The CEO’s Role as a Marketer – The Next 100 Customers

The most important but often neglected principle of growth is understanding the CEO’s role as a marketer. This principle is true for every size business, but becomes overwhelmingly important the smaller the business — all the way down to the one-man shop.

In practical terms, the CEO’s role as a marketer means attracting and recruiting the company’s next 100 customers, but not just any customer.

These customers are fans, believers and evangelists. They are a small group of people capable of causing ripple effects in the market.

CEO’s who embrace this responsibility are passionate communicators. It has nothing to do with personality, leadership style, or whether the leader is an introvert or extravert.

It has everything to do with the message they deliver, and that message drives every aspect of marketing. It is the foundation for growth.

Acceptable Growth Vs. Potential Growth

One question that a CEO or business owner can ask themselves to confront the effectiveness of their efforts is,

“What kind of growth am I spearheading — acceptable growth or potential growth?”

Acceptable growth keeps the doors open. Everyone is busy and it is usually enough to preserve jobs. Many CEO’s and business owners accept this condition, but others find themselves restless and seek a different kind of growth.

They crave potential growth. Potential growth stretches a CEO and the employees to reach beyond the comfort of ‘what’s been working.’ These CEO’s are driven to explore.

There is a legend that ancient cartographers labeled the uncharted territories of their maps with the term, “Here be dragons,” as a description for the dangers that lay beyond the known world.¹

Using the ancient maps as an analogy, acceptable growth CEO’s captain their ships on routes within the known world, and potential growth CEO’s explore beyond the edges of the map. They understand that their next 100 customers are in ‘dragon’ territory.

The map below shows what really separates acceptable growth and potential growth: the referral barrier.

the referral barrier

The referral barrier is the place where new business comes primarily from referrals, repeat business and upsells, and it’s not a bad place.

However, it is a dangerously safe place to stay because it’s where dreams of what is possible die.

Real growth is found beyond the edges of the map, and the CEO’s role as a marketer is to lead the company into uncharted waters to find the next 100 customers that have never heard of the company.

The CEO is a Messenger

It could be argued that the most important role of a potential growth CEO is that of a messenger.

One of Peter Drucker’s (the world’s influential management consultant) last works before his death in 2005, was an outline of the most important role of a CEO. You can read a summary in this WSJ article.

Mr. Drucker argued that every organization has an Inside and an Outside. On the Inside are only costs. Results are found Outside.

He said that connecting the organization to the Outside was work only CEO’s can do and work which CEO’s must do.

In order to be this link and lead the company beyond the referral barriers, we’ve identified four traits of CEO’s that differentiate potential growth CEO’s from their counterparts. These traits are new compared to what was required of CEO’s even ten years ago, and they define the CEO’s role as a marketer in today’s digital landscape.

Here are the traits that we’ll cover in more detail throughout this article:

  1. Own the Message – The CEO owns the core marketing message and fiercely protects their role as a messenger.
  2. Focus Small – The CEO communicates to one hundred dedicated followers regardless of the company size or product.
  3. Recruit with Passion – The CEO enthusiastically invites people to join a movement.
  4. Clarify with Purpose – The CEO continually fights against ambiguity and consistently delivers the same message.

4 traits of CEO as marketer

#1 – They Own the Message

It is universally accepted that it is the CEO who sets strategy, but it really goes beyond that. It’s also selling that strategy, and many CEO’s struggle with this responsibility. Why?

One of the hardest things for CEO’s to do, especially in small companies, is to abandon operations.

Most business owners and CEO’s paid their dues in operations. In order to earn the title, they did the work, sold the services and ran the business. It’s not surprising that the importance of the CEO’s role as a marketer is underestimated.

The underlying philosophy of a powerful strategy is to form a movement, and at the heart of a movement is the message. In today’s world, the CEO must own the message.

Harvard Business Review issues an annual ranking of the world’s best performing CEO’s in the world, and for the last two years Lars Rebien Sorensen has ranked number one.

His company manufactures drugs to fight diabetes, and a major part of his success is the message he delivers. He helps employees join the journey of saving lives, and he cements it in their hearts by bringing patients in to meet workers.

His message is clear: Novo Nordisk save lives.

While most companies don’t directly save lives, the responsibility of delivering a purpose driven message that has a profound psychological affect on both employees and customers is important for business leaders of all types of companies.

One of my clients who is the president of an insurance company shared a quote that cemented his own philosophy,

We are a person’s best friend on their worst day.

Ultimately, the message has to nurture a sense of purpose, unity and mutual desire for a common goal.

It is the CEO’s job to craft that message and make sure it spreads.

#2 – They Focus Small

Whether they know it or not, CEO’s who propel their companies to reach their growth potential communicate on a different level than their peers.

