New survey finds top marketers are pessimistic about Brexit

The inaugural CMO Survey UK also shows steep decline in marketing spend over past year

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A year into the COVID-19 pandemic and amidst enormous death and suffering, we have witnessed a year full of transformation and challenge for the field of marketing.

In January 2021, during England’s third lockdown and on the heels of Brexit, The CMO Survey UK questioned 126 marketing leaders at UK for-profit companies about their outlook, spending, digital transformation, and key aspects of their business.

The inaugural 2021 report marks the first time long-running U.S. The CMO Survey has expanded to include the UK.


Key insights of The CMO Survey UK 2021 report include:

1. The importance of marketing to organizations showed a significant increase in both the UK (73% of respondents) and the U.S. (72%) during the COVID-19 pandemic.

2. 79% of UK companies shifted resources to building better customer-facing digital interfaces and 56% shifted resources to end-to-end customer tracking (data integration) and new offerings (56%) during the pandemic. From a more strategic perspective, the pandemic has led 48% of companies to transform their go-to-market business models.

3. Their optimism about the economy stood at only 50.7 (out of 100, where 0 is least optimistic). To put this into context, this level is nearly identical to the levels of top U.S. marketers in June of 2020 (50.9) - which was at Great Recession levels of 47.7 in 2009. The U.S. results have, however, rebounded since (66.3).

4. One can only speculate, but it may be that Brexit is weighing on sentiments or that the dismal GDP results of 2020 - during which the UK suffered the worst annual fall in 300 years - put a damper on marketers’ outlook. Indeed, 50% of UK respondents predicted the UK’s departure from the European Union would negatively affect their business, whereas just 3.6% expect the separation will be beneficial.

5. Nearly 30% of UK marketers reported they played “no role” in their companies’ Brexit preparations, 59% said they played a “supporting role”, 9% a “central role”, and just 2% a “leading role”. Reflecting this, 50% of UK companies did “not at all” adjust their marketing strategies in response to Brexit with a further 37% making only “minor” changes. UK marketers did, however, expect that Brexit would impact their marketing mix, with a significant impact predicted for pricing (47%), channel or distribution (41%), communications (29%), and to a lesser degree the product-service portfolio (13%). 40% of companies have or intend to focus on their “Britishness” in their communications in response to Brexit, led by B2C product companies at 50%.

6. Overall, UK marketing spend dropped by a whopping 17% during the last 12 months compared to only 3.9% in the U.S. This was despite an increase in digital marketing spend of nearly 10% in the UK (11.5% in the US).

7. During the past year, UK marketers focused their attention on building brand value (35%) as a top objective, followed by acquiring (21%) and retaining (20%) customers. For over 60% of top UK marketers, a “strong customer experience” was ranked as one of the top 2 priorities - 33% ranked it first and 38% second - ahead of product quality and excellent service, with a low price being a top priority for a minority of businesses.

8. Marketing leaders reported an increase of 9% in both the UK and the U.S. in 2020 marketing spending on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I). In the UK, 52% reported success in increasing the DE&I of marketing employees (50% in the U.S.), 64% in their training (53% in the U.S.), 76% in their communications (65% in the U.S.), and 64% in the brand (61% in the U.S.).

9. 80% of UK companies have or intend to make changes to their products and services to reduce their negative impact on the ecological environment (55% in the U.S.), and 57% have or intend to change partners to do so (35% in the U.S.). 61% of UK marketers refer to COVID-19 and 53% to costs in interfering with their marketing sustainability efforts (43% and 47% in the U.S., respectively).

10. More UK (39%) believe it is appropriate for their brand to take a stance on politically charged issues. This number is higher than in the U.S. marketers (28%), which stood at its historically highest, having increased nearly 50% from last year.


Professor Nader Tavassoli, Academic Director of the Leadership Institute at London Business School and UK Director of The CMO Survey, said: “I am thankful that so many marketing leaders helped make the inaugural CMO Survey UK a success.

“Despite the differences in the respondents between the UK and U.S. - UK companies were larger on average and had a greater proportion of B2C vs. B2B sector participants - the majority of results were strikingly similar in the two markets. This makes the differences observed interesting data points to consider.”