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What Makes a Good Brand Manager Good?

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Summary: A good brand managers have an anti-gravitational ability to keep balls in the air as well as an innate ability to think like a consumer and an inherent ability to filter out the unimportant and take action on what’s left!

What Makes a Good Brand Manager Good?

When you were a senior in college, perhaps you wasted 50 bucks like I did, on a series of career tests to tell you your interests, your capabilities and what you ought to do for a living. If you took these tests, you’ll recall the typical results: You hate detail; you’d be a terrible clerk; a miserable librarian; a mediocre book salesman but one hell of an explorer.

In the days when I took the career tests, brand management, as such, didn’t exist as a career opportunity—so I'll never officially know if I'm cut out for this kind of work. After a decade in brand operations, however, I'm convinced that certain personal traits are frequently associated with good brand managers. Here's my list of personal qualities needed most:
  • An obsessive fascination with marketing strategy: A kind of addiction that makes you want to talk shop even when you're nowhere near the shop. I have a friend at a major food company whose wife tears him apart because every time they get together with another brand manager and his wife, the husbands end up discussing the relative merits of one brand strategy vs. another while the wives converse weakly about recipes as a sort of defense mechanism. Back when the husbands were classmates at a "well known eastern Business School,” they had to discuss cases each night to survive in class the next day. The difference is that now, these husbands are successful brand managers, and they only discuss marketing problems for one reason: the love of it. 
  • An ‘id’ involvement in your brand: An uncanny subconscious whirring of the wheels in your head that makes you keep reviewing, analyzing, grappling with a pressing brand problem until you've discovered a solution that satisfies you. How many times have you awakened at 3 a.m. in a cold sweat—with a “brand" thought in your head? What makes you worry so about your brand? You don't know. But you wonder what those creatures are like who "leave their problems in the office at 5.” 
  • Genuine Creativity: You probably can't draw a straight line, and you certainly can’t write purple prose. But you are still more creative than your 50 best friends. Because you have the talent for coming up with unique, untried answers to problems faced by your brand. Creative example: A brand manager at a major proprietary company was faced with an ever increasing number of consumer complaints that the mouthwash he worked on "foamed too much.” Shortly, thereafter, his brand’s advertising strategy was changed to something like this: "Works against bad breath better because it has a unique visible detergent activity to clear away the cause of bad breath.” The ability to turn a lemon into lemonade each day is the kind of creativity the job demands. 
  • An anti-gravitational ability to keep balls in the air: You may rely on your secretary for organization; lean on your follow-up system; use your marketing plan like an operations manual; or simply carry it all in your hat. The fact is you do control the progress of 50 to 100 projects at any one time with the aplomb of a master juggler. Your boss says of you: No one knows what's happening on this brand better than you do. And you know something? He’s right!
  • An unscratchable, subsurface itch that makes you question both what is and what isn’t: You're hard to satisfy. Cost sheet increases bug you until you know why. Negative manufacturing variances demand an explanation. Out-of-stocks make you write memos. You keep asking yourself: Is there a way to improve your product, your advertising, your distribution, your consumer image. The itchy feeling never leaves you. 
  • A “thing" about people: You’re not a politician, people just mean a lot to you. That’s why you send a note to the agency thanking them for an outstanding presentation even though you know it’s their job to make outstanding presentations. It's not that you’re casting bread upon the water and expecting a miracle in return. It's not that, as a brand manager, you recognize you're dependent on the efforts of about 60 people in Purchasing, Forecasting, R&D, Market Research, etc.—none of whom report to you— all of whom, however, can make your life easier or more difficult. It's not a case of manipulating people, a skill picked up in a course in "Human Resources." When you boil it all down, the essential thing is this: people are the fun part of your job. You appreciate and respond to it and them. 
  • An innate ability to think like a consumer: The smartest group brand manager I ever met prefaced his reaction to a new commercial I showed him something like this: “If I had my hair up in curlers, and the baby turned over the dog’s water bowl and the cord on the iron was so loose that the iron hummed and caused funny lines on the TV set, and the commercial before yours showed how to turn Jelly into an exotic dessert in just three minutes... well then your commercial just doesn't talk to me.” My group brand manager’s ability to transport himself on a moment's notice from the eleventh floor of a glass and steel tower in an ultra sophisticated city to the faded pink kitchen on a tree-shaded street in a town with one movie theater was phenomenal. Most of us work harder to put ourselves in the kitchen. Whether you have natural or trained empathy, you feel in consumer terms and your business decisions reflect this special kind of feeling. 
  • An inherent ability to filter out the unimportant and take action on what’s left: Either by analysis or gut feel, the best of us has a talent for deciding between the "grey's” that are critical; the grey's we can ignore. It’s a knack like the Hans Christian Andersen princess who could feel the pea through 20 mattresses; an innate aptitude for deciding what is essential and acting accordingly. I know a poor group brand manager who invariably isolates the critical factors in the greyest of situations but who is afraid to make decisions based on them. I know another fair brand manager who is always decisive, but rarely selects the right facts to make his decisions on. Sometimes I wish I could trade in these two Jack Sprat characters for one brand manager who picks the meaty facts and is willing to stick his neck out on the course of action these facts lead him to.

How Many Qualities Make for Success?

I listed eight. You may disagree. Would seven do? Or six? Candidly, I've known guys to succeed to higher corporate positions with three or four. The difference has usually been political savvy, which is a different ball game. The point is this: Having all eight won't guarantee success. However, I'm convinced all eight will enable a brand manager to make the greatest contribution to his brand. At the same time, if he has all eight qualities, he'll know it, because he'll never question whether he would have liked another career better than brand management. The job and the man are right for each other.
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