They focus small. Both sole proprietors and CEO’s of large corporations understand the power of small groups and focus their attention on people that are mutually committed to a core idea, principle, activity or belief.

The ideal number is about one hundred people. It doesn’t matter if it’s a five-person company or one with five-hundred employees, there needs to be a small group of people who believe in the message and eagerly share it with others.

(This is Rule #1 of the Great Digital Revolution. See all the rules here.)

Throughout history small groups of people dedicated to a single cause have triggered world altering events. The defining factor is not demographics but mutual desire.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s all that ever has. Margaret Mead.

Examples of such desire include the fifty-six men and their wives responsible for writing the Declaration of Independence and then sacrificing everything for its cause. And of course the small band of men and women who followed a carpenter from Galilee is undeniable.

Research was presented in the 1990’s that explains why this number is so powerful.

Robin Dunbar, a British anthropologist from Oxford University, postulated that the size of one’s social group of influence was directly related to brain capacity and put the number between one hundred and one hundred-fifty.

In other words, our brains only have the capacity to maintain significant relationships with somewhere between 100 to 150 people at a time. History is remarkably consistent in its proof of Dunbar’s number. For example, villages often divided after growing to this size, and 150 was the basic unit size of professional armies in Roman antiquity.

For the CEO, focusing on a small group produces intimacy and inclusion. The members of the group achieve what social psychologists describe as a sense of belonging that is propelled by a powerful message.

Focusing small is a communication strategy.

The members of the group are customers and non-customers who are devoted fans and sometimes the best evangelists.

The paradox of extreme focus on a small tribe is that growth is an inevitable byproduct.

#3 – They Recruit With Passion

Polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton is known as one of the world’s greatest leaders, and there are many leadership articles about him. It was said of him,

“For scientific leadership give me Scott; for swift and efficient travel, Amundsen; but when you are in a hopeless situation, when there seems no way out, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.”²

The polar expedition of Shackleton and his crew of twenty-seven men is one of the most riveting and gripping survival stories you’ll ever read. However, long before they set sail in August 1914, there was the need to gather a crew.

Though it has never been verified for accuracy, the myth of Shackleton’s recruitment ad in one of London’s newspapers captures the spirit of what a message should evoke:

recruiting with passion

Regardless of its actual existence, there is no denial that the spirit of the invitation existed. It was brutally honest and it grabbed the imagination of over 5,000 adventurous men and three women who applied.

Great invitations don’t focus on the vessel, they focus on the destination.

CEO’s who want to invite people to their movement don’t focus on product features and benefits or how long the company has been in business. They paint a picture of what is possible.

#4 – They Clarify with Purpose

A CEO’s core message must be an invitation that is so clear it’s almost impossible to misinterpret. It is absent of fluffy marketing words, and it’s frequently a deviation from the established route.

If you ask people to go beyond the borders, extreme clarity is a necessity.

There are three characteristics of clear and purposeful messages that attract new people to a movement. (For more insight on crafting a viral message read this.)

1. The message can be repeated.

The true test of a message’s repeatability is that the author doesn’t need to be present to elaborate and explain in order for people to understand.

A message that is repeatable uses as few words as possible. With that being said, it surprises many people that there isn’t a formula or template. The best place to look for it is in unscripted conversation when the CEO is on a soap box or worked-up.

2. The message doesn’t sound like what others are already saying.

This doesn’t mean that the company does something nobody else in the world does, it means that the invitation to your one hundred customers feels personal. It must have meaning.

This is where the personality of the CEO must shine through. The CEO’s eyes should light up and their words should evoke enthusiasm.

3. The message is a gateway.

It must be an invitation to a destination that people already want to go, and it must address a belief, understanding or action that is necessary to get there.

For example, my company, Mann Phillips Group, helps B2B service companies increase the number of qualified leads they consistently talk to. That’s the destination for CEO’s and business leaders that want more conversations with potential clients.

The message, or gateway, is that the CEO must believe it is their role to attract one hundred raving fans. It is their role to spread the message. It is their role to grow the company.

Notice that there was no mention of how to do it. No mention of the company’s attributes. It is an invitation to a movement for the right few.

The CEO is Responsible for the Tipping Point

In Malcolm Gladwell’s groundbreaking book, The Tipping Point, Gladwell made the case that ideas, products, messages and behaviors become “epidemic” when the behaviors of small groups of people ripple outwards.

One of the principles, The Law of the Few, contends that widespread popularity is only possible after a few of the right people champion the idea, concept or product.

Those few need a leader and someone to show them what is possible. That person is the CEO or business owner. It is the CEO’s role as a marketer and number one job.

Are you ready to accept your role as a marketer?

¹ Even though this term is often thought to exist on many ancient maps, it has only been found once, on a small copper globe.

² Endurance – Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, Alfred Lansing

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