The CMO Survey: Marketers More Optimistic About Economy Now Than Pre-Pandemic

Marketing spending on diversity, equity and inclusion ticked up 9% since last year

February 24, 2021

A year steeped in a pandemic, economic woes, and social and political upheaval has transformed many priorities in the marketing industry.

Still, despite the past year’s challenges, which included a 4% decline in spending and job losses of about 9%, marketing leaders were more optimistic about the economy when surveyed in January than they were mid-pandemic, and even before the pandemic began, according to new data from The CMO Survey.

Roughly 350 marketing leaders at for-profit U.S. companies had an average optimism score of 66.3 out of 100 in the January survey. This is an increase from 50.9 in June 2020 and 62.7 in February 2020, before COVID-19 gained a foothold in the U.S.

Focusing on customer experience
Nearly three-fourths of marketing leaders believe the importance of marketing in their companies increased over the past year.

“A strong customer experience emerged as the most important priority — more important than product quality, a trusting relationship, and superior innovation — with over one-third of marketers rating it their customers’ key priority,” said survey director Christine Moorman, a marketing professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. “With customer demands for digital experiences growing, marketers have been placed in a stronger position to deliver this value.”

As expected, with many consumers staying home, online sales soared, comprising almost a fifth of overall sales, which is the highest level in the survey’s history, Moorman said.

The respondents, almost all of whom serve as vice presidents or higher, expected marketing spending to increase by more than 14% in the coming year, the survey showed.

“Despite overall losses, marketers report an 11.5% increase in digital marketing spending in the last year, pointing to a major shift in how marketers are spending their budgets,” Moorman said. “This focus is expected to continue with digital budgets predicted to grow by 10.1% in the next year.”

Navigating social & political issues
Marketing leaders also shared insights on how their firms have navigated social and political challenges the U.S. saw in 2020, including issues related to racial equality, gender equality and other issues. Firms reported a 9% increase in spending on diversity, equity and inclusion.

“Work on brand and marketing communications were the areas of greatest focus for this spending,” Moorman said. “Only 5.6% of companies reported ‘very highly’ that they developed an inclusive approach to marketing decision making.”

More than a quarter of marketers in the survey also said it’s appropriate for brands to take a position on political issues, which is the highest level in the survey’s history, Moorman said.

Considering the types of political activism appropriate for brands, the dominant response was encouraging citizens to vote, which was supported by almost all marketers, followed by supporting legislation (43.5%), and changing products and services in response to political issues (26.5%).

A detailed analysis, including trends across industries, is available at

This story may not be republished without permission from Duke University's Fuqua School of Business. Please contact for additional information.

Contact Info

For more information contact our media relations team at