BlackRock CMO: Purpose Beyond Profits in a Time of Transition

August 4, 2020

Frank Cooper and Rob Norman

Corporate social responsibility and brand purpose have been topics of discussion in boardrooms, conferences, and think pieces for a long time. But this moment in history is making these subjects all the more urgent. 

As part of the “Taking the Long View – Conversations with The B2B Institute at LinkedIn” series, Rob Norman, fomer Chief Digital Officer at GroupM, spoke to Frank Cooper, Senior Managing Director and Global Chief Marketing Officer at BlackRock, about the critical importance of social responsibility, and the expectations consumers have of brands and the people who lead them today. 

A graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard Law School, Cooper has worked in the entertainment industry, served as the Chief Marketing Officer and Chief Creative Officer of Buzzfeed, and was Chief Marketing Officer of Global Consumer Engagement for PepsiCo's Global Beverage Group. 

At BlackRock, one of the world’s leading asset management firms with $6.4 trillion under management in the first quarter of the year, Cooper oversees the company’s global brand and marketing strategy. 

Cooper and Norman talked about brand responsibility, corporate leadership, and the importance of connecting one’s personal purpose to a professional and brand purpose in the context of the global pandemic, an unpredictable economic outlook, and social unrest. 

Rob Norman: We are witnessing a tremendous amount of change at the moment. What are these extraordinary times revealing to you as a business leader? 

Frank Cooper: You know, I think we all have an opportunity to step into this transitional space that is happening now and to find your purpose, your ultimate mission, call it whatever you want to call it. But ultimately, it's what Simon Sinek said in The Golden Circle. It's finding your “why.” Why do I exist beyond profits? That's what it is ultimately about. And yes, there will be some purpose-washing, like there's some greenwashing, but eventually, the truth will come out — who's authentic and who's not. Eventually, the best talent will be attracted to those firms who are authentic about their purpose and that the best talent will translate into better performance.

Norman: You mentioned purpose-washing. How can brands show that they are authentic, that they are not just saying one thing, but doing another?

...if you want to become a powerful brand with purpose and longevity, you have to rise above the merely rational, you have to operate in the realm of emotion.— Frank Cooper, Senior Managing Director and Global Chief Marketing Officer, BlackRock 

Cooper: It's evoking that trust and representing the values that actually make people feel connected to the brand. Otherwise, it's just a product with a name, and it might be a good product or a good service with a name. But, if you want to become a powerful brand with purpose and longevity, you have to rise above the merely rational, you have to operate in the realm of emotion because that's really how people are motivated to believe in you, to connect with you, and remain loyal to you. 

Norman: What do you think will drive brand loyalty in the future, as the world ultimately emerges from the pandemic and an economic downturn? 

Cooper: We've talked a lot about the “E,” the environment, and we've talked a lot in particular in our industry about the “G,” governance, but it's the “S,” the social, that is rising fast. And it's the S that I think it's going: Does your brand have social license to operate. And any company that takes its social license to operate for granted, that doesn’t acknowledge the investment the community has made that makes business possible, I say ‘beware.’ Because people are asking a fundamental question: Does your business serve my community? 

Norman: That is very emotional language, but your industry — financial services — is built on rationality. How do you balance the rational with the emotional? 

Cooper: On the surface of every industry there’s the language of rationality. But what I’ve learned over the years is that motivations tend to be emotional. I don’t want to minimize the rational, it’s very important, particularly in financial services, But when you get down to the end investor, they're struggling with their relationship with money, they're struggling with how to put emergency savings in place. These are really emotional decisions. And that’s why brand is really important here. People are making decisions based on trust and values, and those are rooted in emotion. The people in the company have to evoke the trust and represent the values, otherwise you are just a product with a name. It’s the realm of emotion that motivates people to change their behaviors and rally to your brand. 

Norman: Financial services is a complex industry. And many investors are daunted by the numeracy that seems a prerequisite for success as an investor. How do you communicate the nuts and bolts of your strategy that is both rational but remains in the realm of the emotional? 

Cooper: One of the lessons I learned is that it’s important to make financial information short, intuitive, and visual. If you strip away the jargon, you can make financial concepts really simple to understand. If the average person can’t understand what you are saying, they can’t make that emotional connection to your brand. The highest form of expertise is when you can explain complex ideas in very simple terms. 

Norman: How did purpose become an important guiding principle for you in your life and career? 

Cooper: I learned two things early in my career and these were defined by some people who really helped me out early-on and gave me great advice. The first thing was making sure my personal purpose was connected to the work that I'm doing: how can I put myself in a position where I feel I can contribute in a way that expands people's potential? When I was in the music industry, that's how I looked at the music industry, and when I was at PepsiCo, that's how I looked at it. When I was at Buzzfeed, we helped people who are historically marginalized come to the center stage. 

At BlackRock, I see the opportunity to help more people experience financial well being. People who believe that they have no place in being in the world of saving and investing. I think we can open up that opportunity to more people. So that's been a driver for me across, across the board. 

But the second thing I did was build a deep expertise within one company. There are great operational advantages to doing that. I really focused on the skills that will be transferable, skills that would actually allow me to stay ahead of the curve. It’s understanding social media, understanding data, understanding machine learning, understanding storytelling, and putting all of that together, and putting it in the service of purpose. 

Register now for the next Live With Marketers Home Edition, "Marketing to the CFO," which takes place Thursday, August 13, at 9am PT/noon ET. This live event will feature Frank Cooper and Rob Norman as well as Fran Cassidy, Founder of Cassidy Media Partners, and Ty Heath, Global Lead of The B2B Institute.