After 20 years of CPG marketing, I have hired so many potentially great marketers–who were eager for success, brilliant, hard-working and dedicated. But 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 the good from the 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.
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. 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. 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)
Five factors to being a great Brand Manager:
- A great Brand Manager takes ownership of the brand. I’ve seen many BMs struggle with the transition of going from being a helper to being the owner. As you move into the job, you have to get away from 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 good owner talks in ideas in a telling sense, and not an asking sense. It’s great to ask questions as feelers, but realize that most are going to be looking to you for the answers. They’ll be recommending and you’ll be deciding. When managing upwards be careful of asking questions—try to stick to solutions. “I think we should build a big bridge” instead of “any ideas for how we can get over the water”. You just gave up your ownership. I’d rather have you tell me what you want to do, and we debate from there, rather than you ask me what we should do. I’ll be better able to judge your logic, your passion and your vision. You run the brand, don’t let it run you.
- A great Brand Manager provides the vision & strategies to match up to. Vision is sometimes a hard thing to articulate. It’s sometimes easy to see times when there is a lack of vision. You have to let everyone know where you want to go. The strategy that matches becomes the road map 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 and your role is to find ways to steer them back on track. It’s easy to get side-tracked by exciting programs or cool ideas, but if they are off-strategy then you’ve got to park that excitement. The expression of the strategy through ideas is a key skill–just as important as the strategy itself. Learn to talk in strategic stories that can frame your direction. Learn to think about pillars—which forces your hand around 3 different areas to help achieve your strategy. Having pillars constantly grounds you back in your strategy, and is an easy way for communicating with the various functions—the people you’re dealing with may only have 1 strategic pillar that matters to them personally, but seeing the other parts makes them feel as though their work is worth it.
- A great Brand Manager spends the effort to make their ABM as good as can be. If you make your ABM better, then it reflects back on you. Too many brand managers struggle to shift from “do-er” to “coach”. They think they can do it faster than their ABM, so they may as well do it and they do. The ABM really hates this. But, they think their ABM will learn the hard way, just like they did. They struggle to share the spot light, so it becomes hard to showcase the ABM. They are too busy trying to prove themselves. Keep in mind that the work of your ABM reflects 100% of who you are. This challenge forces your hand on helping to develop your ABM. Sometimes it can feel more motivating to just talk the positive stuff. But if the ABM job is a learning position, then you have to provide areas for improvement. Intuitively, you’d think the BM/ABM relationship would be constant “negative feedback”, but I see too many BMs afraid of going “negative”. You need the balance. My question is, that if you were coaching a gymnast and their “toes weren’t straight, wouldn’t they want to know?” Then why are you not working on a relationship where you can get to that point. Share with them better ways for doing things—which you have learned. Spend some time teaching from your experience.
- 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. Working the system entails taking what you have learned about ownership one step further. You understand the organizational components, and then you go get what you need. Again communication becomes key—you can’t let missed communications cause angst or concerns. Also, its crucial that you get the best from everyone. I have found it useful upfront to ask everyone for their best work. It’s a strange step, but I have found it useful. But you have to promise them you’ll support their best work. If you really have someone that’s good, you know they’ll respond to this. The good news is that only 0.1% of people ask them, so it’s not like they’ve heard it that many times. And let them know if they are or aren’t there yet.
- A Great Brand Manager Can Handle Pressure.
- Ambiguity is one of the hardest for many Managers. This is where patience and composure come into play as you sort through the issues. The consequences of not remaining composed is likely a bad decision.
- 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.
- Relationships and conflict. Be pro-active in making the first move. Try to figure out what motivates as well as what annoys them. Most times, the common ground 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.
Love the Magic of Marketing–let it breathe and let it come to life.
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 please.
Love what you do. Live Why You Do it
To read the related story on how to be a successful Assistant Brand Manager click on this: Beloved Brands Story on Being a Successful Assistant Brand Manager or read the following presentation:
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