Toward Stakeholder Capitalism (CMOs)
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Toward Stakeholder Capitalism (CMOs)

December 06, 2021 | Report

What the Shift Means for Chief Marketing Officers and the Marketing Function

The concept of stakeholder capitalism is not new. Its origins reach back at least to the early years of the Great Depression. Where the business community is seeing change is in increased pressure for businesses to engage more publicly and act more transparently as social media platforms amplify the voices of diverse stakeholders, and investors place greater focus on stakeholder issues ranging from diversity, equity & inclusion, to sustainability, to employee well-being and workforce management, to community impact.

While many organizations have talked about the current shift toward stakeholder capitalism, The Conference Board has uniquely focused on what it means, in practice, for CEOs and the C-suite. During 2021, The Conference Board held a series of roundtable sessions with CEOs and chief financial, legal, human resources, government relations, communications, marketing, and technology officers focusing on 1) whether the shift toward stakeholder capitalism is significant and durable, and 2) what it means for their roles, the organizations they lead, and the composition and functioning of the C-suite. The discussions were held under the Chatham House Rule, with participants free to use the information received but barred from identifying speakers or their affiliation.

Here is what marketing executives told us:

What Is Changing

Marketing executives see the shift to stakeholder capitalism as durable because consumers are embracing it. They do note, however, that while people say they care about ESG issues and stakeholder welfare, in practice this concern has had less impact on buying decisions than might be expected. But they believe that as consumers put their money behind ESG and focus on a company’s actions regarding stakeholders’ treatment, there is no turning back the clock.

While they talked about how things are changing within the marketing function—more collaboration, playing a greater role in driving purpose, and realigning and upskilling their teams—marketers have always been focused on one stakeholder: the customer. And unlike CEOs and the legal, finance, and communications functions, which have traditionally had a broader remit among multiple stakeholder groups, many believe the impact on the marketing function, while tangible and presenting new challenges, is less dramatic.

What the Transition Means for Chief Marketing Officers

CMOs see their role expanding beyond a traditional external customer focus toward a broader stakeholder orientation. As such, they will need to become more fluent in areas outside their core expertise. Sustainability and corporate responsibility have become more important to stakeholders, even if price as well as functional features such as quality, design, and taste continues to dominate buying decisions, at least for now. Boards, investors, employees, and customers are no longer just asking about company performance; they want to know how that performance is being achieved. To effectively market to meet these changing expectations, CMOs say greater familiarity with all aspects of a company’s sustainability initiatives is now essential—and that knowledge includes all steps in the process, from sourcing to manufacturing to all touchpoints with end users. Gathering this knowledge, in turn, requires more meaningful cross-function collaboration as well as interaction with new constituencies outside of the marketing world.

CMOs need to ensure that the products and services on offer are solidly connected to company purpose. It is the most concrete way to demonstrate an authentic commitment to stakeholders and build revenue. Roundtable participants say that too often products are separated from the company’s purpose, which hurts credibility with stakeholders and can threaten revenue if customers see the firm as inauthentic.CMOs and their teams need to play a pivotal role in aligning corporate values across diverse stakeholder groups both internally and externally and communicating their brand’s purpose, what their brand stands for, and how it contributes to society.

“Consumers are expecting this now. Transparency makes consumers more knowledgeable, and they see ethics and responsibility and that a brand contributes to society as important. They do pay attention to how companies behave. But ESG means nothing if you can’t turn it into revenue. Look at Unilever: 70 percent of revenue growth comes from its sustainable living brands.”

CMOs have taken on the additional role of convener to coordinate across the company on all aspects that affect stakeholder perceptions and the customer experience—from sourcing to production to billing. Like several other C-suite executives, such as chief legal officers and senior communications executives, CMOs are often helping to address various stakeholders’ concerns, not just those of customers. These new responsibilities call for additional managerial and leadership skills and a broader vision that includes a mastery of data analytics and artificial intelligence, improved communication and listening skills, and an emphasis on building personal relationships in and out of the C-suite, according to roundtable participants. Perhaps most importantly, CMOs need to be values-driven strategic thinkers. The broadened focus on more stakeholders requires senior marketers to listen more to suppliers and other business partners and at least be aware of “influencers or shapeholders”—individuals or groups such as nongovernmental organizations that have no direct stake in the company but do have credibility in the public debate. Marketers need to have multiple sources of credible information for a holistic, reliable picture of a situation or event.

“Embracing a stakeholder focus is changing how we focus time and effort. We are far more deliberate about this, and I’m more of a team player these days than before. For example, I need more interaction and collaboration with our chief of supply chain. The issues they are dealing with could be seen as a marketing issue as well. I need to understand that.”

