How you think and how you decide defines how you lead

The best brand leaders are great at changing brain speeds. They can think fast or think slow. When making decisions, they can stick to a rational side or get very emotional. Situational leadership means deploying the right leadership style at the right time. 

There are many models to help you figure out who you are as a leader. For brand management, I simplify it with two questions: 

  1. How do you think; fast or slow
  2. How do you make decisions; rational or emotional 

This model leads to four marketing leadership styles

  1. Strategic thinker
  2. Instinctual thinker
  3. Consensus socializer
  4. Taskmaster

The best brand leaders can maneuver with each of these styles. We will use these models at various points to challenge you to be more flexible in how you show up.

When facing a challenging strategic situation, use slow thinking with difficult and interruptive questions that force you to dig deeper and uncover the issues hidden beneath the surface. When deciding on the creative marketing execution, use faster thinking with your common sense, gut instincts that reside at the surface level.

Bring a rational and emotional approach to your decisions. When it comes to the business side of a brand, whether it is analytics, forecasting, strategy or financial, use logic to compare choices so you can make a rational decision. And, when working through the creativity of marketing, use your emotions. Do you love it? Will you be proud of the work? Do you want this work to be your legacy?

Leadership style

How you think and how you make decisions

We each have a natural style, and it can inform how we show up in a marketing role. Use your natural style to your advantage. Equally, we likely have a gap or blindspot with one of these styles. Unless you address your gap, it can become glaring as you face pressure points or when you try to move up to a more senior level. 

My natural style was the instinctual thinker, who went with quick, emotional gut instincts, who also had task-master abilities to get things done. With experience, I learned to slow down and add the strategic thinking style at the more senior levels. I will admit to a blind spot on the consensus socializer. And, I was a driver-type leader, but with a lower EQ, unable to observe or hear the personal objections of others, especially coming from the other functional areas. 

Where is your natural style, and where is your gap? How can you maneuver from one style to the next? 

changing brain speeds

Situational Leadership

Use the right style at the right time

In my Beloved Brands book, I introduced my ThinkBox concept, which I have borrowed from sports. For instance, in golf, using the ThinkBox forces you to assess the overall situation you face as you consider everything you are facing before taking the shot. Look at any lakes or bunkers in the way, the distance, wind condition, or how well you are playing that day. Then, decide on your shot strategy. 

As you move to a PlayBox, visualize the ideal shot, think and feel your way through the mechanics of your swing, and trust you are making the right shot. Do not over-think the strategy during your execution. In golf, thinking while swinging is a sure-fire way to end up in the lake you are trying to avoid.  

Start with a strategic thinking style, with interruptive questions to dig in and assess your brand’s core strength, the brand’s relationship with consumers, competitive activity in the marketplace, and the business situation you face. Next, turn your thinking into the best strategic questions that will lead to smarter, creative marketing solutions.

From strategy to execution

Once you see the creative solutions, you move to the Execution PlayBox, using your instincts and gut-feel to think and feel your way to a decision. As you have the decision, you now shift to a consensus socializer style, as you need to sell your ideas throughout the organization. Finally, after gaining approval, you become the taskmaster who gets it done by staying organized, hits key milestones, and pushes people to deliver. As in the golf analogy, avoid revisiting your strategy while you are on your final swing.

Strategic Thinking

Strategic Thinkers see questions before they look for answers

Ever hear someone say, “That’s a good question?”  It usually means someone has just asked an interruptive question, designed to slow everyone’s thinking, so they reflect and plan before they act. 

The strategic thinking side of marketing is logical and has to map out a range of decision trees that intersect, by imagining how events will play out in the future. Use logic to separate through the options, never getting too emotionally attached to an answer. 

The trick to being strategic is to think slowly with strategy. 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. 

On the other hand, the risk of being only strategic is that, if you think too long, you may spiral around, unable to decide. Moreover, you may miss an opportunity window. Don’t be the smart guy who never gets anything done.

Five ways to slow your brain down to think more strategically

  1. Find your own thinking time. My best thinking never happens when I am at my desk or stuck in a meeting. Change your pace by going for a walk at lunch or a drive to get away from it all. There is proof that performing routine tasks like gardening or working out will free up the thinking part of your brain.  
  2. Organize your week to fit your thinking pace. Start the week with quick updates on Monday to clear your mind for the rest of the week. Our jobs get in the way of thinking time. You can block off a few hour-long “thinking meetings” with yourself, and focus the hour on one problem at a time.
  3. Do the deep thinking before it gets to a decision point. Always be digging deep into the analytics to stay aware, prepare yourself, no matter your level. Summarize every data point into a key issue question. 
  4. Be the one who asks the best questions. Too many marketers try to impress with the best answers. Next time, stump the room with the best questions to slow your team down and force them to think.
  5. Proactively meet your cross-functional teams. Listen to their problems as they bubble up, rather than wait for a pressure point where emotions can escalate into conflict. Emotions can get in the way of logic. Once you hear the issues, you can go back with logical solutions, so you both win.

