C-Suite Challenge<sup>™</sup> 2021: Implications for Marketing & Communications Executives | The Conference Board
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C-Suite Challenge 2021: Implications for Marketing & Communications Executives

This report highlights the findings from the 2021 C-Suite Challenge™ survey that are most relevant for Marketing & Communications executives, as well as the research's implications for these functions. 


Marketing & Communications functions have a key role to play this year in managing the internal and external challenges facing companies as the pandemic continues to keep the world on edge. To determine which challenges are most pressing for 2021, we surveyed 1,538 C-suite executives, including 909 CEOs across the globe, for our annual C-Suite Challenge report. Guided by these insights, Marketing & Communications executives have an opportunity to demonstrate their ability to help companies grow and deliver financial value to stakeholders.

Key areas where Marketing & Communications executives can support company growth:

  • Providing insights on changing consumer behaviors and attitudes and its potential impact on the business;
  • Accelerating digital transformation, a top internal priority for the C-suite this year;
  • Helping the company modify its business model;
  • Supporting product innovation and expansion into new segments, channels, and geographies; and
  • Leveraging data and analytical skills for growth goals.

Insights for What’s Ahead

Marketing & Communications functions should reinforce their market insights knowledge and keep CEOs up to date. “Shifting customer buying behaviors” is among CEOs’ top perceived challenges, so monitoring these changes and keeping CEOs informed of market developments should be a priority for Marketing & Communications executives. The pandemic will continue to instigate a lot of changes in buying behaviors, hence there will be a constant need for regular updates. Marketing & Communications executives can proactively leverage their knowledge in order to participate in the C-suite’s work on adjusting the business model.

CEOs’ perception of shifting buying behaviors seems to be mostly connected to digitalization rather than customers’ growing interest in patronizing companies that support social and environmental causes. The majority of CEOs anticipate that an increased focus on climate change and greater expectations for businesses to address social goals will be lasting impacts of the pandemic. However, they don’t seem to consider the financial impact of these changes. Marketing & Communications executives have an opportunity to show how shifting consumer attitudes regarding corporate citizenship on social and environmental issues really can affect buying decisions and hence companies’ bottom line.

Marketing & Communications executives can support new product development and expansion to new strategic partnerships, customer segments, geographies, and channels not just through market insights but also through communications. They can also add value by better leveraging data analytics for these initiatives. Plus, given their market knowledge, they can help orient the internal culture toward more customer-centricity, better aligning the entire organization with its target market.

Innovative thinking could position Marketing & Communications leaders well for the future. For the C-suite, innovative thinking is the most important skill for top leaders in the coming years. Marketing & Communications executives possess this skill in abundance, along with their general strengths of creativity and insightfulness about stakeholder groups. The challenge for these executives going forward is to find ways to foster more innovative thinking and creativity with remote work, which has become the norm with the pandemic.

CEOs also need leaders with executive and team leadership skills to implement their new growth initiatives and support their internal priorities of lowering costs and streamlining processes; Marketing & Communications executives can make the strategic vision a reality. Given that the vast majority of CEOs expect certain tasks to be more automated, Marketing & Communications executives need to think about which of their tasks lend themselves to automation. They also need to consider what more automation means for the organization and ultimately the customer.

Accelerating the pace of digital transformation is CEOs’ number one internal priority. Marketing & Communications executives can help define digital transformation from a customer perspective and rally functions across the company behind shared goals. These executives should think about how they can better serve customers by further enhancing digitalization in their own departments while also supporting digital transformation in other functions.

By using their data and insights on customer behavior, Marketing & Communications teams can assist with as well as communicate innovation efforts. Innovation is a high priority for CEOs. Marketing & Communications executives consider it important as well, but they seem to view innovation through strategic alliances as more viable than other types of innovation efforts. In fact, their market knowledge is also invaluable to their organizations’ initiatives.

A blind spot for CEOs might be the importance of creating flexible work policies and improving the engagement of remote workers. Working with CHROs, Marketing & Communications executives can help CEOs recognize the need for flexible work policies and engagement. They also need to communicate what they know about employee concerns about returning to the office to ensure the CEO can make fully informed decisions.

COVID-19 and vaccine availability dominate CEOs’ concerns about things outside their control. Marketing & Communications teams can help foster improved vaccination rates asCOVID-19 challenges continue to occupy everyone’s agenda this year. To facilitate the vaccination effort, Marketing & Communications executives can spearhead initiatives to accelerate achieving herd immunity by helping employees better understand the importance of vaccinations. They can also launch communications initiatives to employees and customers to address the issues of those currently not open to getting vaccinated.



Denise Dahlhoff, PhD

Senior Researcher, Consumer Research
The Conference Board



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