Forbes CMO Symposium Brings C-Suite Executives to Michigan State University

Chief executive officers shared advice on growth, disruption and innovation in a changing world, during the Forbes CMO Alumni Symposium held Nov. 2, 2018 at Michigan State University. Leaders of top businesses spoke to the goal of connecting with customers, giving students a high-level view of executive leadership.

The speakers for the event included nine featured presenters who double as Spartan alumni, leading corporations such as Periscope, U.S. Cellular, Lithia Motors, Ally Financial, and Bottom Line Branding. They were joined by Forbes editors, and deans and department chairs in the Eli Broad College of Business and the College of Communication Arts and Sciences, as they participated in panel discussions, presentations and Q&A sessions to share decades of industry experience.

The Key to Success

“Putting your head down and working hard is the key to success,” said John Costello, CEO of Bottom Line Branding. As a Spartan who earned his M.B.A. from the Broad College of Business in 1970, he shared his view with students and others in attendance on the importance of building a personal brand and rising above the competition. “The strategies and principles of building business brands are actually pretty similar to the strategies in building your own personal brand.”

He said one of his key strategies is to “differentiate or disappear,” a goal that he believes both individuals and companies should strive to attain.

“I think you could almost divide the winners and losers out in the world today based on how clear their brand differentiation is,” said Costello.

Throughout the course of the symposium, business executives discussed a wide range of topics including data analysis, disruption in established markets and pointers for bringing about innovation.

Examining Emotion in Marketing

Business executives also discussed broad trends, ranging from the prevalence of social media marketing and ad retargeting to the renewed focus on reaching consumers on an emotional level.

“Who we are as people is often not what we communicate,” said Elizabeth Ross, President & CEO of Periscope, who earned a B.A in Advertising at MSU’s College of Communication Arts and Sciences in 1994. “Who we wish we are is different than who we are. And as agencies and marketers our challenge is to tease those things apart. What underpins it as we think about data, as we think about all of this triangulation about ‘What is the perfect message going to be at the right time?’ is really understanding what’s most important: emotion.”

Ross explained how her company inspired buy-in from consumers for one campaign, using digital marketing and social media.

“We’re persuaded by reason. We’re given lots of good and salient reasons why we should do things,” said Ross. “At the end of the day, we decide things based on how we feel, and that is what makes us human.”

She echoed the sentiment that students seeking executive leadership positions should stand out from the crowd.

“What do companies expect from new grads? We expect points of view. We expect passion. Don’t be apathetic,” said Ross. “Bring emotion, because that’s what’s going to lead marketing forward.”

The presentations and panel discussions were packed with advice for undergraduate students, whether the students were working toward specific career goals or still making key decisions about their future profession. For some presenters, the choices they made to change direction inspired wisdom to share with the student audience.

Discovering a Business Venture

Chris Fredrickson, President and Co-Founder of Traverse City Whiskey, said he was on a different path when he discovered the idea for the business that he would co-found and operate out of Traverse City, Michigan. After graduating from the College of Communication Arts and Sciences with a B.A. in Advertising in 2007, he set out on his own path.

“I came to a screeching halt, and said ‘I need something more. I need to be fulfilled,’” said Fredrickson.

Fredrickson said he was able to build upon the relationships he established at MSU, to propel him forward with networking and professional partnerships. As a business owner, he maintains a focus on people in his work—an approach that has led his business to growth and innovation.

“We need to make sure that we know more than the customer, but are also making sure that they leave with not just an enhanced experience, but an enhanced education,” said Fredrickson. “In house, we’re developing this policy around creating a wow factor.”

In business and in life, he encouraged students to consider what makes a venture extraordinary. If they can create a connection with consumers, he said future business leaders may discover the ability to motivate consumers through moments that are “intriguing and memorable.”

For students and others in attendance, the CMO Alumni Symposium fostered many memorable moments. The event included a networking lunch and provided those in attendance with actionable insights into business leadership, inspiring the next generation of C-Suite executives.

By Melissa Priebe