Marketing Execution

Instinctual Thinkers inspire executional greatness

I believe the best brands win because of the passionate and lasting love they have established with their most cherished consumers. It is the smart, creative marketing execution that consumers see and touch, whether it is an innovative product, engaging advertising, exceptional service, or the overall experience with the brand. 

As the brand leader, when you see new ideas coming from your team, the first thing you should ask is, “Do you love it?” as the first filter for what makes great work. Great brand leaders can never settle for O.K. Each time you reject O.K., the work naturally gets better. It will make your expectations higher. When you love your work, you will fight for it, with your agency, your boss, or anyone in the way. 

On the other hand, if you do not love the work, how can you ever expect your consumers to love your brand? Your experts will see your passion shining through. The best instinctual leaders use their gut-instincts to inspire creativity and judge which ideas will work. They move fast, using their impulsive and intuitive gut feel. They choose emotion over logic.

Use your fast brain

While you should go slowly on strategy, you should think quickly with execution. When you first see an idea, use your fast-twitch brain muscles to pick the winner and reject the bad ideas. Think and feel your way to a decision, then follow through by trusting your gut feeling. Do not overthink and second-guess yourself, or you risk destroying the creativity.

Brand management jobs are challenging and can suck the creativity out of us. You run from meeting to meeting, one minute it’s a forecasting meeting, then talking with a scientist about a new ingredient, or working on a presentation for management. All of a sudden, you jump into a creative meeting and can’t find your instincts. I see many brand leaders show up in a confused state, unable to lead the process and incapable of making a creative decision.

I created a gut instincts checklist to help get you back to where you should be. 

Relax. Smile. Have fun. The gut instincts checklist forces you to explore your passion for the idea, because “do you love it?  is the ultimate bar for an idea to pass. Then, make sure it delivers the strategy you have been working on for months. 

Put yourself in the consumer’s shoes, and think whether the work will motivate them to act whether you want them to see, think, do, or feel differently than before they saw the work. Use your common sense, to make sure the idea breaks through the clutter of the market, is a fit with the brand, communicates the main message, and will it stick in the minds and hearts of consumers? Finally, will you be proud of this work? Pride goes beyond passion because the best marketers I have seen want to leave a legacy of outstanding work. 

Five ways to speed up your brain to use your instincts to their fullest

  1. Focus on your first impressions. Do you love what the marketing execution work has the potential to do? Does it match the creative brief? Will you be proud of this work as your legacy? Do not take notes at a creative meeting. When you focus on details early on, you miss out on how big the idea will be.
  2. Put yourself in the shoes of the consumer. Your job is not to represent the brand to the consumer, but to represent your consumer to the brand. Learn who they are, observe how they talk, respond, and act. Try to react and think as they might. Make sure the marketing execution work speaks directly to the consumer target by leveraging consumer insights to connect, deepen our bond with our consumers and builds memories and rituals. 
  3. Make sure the marketing execution fits with the brand and distinguishes it in the marketplace. To start, make sure it delivers the brand idea, leverages your creative assets, and fits with the tone of the brand. Know the functional or emotional benefits that will motivate consumers and be ownable for the brand.
  4. Find the magic within the smart, creative marketing execution. Make sure it will be different enough to capture attention within the clutter, engage consumers with the brand, and the brand a significant part of the work. Focus on communicating the main benefit in a way that is easy for consumers to understand and motivating enough to move consumers to think, feel, or act. 
  5. Stay in the moment. Relax, smile, have fun, stay positive. If you get too tense, stiff, serious, you will negatively impact the team. Do not come up with concerns that are not there. While you need to be smart, don’t cast every possible doubt that can destroy the creativity of the idea.

Consensus Socializers align everyone who works on the brand

While we don’t make the product, we don’t sell the product or create the ads, we do touch everything that goes into the marketplace and we make every decision. All of our work is done through other people. 

Our greatness as a brand leader has to come from the experts we engage, so they will be inspired to reach for their own greatness and apply it to our brand. Brand management has been built on a hub-and-spoke system, with a team of experts surrounding the generalist brand leader.

Consensus socializers are able to move ideas and projects through an organization. These consensus socializers move slowly, use their emotional instincts, staying aware of what others think. You need a high EQ, to listen, maneuver and gain alignment across a complex organization. Regardless of strategy or execution, without alignment, you could run into road blocks that halt any progress on the brand. 