Instilling a thorough understanding of the brand across the entire company and C-suite is critical as everyone’s roles evolve. The shift is essentially making everyone in the C-suite a marketer, a communicator, and an employee engagement officer. As the C-suite engages with a wider range of stakeholders, senior executives need to be able to express each brand’s purpose and how the company’s customer experience differs from that of competitors. Knowing the brand DNA helps align decisions with core brand values and allows executives to recognize when something conflicts. Marketers are also internal teachers and dot connectors, helping all functions understand how their respective work influences the customer experience.

“It's about taking a brand from a sales and revenue-generating focus, from being transactional to creating relationships. It is a mindset change for many.”

Advocate for your function’s role in the transition. CMOs need to be proactive in helping the CEO and other senior leaders understand the role marketing needs to play in navigating and leveraging future trends in the shift to a stakeholder focus.

“One of our obligations is shaping marketing for the future. To do that, we have to help the broader leadership team understand the role you as a marketer play and the knowledge and insights you can provide into stakeholders.”

What the Shift Means for the Function

The shift means marketing will need to determine new ways to measure company success that supplement traditional metrics of financial performance. While shareholder success is often tracked in financial metrics, stakeholder success is harder to assess. The broader consideration of the interests of a variety of stakeholders and the emphasis on ESG goals means credible measurements of trust and reputation will be even more closely watched and tied to marketing’s impact. As boards shift corporate evaluation criteria as they assess a company’s performance, investor grade metrics on these issues will be expected.

The shift to serving multiple stakeholders may heighten conflicts among the interests of stakeholder groups, both inside and outside the organization. Asorganizations work to balance the competing agendas and expectations of multiple stakeholders, marketers can help business leaders evaluate trade-offs in light of corporate purpose, mission, and business strategies and goals. When these conflicts and trade-offs arise, it is marketing’s role to ensure the voice of the customer does not get lost. Further, involvement in the discussion of these trade-offs will also enable marketers to credibly explain the inevitable difficult decisions to customers and other stakeholders.

Proficiency in traditional marketing platforms and communication methods is no longer sufficient as the stakeholder universe expands. Opening new communications channels as well as tracking customers’ shifting expectations based on their experiences with other brands and categories will become necessary. A continuous learning mindset is essential.

For multinational companies, maintaining a global perspective is important to keep the organization and the message aligned across stakeholder and geographic market segments. In a world without borders, the changing relationship between customers, consumers, and employees is not confined to a single country or region. Parts of the world are running at different speeds, and marketers must appreciate and understand the nuances of global cultures, while acting with agility to make quick decisions and adjustments to respond to unique regional demands and issues.

Seize the opportunity to nurture talent within the function. Younger marketers, in particular, are excited about addressing broader societal concerns and want to be involved. CMOs can give them that opportunity, which will help to retain and motivate talent to the benefit of the firm and society.


To understand how the shift to a stakeholder focus is affecting chief financial, human resources, legal, communications, marketing, and government relations officers—and the functions they lead—see the full series here.

Additional Resources From The Conference Board

Choosing Wisely: How Companies Can Make Decisions and a Difference on Social Issues, June 2021

Lessons from Leaders for Leaders: Organizational Impact & Social Change, May 2021

Lessons from Leaders for Leaders: Innovative People Approaches, May 2021

Brave New World: Creating Long-Term Value through Human Capital Management and Disclosure, December 2020

Insights for Investors and Companies in Addressing Today’s Social Issues, October 2020

Purpose-Driven Companies: Lessons Learned, October 2020

Sustaining Capitalism 2020 Election Series, September 2020 | CED Compendium

Organizational Characteristics of US Benefit Corporations, April 2020

Consumers' Attitudes about Sustainability – Part 2: How Sustainability Features Influence Consumers’ Choices, February 2020

Sustaining Capitalism: Bipartisan Solutions to Restore Trust & Prosperity, February 2017

Sustaining Capitalism Podcast Series, 2018–2021

CEO Perspectives, Episode 3: Multistakeholder Governance, May 2021 | Podcast

Sustainability Watch: What Can We Learn From 15 Purpose-Driven Companies?, September 2020 | Webcast



Senior Director, Content Quality
The Conference Board


President and CEO
Society for Corporate Governance
The Conference Board ESG Center

Rebecca L.Ray, PhD

Former Executive Vice President, Human Capital
The Conference Board

Dana M.Peterson

Chief Economist and Leader, Economy, Strategy & Finance Center
The Conference Board

Dr. Lori Esposito Murray

Former President
Committee for Economic Development

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