4 skills needed for a marketer to sit on boards

Marketers can wedge themselves into the picture by focusing on leadership, customers, innovation and brand, says this former CMO

Cracker Barrel's former chief marketer, Chris Ciavarra, has bucked the trend and landed himself a board role, a feat he recognises isn’t always possible for today’s modern marketing professionals.

Ciavarra, the long-time Cracker Barrel staffer who helped spearhead the American restaurant chain’s business transformation as its head of marketing for six years, has landed on the board of ShareRoot, a Silicon Valley-based company listed on the ASX that provides a software-as-a-service platform for social media marketing.

Ciavarra told CMO typically boards in the US are leaning towards smaller entities. And while already well stacked with financial and business executives, they’re not always open to the modern marketer.

“The modern American board is an interesting thing. Governance has gotten a lot tougher, both from shareholders as well as the exchanges. The preference has moved towards structures that are a lot smaller and not too unwieldy. So you are typically looking at boards that are the seven to 11 people,” he told CMO. “What’s interesting is some of those seats on the board have already been taken because of either good governance or SEC requirements around mandatory committees.”

Chris Ciavarra
Chris Ciavarra


For example, often the roles of CEO and chairman of the board have been split, Ciavarra said, adding the head of finance role gets taken by a finance person, while the head of compensation is typically scooped up by an HR professional.

“So four seats have just gone,” he said. But there’s still hope for marketers to clinch a board seat, and they will have better chances if finance and a broad leadership background is in their background, Ciavarra said.

“In this day and age, if you’re a board member, you’re going to have to sit on those committees, so you need some of those skills behind you,” he continued. “But because they are looking around for other skills, boards are asking a few questions such as: What type of business are we in, and what might this specific CEO need, as we’re looking for a board?”

In that context, Ciavarra believed marketers have four opportunities to appeal to boards. The first is their cross-organisational functionality.

“You should be influencing across the entire organisation, both in terms of the customer experience and the employee experience, and tying all of these pieces together. For me, that’s a pretty big thing of value at the board level,” he said.  

Marketers should also be well versed in customer. “That’s probably more unique to most marketers in the sense that they really understand customers, and understand how to get access to customers,” he said.  

The third skillset involves innovation. “Most marketers in some form or fashion have been involved in innovation, and whether it’s more typical corporate development or more leading principles, either way it’s a critical thing marketers bring into the mix,” Ciavarra said.  

The last skill set to master is brand development and reputation.

“More specifically, understand the unique things that you have to offer. Begin to identify sectors or verticals that specifically marry up well with that, and then use your network to find companies that might need an advisory board,” Ciavarra advised. “There may be situations where companies don’t even realise they need an advisor, and you can still be getting in and just having those conversations. The role, depending upon how far along the company is, can be pretty focused or can be pretty broad.”  

Transformational times  

Ciavarra is drawing on expertise perfected while at Cracker Barrel in order to take his current board activities at ShareRoot - and other projects - to new heights.

Prior to his full-time gig at Cracker Barrel in 2008, he initially worked for the American restaurant chain in a consultative capacity in 2000. It was a time when the brand had come off its roughest patch ever and experienced a change in CEO.

“The new gentleman hired this third party to come in and drive marketing strategy, brand strategy, all of the advertising, product development and research. I was asked to lead that team, and I did for about three years,” Ciavarra said.  

Flash forward to 2008, after a few years in the food services arena, and Ciavarra was named Cracker Barrel head of marketing.

“I chatted with the CEO about the lifecycle of the business. I was contending pretty strongly with him that they were viewing the brand like packaged goods and weren’t really trying to actively evolve it,” he recalled. “I viewed Cracker Barrel as this incredible brand with a lot of richness to it that had the ability to evolve and grow, as it had done over the years.

“The imagery the brand was using, the consumer proposition, and product offering all to me were looking long in the tooth.”

The CEO took Ciavarra up on the challenge and named him vice-president of brand. Spending a year-and-a-half in that role, he quickly reworked the advertising, and the way the brand was presenting to the marketplace. Cracker Barrel then began introducing product, and Ciavarra was promoted to run all of marketing for the next six years.  

The essence of the journey came down to one thing: Investigating growth opportunities.

“You have a 50-year-old brand, a very mature brand, a very successful brand. One of the biggest full-serve restaurants there is, pushing $3 billion in sales, which is a big number in full-serve restaurants,” Ciavarra said. “But when you mature as a brand, you have to begin to say, ‘How do I continue to grow and where are those growth avenues?”

In that vein, he identified four areas of activity to drive change.  

“One was simply trying to drive more use out of our base, and we did that by driving new programs and reworking the advertising line. The second thing is we went after new markets,” he said. “The company hadn’t really actively gone after the younger market or the multicultural market. It did that for the first time with great success.

“The third thing was we learned through a variety of research tools that the brand wasn’t really convenient or easy to use. So we looked at real estate, but we also started to begin doing things like online ordering and made more catering available.”

The last state of play was focusing on brand extensions, which culminated in the introduction of the Cracker Barrel Old Country Store brand into retail and grocery, along with Holler & Dash, a fast-casual restaurant aimed at millennials. During that six-year period, company sales grew more than 20 per cent, and share value grew more than 35 per cent.  

“To see the marketing function continue to grow and influence within the organisation, both as a thought leader, but then beyond it as a business driver, was fantastic,” Ciavarra said. “The marketing team was helping to set revenues and margin targets, which is something that hadn't happened historically. It was a lot of work, but very exciting.”

Up next: The 4 big traits of successful modern marketing leaders

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