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Welcome Aboard the Brand Assignment Merry-go-round

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Summary: Brand managers, by nature, are eager to analyze the businesses they pilot, and make whatever changes are required to maximize profit long term. The more brand managers, the more changes. It's natural.

Welcome Aboard the Brand Assignment Merry-go-round
Several months ago I had lunch with a brand manager friend who has worked for five years with one of the largest food marketers in the world. (You know the one: it's located in a pentagon-like building overlooking U.S. 287.) My friend was a nervous wreck. Tapped the table like it was a bongo drum. Ordered his second martini just as his first was set down.

Since a blind man would have been unable to overlook his obviously distraught demeanor, I asked him what the hell was bugging him. To my amazement my friend responded: "I haven't had a change in brand assignments in 13 months."

Believe me, my friend was sincere in his concern. At his venerable place of employment, he hadn't been in a previous assignment longer than nine months, and now 13 months had gone by! He was afraid to ask, "Why no change?", but couldn't sleep for not knowing.

I appreciated his plight. I worked as a brand manager at one company for four years, and worked on no less than five different brand assignments (I like to think they were progressively more responsible.)

On the other hand, after I switched companies, I held the same brand assignment for three years. Based on my experience at the first company, I went through hell and back when I had been at the second company 15 months and hadn't had my brand assignment switched. I since learned to accept this status quo, however, and can think of several good reasons why I'm glad I had 36 months continuous service on the same brand.

Reasons For the Merry-Go-Round

Since the principle of frequent assignment change is obviously controversial—it is practiced avidly by some companies, and avoided assiduously by others—let's explore the pros and cons of the two diametrically opposed alternatives.

The Fresh Perspective

Within two weeks of taking over my second brand assignment (my first was really a training ground), I'd developed a list of no less than 12 major creative proposals in the areas of advertising, packaging, etc., that I felt were imperative to explore and to implement, if analysis and research proved them sound. The remarkable thing was that my predecessor hadn't explored any of these areas, despite the fact that he was a damned good man. Was I any better? No! Not at all. But I did have something he couldn't have: A fresh, unbiased outlook.

The Spiraling Road Up

My friend's experience at the Pentagon on route 287 demonstrates a second sound reason for brand-go-round: It provides a means of rewarding an aggressive group of mid-management in the absence of new titles (Group Brand Manager, etc.). At the first place I hung my hat, it was a well-known fact of life that you trained on a big brand, then piloted a small brand as soon as you'd clipped "Asst." from your business card. Thereafter, you’d be promoted from smallest to smaller to medium, large and on up. If you had the patience to wait, you'd come full circle. Jim D. waited nine years to get back to the big one. (I was in line behind Jim so I switched companies instead of brands.)

Avoiding the Sophomore Slump

During my years in brand management, I've been involved in no less than fourteen different markets. Each time I've had to start from scratch to learn size, who buys, why, where, how often, etc. Funny thing is, I've relished "going back to basics.''

The back-breaking job of relearning is regenerative for me; it probably is for most brand managers. It kind of makes your blood run faster to immerse yourself in something new and unknown, to try to make its pieces fall together in an orderly process. A friend once described the feeling when he was talking about a particular French restaurant he frequented: "I love the food... but I like it even better when I've eaten elsewhere for a while.” It's new spice that makes life. New brand assignments are that sort of spice.

Learning the Corporate Picture

By functioning on different brands—different markets, different profit situations, different production problems—you obviously begin to appreciate the diverse problems that make up the corporate picture. You're better able to prepare yourself for the next step.

As I mentioned in the previous chapter, I know a guy who always puts his brand's needs before all others in his corporation (say, in discussing corporate TV buys). "When I'm paid to think corporately, I'll think corporately," he says. Obviously his first responsibility is to his brand. On the other hand, the more brands he understands, the better able he'll be to think corporately—when and if he gets the chance.

The Challenge to Innovate

They hired you because you were not only analytical, but had a creative bent as well. They know you're the kind of person who likes new situations, new opportunities for creative expression. Let’s face it, once you've worked on the same assignment for several years, the creative challenges seem to be less frequent, and often seem to be less significant. Management recognizes your need for diversity. (Even assembly line operators are shifted periodically to keep up productivity.)

Against Brand Round Robin

Consistency Isn’t All Bad

I know a brand that had three brand managers in three years. And three very different package designs in three years. The poor consumer of this brand had trouble finding it the second time. And when she did find it, she didn’t know if the product had been changed, so she complained in a letter to the board chairman. This consumer just didn’t recognize how important it is to switch brand managers. Had she, I’m sure she never would have bitched about the confusion the manufacturer caused her.

Treading Over the Same Ground Twice

When I was little, my dad used to take me to a very wooded park to explore. He’d tell me we were the first ones ever to walk on a well trodden path. (I believed him.) As I’ve taken on new brand assignments and struggled to develop new hypotheses for evaluation, I've sometimes discovered I've been treading on ground already covered. Obviously, repeating what's been tried and rejected is an inefficient use of brain power unless different conclusions are reached. (They're usually not.) The more frequent the changing of the guard, the more likely it is for the new brand manager to rehash dis-carded hash.

Beating a Dead Horse

Several months after I began piloting a smallish proprietary brand in an equally small category, I presented to management a proposal calling for a major change in marketing philosophy. My boss was convinced my recommendation was right. His boss, the divisional VP, also agreed wholeheartedly with my recommendation, but decided to stick with the status quo. As he put it: "There's no question the course of action you propose is best for the brand long term. It’s just that we made a major strategy change on this brand only last year. My question is whether this brand can stand another change in direction so soon.”

He had a good case. The investment in package changes, formula changes, advertising change, new promotional materials, etc., required by the new strategy was sufficient to cancel out all profits for the year. So it would be hard as hell to sell corporate management on the change.

The point is this: Brand managers, by nature, are eager to analyze the businesses they pilot, and make whatever changes are required to maximize profit long term. The more brand managers, the more changes. It's natural. Nothing wrong with it, except that some businesses (particularly smaller ones) have succeeded profitably without change (and in many cases, without brand managers). In cases like this, frequent changing of the guard results either in frustration for the aggressive brand manager or jeopardizes the business. So why bother?

I heard a group brand manager argue in favor of infrequent brand assignment shifts simply because brand management changes occurred so frequently that no one was on the scene when an important event occurred three years before. Small point? Yes. But sometimes when we search the hikes for critically needed back data, I wish my predecessor, or at least his secretary, could be consulted!

Meanwhile, Back at the Pentagon

When I decided to write about the phenomenon of switches in brand assignments I called my friend at the Pentagon on U. S. 287 to see what had happened to him. He was happy as a clam in wet sand. He was no longer a brand manager. He'd been promoted to a corporate staff function involving sales promotion. The job didn't sound too hot to me, so I called a couple of his cronies. They told me he bitched so loud over a new assignment; they found a corporate job for him. He got more money but no longer had the "pilot’s” responsibility that's inherent in brand management. I was glad my friend was a few grand richer. Couldn’t help but feel, however, that in a few months' time he'd yearn for his old job back.
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