The 5 factors to being a successful Brand Manager

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After 20 years of marketing, I have hired so many potentially great marketers–who were eager for success, brilliant, hard-working and dedicated. brand manager successBut in reality, about 50% of Assistant Brand Managers get promoted to Brand Manager and less than 20% of Brand Managers make it to the Director level. I’ve given it a lot of thought over the years and here is my view on what makes great Brand Managers, great enough for them to get promoted to the next level.

What separates good from great?  

There are two factors that I have seen in a consistent manner: #1: They get what they need. #2: What they need is the right thing to do. Very simply put, great marketers get both. The rest either fail on #1 or #2. To get what you want, keep things simple and move fast to take the positional advantage. What separates many Brand Managers is the inability to actually rely on their instincts, instead of just the textbook answer. You get so busy, so deadline focused, so scared to make a mistake that you forget to think in a confused state of ambiguity. It’s not easy to sit there without the answer, but sometimes if you just wait a bit longer and keep pushing for an even better answer, it will come to you. Revel in ambiguity.   

The Idiot Curve

One thing to keep in mind is the Idiot Curve. At every new job, including Brand Manager, I find it takes 3 months to get back to being just as smart as you were on the first day. The basic rule is: You get dumber before you get smarter. We’ve promoted some great ABMs and watch them struggle and wonder if we made a mistake. But the idiot curve is inevitable. It just shows up differently for each person.  Marketing Career Idiot Curve

No matter how hard you fight it, you have to ride the curve. (But, please fight through the curve, you have to for your survival) The biggest gap is that you forget to use your instincts. You spend so much of your time trying to absorb all that is coming at you, that you reach for the basic process instead of your brains.

And then, you might be working on a project for weeks before you think to even look at the budget. You work on a promotion for Wal-Mart and then think “oh ya, I should talk to the Wal-Mart sales manager and see what he thinks”.  Or you say something in a meeting you think you’re supposed to say, but it doesn’t even resemble anything that you think, feel or believe in. That’s the idiot curve.  And it will last 3 months. And you’ll experience it in a new and exciting way you can’t even predict. Feel free to let me know which way so I can add it to the list. (I won’t reveal names)

The 5 factors to being a great Brand Manager:

From what I have experienced over the years, the five factors for success includes takes ownership, brings strategic thinking, managing others very well, works the system and can handle the pressure of the job.

#1 Ownership: A great Brand Manager takes ownership of the brand.

Many Brand Managers struggle with the transition from being the helper to being the owner. As you move into the job, you have to get away the idea of having someone hand you a project list. Not only do you have to make the project list, you have to come up with the strategies from which the projects fall out of.

A great Brand Manager talks in ideas in a telling sense, rather than an asking sense. It’s great to be asking questions as feelers, but realize that most people are going to be looking to you for decisions. They’ll be recommending you’ll be deciding.

When managing upwards be careful of asking questions—try to stick to solutions. You just gave up your ownership. Your director wants you to tell them what to do, and debate from there.

#2 Strategic Thinking: A great Brand Manager provides the vision & strategies to match up to. 

Bring a vision to the brand. Push yourself to a well-articulated 5-10 year brand vision great. But a vision can be as simple as a rallying cry for the team. But you have to let everyone know where you want to go.

The strategy that matches up to the vision becomes the roadmap for how to get there. As the brand owner, you become the steward of the vision and strategy. Everything that is off strategy has to be rejected.

Communication of strategy is a key skill. Learn to think in terms of strategic pillars, with 3 different areas to help achieve your overall strategy. Having pillars constantly grounds you strategically, and is an easy way for communicating with the various functions. Each function may only have 1 strategic pillar but seeing how it all fits in is motivating.

#3 Managing Others: A great Brand Manager spends the effort to make their ABM as good as can be.

Most Brand Managers struggle with their first five direct reports. The key is to keep self-evaluating and looking for ways to improve with each report. Most Brand Managers struggle to shift from “do-er” to “coach. They think they can do it faster, so they may as well do it. They just become the “super ABM”.

