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Are Brand Managers Dead?


Ad Age today previews a report due from Forrester Research that suggests that the day of the “brand manager” is dead.

The article says the recommendation by the research firm is to think of and re-name the person in charge of managing the brand as “brand advocate.”

The suggestion reflects the age of social media, and that a brand, any brand, today is not so much “managed” as it is…advocated? by someone inside Procter & Gamble or Unilever.

With all do respect to Forrester, I think the firm still has it wrong.

With a nod to Larry Light, CEO of Arcature, and the former CMO of McDonald’s, the correct term and description for today’s brand manager is really “Brand Editor.”

[See Larry Light’s comments about “Brand Trust” in Businessweek’s recent “Best Global Brands” report.]

Light says he realized, while working at McDonald’s as chief marketing officer, that his real job was “Brand Editor.” He believed, and still does, that consumers and other forces, like the media, had too much control over how McDonald’s was perceived for him to pretend he had so much control.

He reckoned that his overall marketing scheme, which encompassed advertising, PR/Communications, franchisee communications, the Web, online forums, the start of social media, “should be treated like a magazine.” And he was the editor-in-chief.

Few people read a magazine front to back unless they are trapped on a plane, says Light. He says that his insight was that McDonald’s had to offer different audiences different “content,” not ads. But all the content needed to tie back to a central brand idea. BusinessWeek, for example, or People or Time, have different sections and a variety of content for different readers, and each story is edited, art directed and written to a brand identity and mission that make them a BusinessWeek story or People story. The same thinking, thinks Light, should be applied to a brand like McDonald’s, Chevy or Microsoft when it comes to creating brand content.

Light says that each piece of content McDonald’s puts out should reflect the “I’m Lovin’ It,” idea, but also that McDonald’s is accountable and that it is a brand that listens.

This thinking came about at a time when McDonald’s business was falling and its reputation was sinking with Moms who are the chief editors of what their families consume. McDonald’s not only changed its menu but began treating its “Brand Magazine” more like a real forum and less like an advertorial property. That’s why you saw the company engaging in issues like obesity, physical fitness, animal rights, and the environmental impact of big agriculture. And the company is not bashful about entering public conversations and debates where it knows it can’t come out smelling as good as its french fries. Take the current debate it is in over how humanely chickens are killed for their McNuggets at chicken farms: The company hasn’t figured out a way it can make the animal rights activists happy, but it stays engaged in the debate. It keeps listening.

In fact, Light, who recently co-authored a book: “Six Rules For Brand Revitalization: Learn How Companies Like McDonalds Can Reenergize Their Brands (Wharton Press), was ahead of his time as he was enacting this perspective at the fast-food chain in 2004.

He recognized as “brand editor” that consumers (aka McDonalds readers) were increasingly going to be influencing the content and overall communications of his brand. BusinessWeek, for example, only began enlisting readers in the last year to seriously influence our story selection.

In my reporting over the years, I have come to view the consumer, not the company executive, as “brand advocate.” A brand advocate is considered someone so connected to the brand that they use their own resources and voice to amplify and echo the positive aspects of the brand: i.e. someone who organizes a Harley Davidson gathering or manages a fan site.

I know “Brand Advocate” has a nice ring, but it doesn’t accurately reflect the change that should be going on at companies. Sure, I’d say the brand manager role probably is dying. Perhaps “Brand Community Organizer” would be a far more accurate descriptor, though it doesn’t sound as snappy as “Brand Advocate.

Then again, there is a man in the White House who pretty successfully leveraged “Community Organizer” into a good gig.


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