How to be a successful Brand Manager

Posted on Posted in How to Guide for Marketers

brand managementI 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 have given it a lot of thought over the years and here is my view on what makes a great brand manager.

What separates a great brand manager from the rest of the pack?

There are two factors that make a great brand manager:

1. They know the right thing to do (strategy)
2. They work the system to make it happen (execution).

Simply put, great marketers do both.

The rest either fail on either #1 or #2. They might be great on strategy who can’t get it done. Or great on execution, but they don’t know why they do what they do.

It sounds easy, but the ability to move from strategy to execution is rarer than you might assume. It takes a unique person to be able to change brain speeds and apply a different type of thinking. Most of us are comfortable in one or the other.

Strategic thinkers see the right questions before they look for answers. 

Strategic thinkers are able to map out a range of decision trees that intersect, by imagining how events will play out in the future. They think of every option before taking action. If you move too quickly on brand strategy, you will be unable to see the insights beneath the surface, and you risk solving the wrong problem.

Instinctual thinkers see the right answers before they even know the question. 

Instinctual thinkers move fast, using emotional, impulse and intuitive gut feel. They choose emotion over logic. This “gut feel” fosters high creativity. Without intuitive freedom, you will move too slowly, overthink and second-guess yourself. You risk destroying the creativity of the right solution.

The problem for most brand managers is they use the wrong brain speed at the wrong time.

When they should be slowing down for strategy, 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 question, then the even better answers will come to you. Revel in ambiguity.   

When executing, you have so much to do, you can’t decide what is crucial and what just a task. Deadlines make you choose OK to get it done because pushing for greatness is one more delay you can’t afford. Also, many brand managers end up burying away their instincts. Running from a financial meeting talking cost of goods, a sales forecasting meeting talking about 6 months from now, to a sales meeting getting grilled on promotional spend, to a meeting with the scientists in the lab talking about an ingredient change you need to make, it feels impossible to find those instincts. Yet, the best brand managers can. You come into a creative execution meeting, and you give the answer you think you are supposed to give because that’s what you did in the finance meeting and it worked

One of the biggest cases for overthinking is to try to second guess what your boss will think. If you are thinking of comments your boss has made in past meetings, there is no way you will be able to find your beautiful instincts. You’ve just given up ownership of your brand to your boss. 

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 of the Idiot Curve is: You get dumber before you get smarter.

I have promoted some great ABMs and watch them struggle and wonder if we made a mistake. 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, or you won’t survive. If there was one consistent gap for people early in a new job, is that you forget to use your instincts. You spend so much of your time trying to absorb everything 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 she 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.  

Every job I have ever had, I experienced the idiot curve–even at the VP level. Give yourself permission to know it is there. However, fight it.

The five factors for success at the Brand Manager level

  1. Take ownership of the brand.
  2. Provide the strategic direction
  3. Work the system
  4. Handle the pressure
  5. Get the most of their direct report

1. Take ownership of the brand

Many Brand Managers struggle are with the transition from being the helper to now being the owner. As you move into the job, you have to get away the idea that someone will hand you a project list. Not only will you make the project list, but you should also come up with the strategies that set up the need for the projects.

Make a shift in how you speak with your boss. Speak with a telling voice, rather than an asking voice. It is ok to ask questions as feelers, but a great boss will want you to tell them what you want to do, and let the debate begin from there. They do not want to do your job.

People on your team will look to you for the decisions. While they want to be heard and have their expertise recognized, but they want you to make the decisions.

2. Provide strategic direction

Create a vision for the brand that can serve as a rallying cry for your team. Let everyone know where you want to go. Make sure the strategic choices and your brand’s execution matches up with your vision.

As the brand owner, you become the steward of the strategy. Reject everything that does not line up to your vision. Think with three strategic pillars, so you can steer a consistent delivery of the brand through the various functions and agencies who support your brand.

3. Work the system

You have to be able to see how the organization works and appreciate the motivations of various key stakeholders. You have to be able to understand the layers of the organization, with varying goals and motivations. Use that knowledge to begin to work the system.
Inspire, challenge and push your key subject matter experts to you their best. Understand their motivations and tap into those motivations as a way to ask people for their best.

4. Handle the pressure

The unknown of ambiguity and the time pressure of deadlines can work against each other. Figure out how to work them to our advantage, as they evoke the right balance of patience with ambiguity and persistence in getting things done. Be organized, disciplined and work the system, so it does not get in your way.

Another significant pressure for Marketers is when the results do not come in. It can be frustrating but is a reality we face. Force yourself to course correct, re-examine the underlying issues, and regroup with your team to look at other options, rather than continuing to repeat and repeat and repeat.

There is pressure in relationships that many Marketers feel, but are unable to fix. Be pro-active in making the first move to build a relationship. Try to figure out the motivations and frustration points in those you work with before they become a problem. Common ground is usually not that far away.

5. Get the most of your direct report

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 direct report.

It can be a struggle to shift from “do-er” to coach, as it is tempting to think you can do something faster, so you may as well do it. The problem is you just become the “super ABM.”

Many Brand Managers fail to share the spotlight, so it becomes hard for you to showcase your Assistant Brand Manager. You must believe the work of your Assistant Brand Manager will reflect positively on how good of a manager you are.

Provide your direct report with positive and negative feedback, delivered in a timely fashion. Too many new managers are afraid to “go negative” so their ABM is left in the dark or left believing they are doing a good job. Take the time to teach up front, give them room to try it out and then provide hands-on feedback in real time.

The 10 reasons brand managers fails

  1. Struggle to make decisions.
  2. Not analytical enough.
  3. Can’t get along with others.
  4. Not good with ambiguity.
  5. Bad people manager.
  6. Poor communicators with management or partners.
  7. Never follow your instincts.
  8. Can’t think or write strategically
  9. You don’t run the brand; you let the brand run you. 
  10. Sloppy with budgets and timelines.

My advice to brand managers

Most new brand managers mistakenly think this role is about managing others because they finally get a chance to manage a direct report. However, the bigger role is the transition from doer to owner.

Yes, you will get your first chance to manage someone, but many times that effort can be a distraction from your chance to continue to learn and grow. Many brand managers are disheartened to find out they are a disaster with their first direct report. Try to improve with each new direct report and then they will feel more comfortable around the fifth direct report. 

I hope you love the magic of Marketing. It is easy to lose your passion and try to do what your boss wants or do things to make short-term numbers so you can get promoted. Don’t just go through the motion the job, but do it with all your passion. If you do not love the work you do, then how can you ever expect your consumer to love your brand? Leave your legacy.

You will find this type of thinking in my book, Beloved Brands.

Beloved Brands Book

I wrote my book, Beloved Brands, as the playbook for how to build a brand your consumers will love.

Beloved Brands has everything you need to run your brand. 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.

Available on Amazon, Apple Books or Kobo

We have the paperback and e-book version on Amazon. Click here to order:  

We are also on Apple Books, which you can click here to order:

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


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. Then, we build a brand idea that is simple and unique enough to stand out in the clutter of the market. Moreover, it must be 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. In addition, 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. Above all, I will give you new thinking, so you can unlock future growth for your brand.

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