Many Brand Managers fail to share the spotlight, so it becomes hard to showcase the ABM. But the work of your ABM reflects 100% of how good of a manager you are. ABMs need feedback to get better—both the good and bad. I see too many Brand Managers not giving enough feedback. And so many afraid of “going negative” so the ABM is left in the dark or left thinking they are doing a good job.

Great Brand Managers take the time to teach up front, give the ABM some room to try it out and then give hands-on feedback in real time. Use weekly meetings to give both positive feedback and address gaps. Brand Managers should do QUARTERLY sit down performance reviews with their ABMs, who have the capacity to learn faster than annual reviews allows for.

#4 Working the system: A great Brand Manager gets what they need.

The organization is filled with groups, layers, external agencies, with everyone carrying a different set of goals and motivations. You can see how the organization works and appreciating what are the motivations of various key stakeholders. You then use that knowledge to begin to work the system.

Start to see key subject matter experts giving you their best. You understand their personal motivations and find a way to tap into those motivations as a way to ask people for their best. It might be an odd step but from my experience a really motivating step. Very few people ask for “your best”.

#5: Pressure: A Great Brand Manager Can Handle Pressure.

In general, there are four types of pressure. Usually, a leader has 1-2 blind spot pressure areas they need to work on. For me, I was great with ambiguity and time. At that point in my career, I was very weak on the relationship side. Which of these 4 do you struggle on?

  • Ambiguity is one of the hardest pressures. As a leader, patience and composure help you sort through the issues. The consequences of not remaining composed are a scared team and choosing quick decisions with bad results.
  • If the results don’t come in, it can be frustrating. Reach for your logic as you re-group. Force yourself to course correct, rather than continuing to repeat and repeat and repeat. Challenge team to “this is when we are needed”
  • Relationships. Be pro-active in making the first move to build a relationship. Try to figure out what motivates and what annoys the person. Understand and reach for common ground, which most times is not that far away.
  • Time Pressure. It’s similar to the ambiguity. Be organized, disciplined and work the system so it doesn’t get in your way. Be calm, so you continue to make the right decisions. Use the time to your advantage.

Love the magic of Marketing. 

Don’t just do the job, do it with all your passion. Love it please so we can love the work that comes from your passion. Or else just become an actuary and let someone else take your spot.

To learn more about this type of thinking, you should explore my new book, Beloved Brands.

With Beloved Brands, you will learn everything you need to know so you can build a brand that your consumers will love.

You will learn how to think strategically, define your brand with a positioning statement and a brand idea, write a brand plan everyone can follow, inspire smart and creative marketing execution and analyze the performance of your brand through a deep-dive business review.

Beloved Brands book

To order the e-book version or the paperback version from Amazon, click on this link:

If you use Kobo, you can find Beloved Brands in over 30 markets using this link:

And if you are in India, you can use this link to order:

Beloved Brands: Who are we?

At Beloved Brands, our purpose is to help brands find a new pathway to growth. We believe that the more love your brand can generate with your most cherished consumers, the more power, growth, and profitability you will realize in the future.

We think the best solutions are likely inside you already, but struggle to come out. Our unique playbook tools are the backbone of our workshops. We bring our challenging voice to help you make decisions and refine every potential idea.

We start by defining a brand positioning statement, outlining the desired target, consumer benefits and support points the brand will stand behind. And then, we build a brand idea that is simple and unique enough to stand out in the clutter of the market, motivating enough to get consumers to engage, buy and build a loyal following with your brand.

We will help you write a strategic brand plan for the future, to get everyone in your organization to follow. It starts with an inspiring vision that pushes your team to imagine a brighter future. We use our strategic thinking tools to help you make strategic choices on where to allocate your brand’s limited resources.

