspirations and “does not stymie their ability to deliver the results needed.”

Gartner also found CMOs are likely being too ambitious in their plans to expand their digital capabilities and to “reinvent and rescale many of the strategies that worked in 2020.”

It polled respondents on 11 strategies, asking them which would be “rescaled to accelerate new growth, reinvented to be better positioned post-pandemic, returned to pre-pandemic levels, reduced lower than pre-pandemic levels, or retired because they are no longer sustainable.”

For nine of the 11 strategies, respondents’ most-cited answer was to reinvent efforts – which the consultancy notes is one of the two approaches (along with rescaling initiatives that previously worked) that requires the most time, attention and effort from marketers. For the two remaining strategies – traditional physical sales practices and physical conferences and events – the top response (or hope) was to return to pre-pandemic levels.

In response to this finding, Gartner advises marketers to ensure they have the skills and resources needed to follow-through on their plans. “Unless resources will expand, aim to reduce and retire as much as you plan to reinvent and rescale in the coming year.”