BATAVIA, Ohio (AdAge.com) -- Managing a brand has always been a slightly odd concept, given that consumers are the real arbiters of brand meaning, and it's become increasingly outmoded in today's two-way world. That's why a new report is going to recommend changing the name "brand manager" to "brand advocate," and fundamentally changing marketer organizations in response to the onset of the digital age.
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The report, due out next week from Forrester, finally puts the onus on marketers to change their structures -- a welcome conclusion for media owners and agencies who keep hearing how they should change, but often complain that their clients have done little to shift their organizations to cope with an increasingly complex world of media fragmentation and rising retailer and consumer power.
The new "brand advocates," as Forrester suggests renaming the role, will be seemingly more powerful and consumer-centric, much nimbler, and more real-time-oriented than the brand manager of today -- and they will be a lot more opportunistic in creating media partnerships, and a lot less loyal to their agencies.
Among the specific recommendations in its report, "Adaptive Brand Marketing: Rethinking Your Approach to Branding in the Digital Age," Forrester suggests "brand advocates" be responsible for rapid adaptations of global brand platforms and programs, charging centralized global brand strategists with ensuring what local managers do conforms with the brand equity and strategy. It also advocates ditching the formal annual budgeting process and upfront media-specific allocations in favor of frequently updated, on-the-fly plans that adapt quickly as conditions change and money earmarked upfront for initiatives, not specific media.
Forrester recommends giving market research and analytics, dubbed "consumer intelligence" in the report, a much more prominent and central role, while focusing more on newer "predictive modeling" providers than on historical marketing-mix models to target spending.
The report also finds that "brand advocates" should shift emphasis from long-term external "partnerships" with agencies to rapidly shifting alliances with media and other content creators, and it says companies need to bring in-house some of the planning, research and creative functions they've outsourced in the past.
It also advocates recognizing the brand isn't the only organizational structure that's important for multibrand companies, but that structures aimed at marketing to demographic or other segment cohorts are equally important. And it also maintains that marketing executives should think less about anchoring annual plans around one or two big hits and more about doing many smaller things quickly and adapting based on real-time consumer feedback and other data.
Executives of big marketers Procter & Gamble and Unilever note that they're already doing much of what Forrester recommends. The global brand strategist/local brand advocate breakdown, for instance, resembles how they and other big household and personal-care marketers already organize.
P&G recently started organizing its beauty business along male and female lines rather than product groupings and is preparing to organize other divisions around different customer cohorts, too. And Global Brand-Building Officer Marc Pritchard pointed to such multibrand programs as My Black Is Beautiful for African-American women and BeingGirl for teen girls as examples of marketing to consumer groups rather than individual brand consumers.
Likewise, Mr. Pritchard said budget flux has become something of a way of life, too. "The volatility of the marketplace," he said, "has really caused us to have to look at things on a monthly minimum, sometimes [on a] weekly and daily basis. Digital gives you even more flexibility in your spending, but even TV is now being much more flexible on when you can spend."
In an e-mail, Unilever CEO Paul Polman compared his company's global brand directors more to orchestra directors than traditional managers, who are, in turn, more open to different types of partnerships. "Maybe the most extreme example of this is to be found in consumer-generated content, where we have invited consumers to develop communications for Omo and Vaseline as a complement to those generated by the company, and in the case of Peperami, we have even dispensed with the agency in favor of exclusively 'crowdsourced' content.
"However well traditional advertising agencies read the signals and recognize the need for radical change in their capabilities," he said, "few agencies can address all the communications needs of a brand. ... This is making the management of agencies increasingly complex, and raises challenging questions on how best to measure the value added by the respective partners and consequently how to manage remuneration."
Web-enabled consumer intelligence may be one of the biggest benefits of social media for marketers, Mr. Polman said. It's not clear that means a stronger role for research, he said, but "harnessing the power of the net can often render new forms of traditional research (such as advertising pretesting) that are faster and cheaper. And, again [as with ad agencies], it is not always the traditional research agencies that are first to pioneer new methodologies."
Forrester analyst Lisa Bradner, principal author of the report, hopes for marketers to move away from what she calls the "magic eight ball" approach of keeping research staff out of the loop except to periodically answer questions.
Many researchers and analysts would no doubt welcome such a move, but Rex Briggs, CEO of research firm Marketing Evolution, isn't sure changing structures or roles is the answer, as opposed to changing the people, specifically marketers who lead the effort.
He believes marketers in the digital age need to be more "numerate," with more training in research and analytics even if they still rely on staff for help. Marketers today need to balance art and science, he believes, not unlike architects, musicians or cinematographers.
It's not yet clear that digital media in itself is important enough to marketers in many businesses to justify tearing up their organizational charts, he said. But even though no marketer gets paid today for what's going to happen in the fourth quarter of 2014, big marketers need to start changing now to be ready for then, Denuo CEO Rishad Tobaccowala said, simply because it takes at least two to three years for them to implement a structural change. Organizing around specific media makes less sense than organizing for rapid change, he said, since the future media landscape is in such flux.
Organizational behavior is still holding back change at many marketers, said Bob Gilbreath, chief marketing strategist at WPP's Bridge Worldwide and author of the new book "Marketing With Meaning."
Some of the organizations that have changed most have also changed their marketing the most, he said, pointing to Nike in its move from a heavy emphasis on TV to a much heavier reliance on digital and services and experiences for athletes. Unfortunately, he said, Nike has been mum on exactly how it's rearranged the organization.
Key to any change, the former Tide brand manager said, is a return to marketing as the focus of brand management, "rather than one of six things a brand manager does."
"So much of [brand managers'] time is subsumed by internal management, and so much of the creative process and planning is outsourced to agencies and other parties," Forrester's Ms. Bradner said. Brand advocates, she said, "really need to be in charge of the heart and soul of what the brand stands for. It does move you off the generalist track to be more of a pure marketer."
What will the new model be?Denuo CEO Rishad Tobaccowala, a longtime thought leader on digital marketing, believes the brand-manager model of the future may be adapted from venture-funded startups or political campaigns than established marketers.
The growing complexities of digital marketing, social media, fragmentation and tracking all those things in real-time require bigger marketing departments, he said. Yet the reality is that big marketers generally are trimming marketing staffs or looking to squeeze more productivity from them at what he believes is the worst possible time.
"You have this tsunami of challenges and opportunities at the same time you have a low water mark for staffing and resources," Mr. Tobaccowala said.
Venture-backed startups lack that big-company imperative to grow earnings twice as fast as sales, so are more likely to staff and organize as the job requires. But he also believes political campaigns -- which run on rapid iterations, real-time data monitoring and full recognition of the interplay between public relations, social media and advertising -- may provide another model for the future of marketing organizations.