Our brand playbook methodology will challenge you to unlock future growth for your brand

  1. Our deep-dive assessment process will give you the knowledge of the issues facing your brand, so you can build a smart plan to unleash future growth.
  2. Find a winning brand positioning statement that motivates consumers to buy, and gives you a competitive advantage to drive future growth.
  3. Create a brand idea to capture the minds and hearts of consumers, while inspiring and focusing your team to deliver greatness on the brand’s behalf.
  4. Build a brand plan to help you make smart focused decisions, so you can organize, steer, and inspire your team towards higher growth.
  5. Advise on advertising, to find creative that drives branded breakthrough and use a motivating messaging to set up long-term brand growth.
  6. Our brand training program will make your brand leaders smarter, so you have added confidence in their performance to drive brand growth.

To learn more about our coaching, click on this link: Beloved Brands Strategic Coaching

To learn more about our training programs, click on this link: Beloved Brands Training

If you need our help, email me at or call me at 416 885 3911

You have my personal promise to help you solve your brand building challenges. I will give you new thinking, so you can unlock future growth for your brand.


Graham Robertson

Founder and CMO, Beloved Brands Inc.


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Graham Robertson

Graham Robertson is one of the voices of today's brand leaders. As the founder of Beloved Brands, he has been a brand advisor to the NFL Players Association, Shell, Reebok, Acura, Jack Links and Pfizer. He's helped train some of the best marketing teams on strategy, brand positioning, brand plans and advertising. Graham's purpose is to use is marketing experience and provocative style to get marketers to think differently about their brands, and to explore new ways to grow. Graham spent 20 years leading some of the world's most beloved brands at Johnson and Johnson, Coke, General Mills and Pfizer, rising up to VP Marketing. Graham played a significant role in helping win Marketing Magazine's "Marketer of the Year" award. He has won numerous advertising and innovation awards including Businessweek’s best new product award. As a keynote speaker, Graham shares his passion for brands to challenge and inspire marketing minds around the world, whether speaking at Advertising Week, or at the NBA Summer League, or to a room full of marketers in Bangkok Thailand or an agency in New York. He's been a guest writer for Ad Age, and his weekly blog stories have reached millions of marketers, who are trying to improve their skills. His new book, Beloved Brands, has launched with rave reviews. Many brand leaders are using this book as a playbook to help build the brand they work on. And, it serves as a brand management textbook for business schools in the US, Canada and the UK. Graham’s personal promise is to help you solve your brand building challenges, to give you new thinking, so you can unlock future growth for your brand.

26 thoughts on “The 5 factors to being a successful Brand Manager”

  1. Great article, Graham. Love the “Idiot Curve” and the “5 key factors of success”.
    I would add “believe in your brand” somewhere to this discussion. To have passion for your career is great, but to have it for the brand you represent – shines through. Genuine passion is contagious and provides momentum for the whole team and produces better results and more meaningful connections with your customers.

  2. Totally agree on the passion. You show up as Authentic. You know when you go into a store and move the bottles around on the store shelf, you’re passionate. When I was SBM of Listerine, I remember speaking so passionately about gum disease, someone said “you know, you’re NOT actually Listerine”

  3. Good synopsis…the challenge with brand management is the migration of a brand manager from creative/visionary to be a spreadsheet/process manager. As a brand manager in the 80’s and 90’s i found the migration of roles to be an issue. Creativity is the key to brand management. The brand manager not only needs to be the creaive guru in the room – they need to know how to translate that vision into reality. Ironcically that means a good BM not only needs to have the strategic smarts – they also need to be able to sell their vision. Hence why a good BM is worth their weight in gold.

  4. if you are not passionate about your brand, you can not excite the consumer, I am a junior product manager and I have great ambitious to pursue a career in branding!

  5. Good article! I recently read something from Seth Godin that succinctly reflects your comment about passion for the brand and for one’s job. He said the “caring is a competitive advantage.”

  6. Great article. I understand number: “They get what they need.” On number 2, “What they need is the right thing to do”, one of the things I’ve found is that there is often not just one right thing to do. Sound strategic thinking, insightful analysis as well as experience and instincts can flush out a number of “right things to do,” and many can drive success.

