There was a time, not so long ago, when category and brand managers roamed freely through organisations, defining brand strategy, setting brand goals, and managing brand initiatives. Long considered a coveted role in organisations, wielding immense power, straddling huge responsibilities and providing high job satisfaction, the role has lost some of its sheen in recent years.
So, what brought about this new world order? The explosive growth of the last two decades dramatically changed the structure of organisations. New geographies got added. Product lines grew. The sales, distribution, and retail environment became more sophisticated. New ways to reach consumers emerged, spawning new specialist marketing roles in-house, as well as expanding the partner agency networks. Each created a matrix of overlapping roles and responsibilities thereby constraining the generalist role of the traditional brand manager.
As new geographies got added, so did new marketing roles. A common practice amongst telecom companies is to have a 'corporate brand head' at the head office and a 'circle brand head' at the circle level. Similarly, global organisations follow the practice of a 'global brand director' and a 'country brand director or manager'. Though some organisations such as Reckitt Benckiser have tried to bring some clarity by defining the global brand roles as being responsible for initiatives that have a three-year or longer horizon, while country specific roles carry the P&L responsibility in addition to executing the global plans, most organisations have many grey areas with respect to the overlapping roles.
Again, as organisational perspectives changed from the 'five-year planning cycle' to the 'quarter by quarter sales approach', the relative importance of sales and distribution teams has increased and so has their involvement in the brand management function. To add to this, new sales channels that bring the sales teams closer to the consumer have emerged. Take any leading FMCG company today, be it HUL, ITC, Dabur, or Marico. They have all entered the branded retail segment with company-owned stores and are also aggressively pursuing different models for online sales. What this means is that the traditional approach of marketing being responsible for the end-consumer and sales/distribution being responsible for the channel no longer holds true. Sales teams, too, are directly responsible for the end-consumer experience and brand choice at the point of purchase. A whole new set of designations such as 'retail brand manager' and 'product brand manager', or 'online brand manager' and 'offline brand manager' have emerged, prompting one to often ask, "Will the real brand manager please stand up?"
To add to this is the increasing element of 'technology' in the marketing function with the advent of digital, social, analytics, CRM, IoT, etc. This has resulted in a growing ambiguity in the roles and responsibilities between the IT and marketing teams for technology-driven brand initiatives. Even within the marketing function, the areas of specialisation have exploded with digital, social, CRM, and content functions, to name a few, being added. The structure within marketing teams often has these new roles as 'central functions' supporting different brand managers. In some organisations, new verticals organised under the 'chief digital officers', or 'chief content officers' have emerged out of the scope of the marketing department.
While these structures are well-intended to bring the much-needed attention and specialisation to these increasingly critical roles, they have further constrained the traditional role of the brand manager. And finally, not only has the number of agencies that brand managers have to work with increased exponentially with digital, social, mobile, advocacy, experiential, and content, the average level and experience of agency resources dedicated to brands have come down due to margin pressures and heightened competition amongst agencies, adding further dissonance to the life of the brand manager.
The result? Today's brand managers have been largely reduced to brand coordinators, weaving their way through multiple levels and departments in their organisations and participating in endless discussions, approvals, and reviews. More importantly, when brands don't achieve their goals, the brand manager (sorry, coordinator) is normally the person left holding the crying baby. There is no doubt that reducing a 'strategic long -term function' to a largely 'tactical one' is costing organisations big, and organisations need to address this urgently to build brand equity and value. The key question is, what can organisations do about it in a scenario where increasing complexity and faster growth is a given for any organisation?
In the short term, organisations need to take a re-look at the structure, identifying overlapping roles and responsibilities both within the marketing teams, as well as cross functionally. Reducing the number and level of people that the brand manager needs to work closely with to get brand initiatives off the ground is a much-needed first step. Departments/functions need to have one-point contacts for brand and marketing initiatives that then manage the activity within their departments. For example, if the brand manager is getting a new website developed for the brand, while the responsibility for the web strategy and end-consumer experience is his, he should not have to attend every meeting or review with all levels of the internal and external technology teams until it sees the light of day. To the extent possible, even within the internal marketing teams, the responsibilities and reporting relationships of the brand manager and those of other functional specialists such as content managers or social media managers need to be well-defined and documented.
In the long term, organisations need to ask themselves if their brand managers have what it takes to deliver the goods in today's environment. Are they great at networking? How good are their negotiation skills? How do they respond to ambiguity? How good are their interpersonal skills? Hiring right by including these skills as necessary in prospective brand managers would go a long way in ensuring brand managers continue to win the 'battle for the brand'. Assessing the current skill sets of low and high performing brand managers in the organisation will also help companies define the attributes that their most successful brand managers display. Knowledge sharing and skill enhancement workshops to help develop these must-have skills will significantly improve the environment and performance of brand teams. In our experience, organisations that have conducted 'common brand language workshops' amongst cross-functional teams that are engaged in brand-led initiatives have shown results by creating a more integrated, productive, and value-adding environment for brand teams and the organisation as a whole. This has brought about a common understanding and alignment amongst these team members, thereby delivering better results.
It's time organisations invest in clearly defining the roles and responsibilities of their brand managers, so that they can focus on the battle for brand share rather than the internal battle for the brand.
(The author is managing partner at BrandStory Consult, a brand strategy and content marketing consultancy)