What happened? Reengineered brand managers now handle the responsibilities of what was once the role of three or more individuals. Not surprisingly, they view their brand assignment as a much greater challenge-and the two-year "term limit" with more relief than ever. The job is increasingly complex. Mountains of data. More decisions to make. Global markets and global brands. And who would have thought that retailers would be such a vocal, powerful constituency?
But.....the change is deeper. It's a new dynamic that goes beyond business trends. In 15 years, we've seen a wholesale devaluation of creativity and intuitive reasoning in brand management. Marketers have embraced a short-term, risk-averse mentality as never seen before in the short history of brand management. True-given the current circumstances, brand managers have to prioritize. What gets their attention (and what garners reward) is the tangible, analytical part of the job-decisions that can be supported by research, facts and figures-and decisions that promise to increase the bottom line during their brief, two-year stint.
The result is an outbreak of superficial marketing maneuvers that unwittingly sap brand equity that has taken years to build. New advertising messages every two years. A new slogan on packaging. A series of in-store promotions. Today, the emphasis is on making the "safe" choice over the "right" choice-the innovative, long-term choice. I've lost count of the times I have witnessed brand managers protect the short-term downside (revenues) at the expense of the long-term upside, and the prospect of building a great brand.
Today, we are so much more comfortable with the tangible that we hesitate to address the mystery and magic at the heart of a brand-the intangible qualities that bind it to the lives of generations of consumers who use it. In day-to-day management, we are losing sight of the essence of the brand itself, which leads to its dilution and, finally, extinction.
This is surprising, given our rich heritage of creativity, innovation and "risk taking" that created a consumer revolution in America. Yes, research is critical. But creativity, instinct and intuition have always been the marks of a great marketer. These qualities lead to preemptive marketing strikes that research won't uncover until competitors are busy devising imitation strategies. (As evidenced by the new on-line culture, built without a dollar invested in research!) Unfortunately, intuition, instinct and creativity are deemed emotional skills and are definitely out of vogue among the marketing community.
It would be an injustice and an oversimplification to point the finger at brand managers. Marketers, and the brands they represent, must realize that to stake a claim in tomorrow's global market requires a new approach to planning-one that blends long-term strategic thinking with instinct, creativity and intuition. I might suggest that brand managers excel at the former, and agencies-with an objective perspective and an environment that nurtures creativity-are better equipped to deliver the latter. Together, how can we make this happen?
1. Formal training in the creative process. Brand managers, handling the day-to-day, continuously exercise the left lobe. But it's critical that they have a strong relationship with and understanding of the ideation process that links the strategy with the magic of design and communications. Reacquainting them with the creative process can often lead to better performance of their job, and a revived respect and trust for the creative experts they hire to work on their brand. It will also help reinstate the value of creativity as a desired skill-one in which management will invest "professional development" funding to cultivate.
2. New guardians for brand equities! The keepers of a brand equity flame must have longer tenure than two years. If brand manager "burnout" requires a new assignment every two years, why not establish a group solely devoted to monitoring a company's brand equity? Agencies have brand planning departments -and some packaged goods firms have established brand strategy groups that consult and advise on decisions that impact the core of the brand. In fact, GE, Quaker Oats, ConAgra and Dunkin' Donuts have recently created such groups. This is a critical commitment to strategic brand planning, which is the science and art of understanding brand equity.
3. Re-evaluate the reward system for brand managers. As long as rewards are based on short-term results, long term planning will suffer. Of course sales are critical-and should move hand-in-hand with building brand equity. However, why not reserve the best rewards for brand managers who demonstrate long-term planning and brand equity savvy that assures those revenues for years to come? Reward managers who take risks-and recognize that moving forward often means stumbling.
Business cycles are inevitable, and I suppose that also includes the use of creative energy in business. Personally, I hope that this last cycle indicates that we are on the cusp of a new surge of creative, innovative reasoning in marketing and brand management.
Mr. Williams is president-CEO of Sterling Group, a New York-based brand planning and design agency.