  7. Hi Graham…Great theory agree on the part of Idiot Curve, already felt this after shifting from one brand to other brand. For one have to love his job and to it with whole heart and should be passionate about it, not for just doing for earning some monies. Company will come and go, but you have to be the one Brand whom people should respect and you must be followed by a good and aggressive team. Who should understand your requirement just with a eye contact.

  8. Good post, Graham. I just like the fact that the Idiot Curve looks like the quirky smile of a person caught in a stupid mistake. Very reassuring words and I can attest to the curve.

  9. Hi Graham:

    Great article.

    Like you, I am a brand coach.

    Agree with what you’ve said, especially that brand managers (and directors) fail to become good coaches themselves.

    I have found it useful to show those in brand management how to answer these five common sense brand building questions. And then empower them to show their juniors how to insightfully answer these questions themselves. Once these are answered, building brands becomes as easy as riding a motorcycle.

    1. What’s the obvious emotional truth that the brand is based on?
    2. Therefore, what business is the brand really in?
    3. In which case, at whom is the brand aimed?
    4. If the brand were a person, what personality traits would attract such an audience?
    5. What’s the organizing idea that captures the essence of the brand, that the user would like to champion?

    Sumit Roy

    1. Dear Summit,

      These questions sound very intuitive and meaningful yet difficult to answer, could you Plz answer them for our learning, assuming you’re a BM of Panadol.

      I would be highly grateful if you could Plz.



      1. It shouldn’t be that difficult to answer.

        Panadol is not entirely global. But I will take a stab.

        Emotion: no mother wants to see their kids in pain
        business: human well being & happiness
        aim: moms
        personality: a caring doctor
        idea: trust panadol to help your kid be his happy self again.

        Realize it’s midnight, and I took all but 10 minutes for this challenge. If you can’t answer these questions, you have some fundamental problems with your brand strategy. I think brands don’t always answer it right. In which case, consumers will play that back to you. But if you don’t have a brand if you don’t at least try to answer these questions. You simply have a product. A brand is that intangible something that goes above the product, and without these answer, you simply cannot build the brand. Not saying you’ll be successful just because you have the answers, because then you have to determine the right tactics, etc.

      2. Hi Rashid:

        I am sorry that I am seeing this response so late! Another response led me back to this thread.

        Fortunately, Jeannie has answered the questions well.

        Don’t know whether you will get to see this, Jeannie, but well done.

        As you see, Rashid, these questions are really easy to answer. Most Brand Managers tie themselves in knots by writing too complex a document and miss the simple building blocks of any brand.


  10. Very interesting and impactfull article particularly the idiot curve and the passion factor.

    I wish we could have interactive sessions for our emerging ABMs.



  11. Fantastic publish, very informative. I’m wondering why the opposite specialists of this sector don’t understand this. You should proceed your writing. I am confident, you’ve a great readers’ base already!|What’s Going down i am new to this, I stumbled upon this I have discovered It positively useful and it has helped me out loads. I hope to give a contribution & assist other users like its helped me. Great job.

  12. I Will have to visit again whenever my course load lets up – however I am getting your Feed so i can read your web blog offline. Cheers.

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  14. Excellent article Graham. Amazingly insighful into the practical problems a ABM/BM goes through on daily basis. Found myself re-reading it many tmes. Glad to see that these are issues all marketers go through at some point! and that I’m not alone. Looking forward to future posts.

  15. Thank you Graham for your great article!

    I found the ‘idiot curve’ interesting, and must embarrassingly admit I’ve experienced it. You had a lot of great points, such as your helper vs. owner of a brand, grounding pillars, and strategic stories.

    I realized that people can get too sucked into the client’s beliefs, or we get out of touch while being in our ivory towers. We sometimes forget that the brand isn’t what we are making it out to be, but what the consumer believes it to be.

    1. “We sometimes forget that the brand isn’t what we are making it out to be, but what the consumer believes it to be.”

      Well said. This is the essence of why many manufacturers fail to truly connect with an audience in a meaningful way. My favorite quip to remind myself of this: people don’t buy 1/4″ drill bits, they buy 1/4″ holes. With a firm grounding in this understanding you will go far.

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