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Are Brand Managers Dead?

Posted by: David Kiley on October 12, 2009

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.

Reader Comments

Adam Dole

October 12, 2009 6:20 PM

People are in search of more meaning. Not more products and not more spam. Brands have an opportunity to serve as a platform that can connect people with similar values and beliefs to that of their own. The consumer owns your brand. "Brand advocates or brand facilitators" need to think about how their brand can connect people on a more meaningful level. Doing this will not only create a deeper level of consumer engagement, but transcend any competition attempting to compete on feature, function, or worse, price.


frank Loweser

October 13, 2009 10:24 AM

Great piece. Brand Advocate is the wrong term. I agree.

Don Mann

October 13, 2009 11:42 PM

Forrester's idea is designed to stir controversy, and thus (self-serving-buy-our-new-research-methods) attention. But it's inaccurate. Don’t get me wrong, Forrester has valued capabilities, but as a CMO, I just can’t salute such a self-serving POV.

Brand Management has ALWAYS been about listening to the customer and consumer - new technology as just brought new tools to this central business function. New methods may be an improvement in consumer insight over prior market research practices, but they are still just new methods of market research – anything short of talking to each and every single brand consumer, is merely another form of extrapolation research.

I must add, there also seems to be a related naïve new concept about customization (as a by-product of listening), as if letting the consumer determine everything is all that is required with new technology, if only tired old managers would listen and embrace the technology. Listing and customizing to fit consumer desires is definitely a point of competition, but it has (and adds) a cost to be measured in any final product or service. It is but one part of any successful strategy including considerations beyond that of the ‘Brand Advocate.’ Or put another way, for example, if the ‘Brand Advocate’ is the consumer, does the consumer name the price (even at a loss to the company)? (Note: any detailed response to the last question may identify the respondent as a brand manager, not a brand advocate.)

So, to the Brand Advocate, what about business accountability? What about operating for a profit? (A contrarian concept in the land of billions of flushed experimental VC dollars, where so very many ideas are tolerated to slide down the wall after not sticking.) Yes, we’ve all read about the ‘long tail’ and ‘crowd sourcing,’ but this new push to eliminate brand management ignores the role that brand management plays in ERM and steering profitable strategy for the entire enterprise (which is the GM/profit core to any successful business model, whether it’s practiced by a brand manager, the CEO, or Steve Jobs himself).

Consider that in a world of growing scarcity, the LUXURY of customization, after the recent economic bubble celebration, is about to collide with competitive margin pressure in business everywhere. The falling value of the dollar, will no longer mean that we can just go make (and sell) anything we can possibly dream of from China. We are soon to be served Hybrid automobiles, whether we don’t want them or not. …We are about to be taught a humble lesson that was overlooked in the recent easier economic times. As harsh and extreme summary to the point, there was a reason why Henry Ford said, “they can have any color car they want as long as it’s black.” He was trying to run a ‘profitable’ car company. …Yes, that would have made a Brand Advocate sick.

Denise Lee Yohn

October 16, 2009 10:51 PM

while i agree with the points behind larry light's recommendation, i fear the term "brand editor" suggests the role is simply about communication -- and certainly brand-building is about more than communication. that's why i prefer the term "brand operator" -- which suggests the role is to drive the operationalization of the brand throughout the organization. for brands (vs. magazines), the "content" is more than just what you say, it's what you do.


October 27, 2009 10:02 AM

I agree with Don Mann and Adam Bole.

I'm disappointed by most of the conversation around the Forrester piece.

I read it last week and frankly, based on what was within, the change in the title or role of the brand manager was the least consequential of all the points. What emerges is a wholesale disruption in how brands are planned, created, managed and monitored. The death of the "big advertising" idea. The empowerment of consumers. The increasingly self-reliant advertiser. The rise of new marketing technologies. The Brand Manager is just one person, in an entire chain of command whose roles and responsibilities are about to change on account of the above mentioned factors.

-- Axle Davids - 1day1brand

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News, opinions, inflammatory meanderings and occasional ravings about the world of advertising, marketing and media. By marketing editor Burt Helm, Innovation Editor Helen Walters, and senior correspondent Michael Arndt.

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