7 things business school doesn’t teach you about being an Associate Brand Manager

Reposted from July 8, 2019.

University teaches you how to think, but does it teach you how to “do”?

Every graduating class of business school has a batch of students eager to launch their career in brand management. These students take brand management electives, join their industry association at university and have coffee chats with multiple people actually doing the job. I know this because I was one such student. My efforts worked, as I received an offer to join as an Associate Marketing Manager at General Mills while I was still completing fourth year. Except, I still wasn’t totally clear on what my role would be.

Now, having graduated from university and completed almost a year in brand management, I’ve learned there are many dimensions to this role that can only be learned on the job. Some prior knowledge and preparation in these areas can set graduates up for success or at least provide necessary context as they embark on this career.

Back Up – What the heck is brand management anyway?

Here’s a quick 411 on what brand management is. Yes, I work in marketing. No, I do not create advertisements (although I am still creative when I need to be).

Associate Marketing Managers (also known as Associate Brand Managers or ABMs) are typically brand owners at Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) companies. In the broadest sense, they are general managers of a business – but the business is a brand, such as Cheerios or Yoplait. The ABM, their manager, and the business unit director, are accountable for achieving the brand’s business objectives of sales, volume and profit while also stewarding the brand in the right direction for the long term. 

There are 3 main elements to an ABM’s role.

1)   Innovation: Everything related to the commercialization of a new product.

The ABM works with a cross-functional team made up of finance, operations, R&D counterparts etc. to identify new product concepts and bring them to market. Each new product innovation (NPI) will translate into a project that an ABM will ultimately lead – all the way from concept to execution.

2)   Consumer Campaigns & Brand Building: Everything related to driving brand relevance and meaning for consumers.

This includes growing brands through consumer campaigns across TV, Digital, Social, Public Relations, Influencers and Partnerships. Note here that ABMs don’t do any of the creative stuff – rather, they brief agencies on their business objectives and it is the agency that actually executes the programs.

3)   Business Management: Anything that doesn’t fall into 1) or 2) above.

Just like any entrepreneur, ABMs deal with a variety of issues on the base business – such as a cost-saving project that affects the entire portfolio or crisis management if a plant can’t schedule all the necessary production. ABMs are also responsible for monitoring competitors and market data to ensure that their brands and products are still positioned for success.

Here are seven insights that I would like to share about the role of an ABM.

1. Brand Managers are the final gatekeepers of strategy.

Brand Managers own the strategy of a business and are accountable for safeguarding that strategy. This is especially true for ABMs, who are the front-line soldiers of the brand interfacing with the cross-functional team. And if you think your only resistance will come from your competitors, think again. You will face questions from your cross-functional team about a brand’s strategy, and it will be your responsibility to defend that strategy and inspire the team. Every function has their own priorities but brand managers are the only people fully accountable for a brand’s strategy and long term vision.

2. Don’t be afraid to challenge your agency.

Is your agency proposing a tactic to acquire new consumers, when your brand’s strategy is actually to increase buy rate with your existing consumers? As you manage your budget, you need to do a sniff test on your agency’s recommendations and tactics. Ultimately, you are accountable for achieving your business goals through your consumer campaigns – not your agency. Don’t assume that agencies are always crystal clear on your strategy. So, ask lots of questions to ensure that your brand dollars are working as hard as you are.

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3. Brands are built through consumer dollars, not trade dollars.

Remember the old saying? “Anybody will buy your product, at the right price!” This is not entirely true.

Let’s look at a quick example. Say your goal is to acquire new consumers and you have $20,000 to spend. You could invest your $20,000 (consumer dollars) in a sampling program with a targeted social media campaign to get new consumers. Or you could fund a lower price point at a customer (trade dollars) and get new consumers through discounting. As an ABM, you need to recommend how to allocate this investment based on your strategy.

While dropping price may drive sales, this is not how you build great brands. Investing in trade dollars is like heroin. Once you start, you can’t go back. Promoting products through deep discounting only serves to train consumers to buy your product when it is on sale. It then becomes a challenge to convince those same consumers to buy the product at its original price. What grows brands into meaningful icons is consumer investments and purpose-driven campaigns. Just look at Apple and Lululemon – two examples of companies with high consumer loyalty, remarkable marketing campaigns and a proposition that certainly doesn’t win on price-value.

4. Be curious about the data and tell stories with it.

In university, we’re often coached to find the “right” answer or number – but in the CPG world, your data is only as meaningful as the story it tells. As an ABM, you’ll need to sift through arrays of complex data (such as Nielsen) and frame it in a story to your audience about why it matters. Translating data into a digestible format on slides (or even succinct emails) is critical in order to convey key, actionable insights from the data you’ve analyzed.

Data integrity is also crucial. Even if you have the data, do you trust it? If a sales manager is forecasting demand that is 25% higher than your current trend, do you really think this is accurate, or are they being overconfident? In this role, numbers are not black and white and ABMs need to be able to question, interpret and convey data in a meaningful way.

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5. Your work will have a ripple effect on the entire business team.

In the CPG industry, marketing is the “hub” of all business. All business activity – whether it’s a new product launch or a discontinuation – is driven by the ABM. Marketing is the function that will trigger work for the entire cross functional team, asking for time, resources and money from the company. As such, when an ABM makes a decision, it is akin to dropping a rock in a pond and creating a ripple effect for the broader team. Therefore, you need to be mindful when kicking off projects and ensure that there is strategic intent behind generating work for the rest of the team. In this way, ABMs are not only accountable for their own work – but also accountable for prioritizing work for their teams and ensuring that their team is only working on what matters.

6. Processes are slow, so you need to move fast.

Good is the enemy of great, but great shouldn’t be the enemy of done.

In university, we’re taught that more effort leads to a better report, presentation and grade. However, in industry, time is of essence and so is the notion of being agile and moving quickly. Even if everything in a project goes perfectly, it will still take 9-12 months to launch a product. ABM’s simply cannot afford to be the bottleneck. You need to make the most of your time to quickly make progress on projects, make decisions and pivot when necessary. For perfectionists out there, this will be your biggest challenge. You need to accept that often there is just not enough time in the day to do everything exceptionally. To be successful, effort needs to correspond to the level of importance of the task. 

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7. Cultivate great mentors who will have your back.

In the real world, success is measured very differently than in university. There are no final exams, grades or courses that end after 13 weeks. An ABM is being observed, assessed and evaluated day in, day out by managers and cross functional teams. In order to advance in your role, you need genuine mentors who will be upfront about your development opportunities but also remind you of your strengths. The best mentors will want to see you succeed as an individual, within and beyond your current role. Some of your most constructive feedback will come from coaching sessions with your manager. So, prioritize the professional relationships and take ownership of your career development. It’s always busy and time can fly by in this industry, but also remember to thank your manager along the way and show your appreciation.


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