As the brand leader, you must work with those experts in every function in the organization, as well as the partners outside your company that support the brand. 

There is nothing worse than the no-it-all brand manager who overrides their functional experts on the team. 

Early in my marketing career, I realized I can learn more from the functional experts than what I could ever learn from my boss. As I moved up, before I entered a meeting with these experts, I would remind myself I was the least knowledgeable person in the room. I also learned every expert wanted me to make the decision. It takes a unique skill to be able to inspire, challenge, question, direct and decide, without any expertise at all.

In terms of socializing the work, you must sell in your ideas to gain alignment and approval. As you push for marketing work that is smart and different, the best ideas will meet the most resistance from those in your organization, who find comfort in doing the “same old thing” that worked before. From my experience, any idea that easily sails through the approval stages normally bombs in the marketplace. Yet, every great idea I was ever part of needed the biggest fights to gain approval. 

Five ways to be better with a consensus socializer leadership style

  1. Use probing questions to help you understand. Take a helicopter style to ask your experts to explain the what, why, and how to help you dig deeper into the details until you feel you have enough information, then move back up to the surface level with a summary conclusion that allows you to make a decision. 
  2. Tap into the motivations of your experts. While you are trying to grow your brand, your sales leaders need to manage their relationship with their channel customer, your supply chain manufacturing partners wants low forecasting errors and efficient production, and your ad agency needs to keep their creative team motivated. Instead of running into a conflict of objectives, try to find an alignment where you both win.  
  3. Ask everyone to give their best. When you elevate the importance of an expert’s work on the overall outcome of your brand, you will tap into their personal pride in delivering greatness on your behalf. To me, tapping into pride is one of the greatest motivators you can use. Everyone wants to do a great job. Your role as the brand leader is to enable greatness. 
  4. Sell in your work. My gap with the consensus socializer style was the belief that the best answers were obvious to everyone. That’s not true. As the brand leader, you must always be selling to convince everyone in the organization to follow you. You must sell ideas into your boss, who many times will gravitate to the safe, and trusted direction. Where possible, use facts. Where not, use conviction. It will work.  
  5. You make the decisions. The best experts advise, but will never decide on your behalf. They want you to be the one to make the decision.  

Task Masters use project management to make things happen

At the heart of being a successful task master is the realization there is a business to run. Without staying focused on the end goal, your strategic thinking and creative instincts can end up wasted, resulting in missed opportunities. Task masters stay in control to get things done, keep projects on time and on budget. 

To stay in control, you must be organized and understand how each milestone impacts the other. You can never lose sight of the end goal, efficiently knocking down roadblocks, to keep everyone else on track with time and budgets.

When you overly rely on the task master style, you can destroy the deeper thinking and creativity in the name of hitting the deadline. You can end up with hollow thinking,  with OK creativity and OK business results.

For every chosen marketing activity, your project plan should list the specifics around the project owner, support team, project budget, goals, milestones, and hurdles. When you have a team running your brand, these project plans are a very efficient way to manage your people and ensure the specific projects remain on track. This format sets up regular check-in meetings with your staff to keep every project moving towards completion.

Five ways to be a use a task master style to make it happen

  1. Set high standards for you and the team. Lead by example in how you hold yourself to the highest standers, and hold your team to consistently high standards of work in analytics, strategic thinking, planning and the execution of your brand’s advertising, innovation, sales and delivering the consumer experience.
  2. Be the process leader. Organize, challenge and manage the processes so your team can focus on thinking, planning and executing. Guide the team to get things done on time. on budget and on forecast.
  3. Team leadership. Provide your team with a vision to focus everyone, inspire each team member in a highly personal way, and stay actively engaged to help each team member achieve what they need to do.
  4. Hit every deadline. Never look out of control or sloppy. Marketers have enough to do; missing deadlines means things just stockpile up on each other. In brand management, there are never any extensions; just missed opportunities.
  5. Know the leadership style of each team member. When you are in a team situation, try to recognize the natural styles of each of your team members. Make sure the team is well balanced, to ensure someone is the thinker, someone has intuition, someone can socialize the ideas throughout the organization, and someone is the task master.

As a brand leader, you need to maneuver to the right leadership style for the right moment

Strategic Thinking

Read how marketers can improve their strategic thinking skills

Strategic thinking skills force you to look your brand’s core strength, the tightness of the bond you have with your consumers, the level of competitive rivalry, and the business situation your brand is facing.

The reality is that you need to be a strong strategic thinker to go beyond the manager level. You will be held back if your ideas are not strategic enough. Yet in my 20 years of brand management, no one ever talked to me about what it means to be strategic or how being strategic shows up in the job. It always feels like judgment without explanation.

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