How to Be a Successful Brand Manager

Slide1After 20 years of CPG marketing, I have hired so many potentially great marketers–who were eager for success, brilliant, hard-working and dedicated.   But in reality, about 50% of Assistant Brand Managers get promoted to Brand Manager and less than 20% of Brand Managers make it to the Director level.

What separates the good from the great?  

There are two factors that I have seen in a consistent manner:  #1:  They get what they need.   #2:  What they need is the right thing to do.   Very simply put, great marketers get both.   The rest either fail on #1 or #2.  To get what you want, keep things simple and move fast to take the positional advantage.   What separates many Brand Managers is the inability to actually rely on their instincts, instead of just the textbook answer.   You get so busy, so deadline focused, so scared to make a mistake that you forget to think in a confused state of ambiguity.   It’s not easy to sit there without the answer, but sometimes if you just wait a bit longer and keep pushing for an even better answer, it will come to you.  Revel in ambiguity.   

One thing to keep in mind is the Idiot Curve.  At every new job, including Brand Manager, I find it takes 3 months to get back to being just as smart as you were on the first day.  The basic rule is: You get dumber before you get smarter.     We’ve promoted some great ABMs and watch them struggle and wonder if we made a mistake.  But the idiot curve is inevitable.   It just shows up differently for each person.  No matter how hard you fight it, you have to ride the curve.  (But, please fight through the curve, you have to for your survival)  The biggest gap is that you forget to use your instincts.  You spend so much of your time trying to absorb all that is coming at you, that you reach for the basic process instead of your brains.   You might be working on a project for weeks before you think to even look at the budget.   You work on a promotion for Wal-Mart and then think “oh ya, I should talk to the Wal-Mart sales manager and see what he thinks”.  Or you say something in a meeting you think you’re supposed to say, but it doesn’t even resemble anything that you think, feel or believe in.  That’s the idiot curve.  And it will last 3 months.   And you’ll experience it in a new and exciting way you can’t even predict.  Feel free to let me know which way so I can add it to the list.  (I won’t reveal names)

Five Factors to Being a Great Brand Manager:
  1. A great BM takes ownership of the brand.  I’ve seen many BMs struggle with the transition from being a helper to being the owner.  As you move into the job, you have to get away from the idea of having someone hand you a project list.
     Not only do you have to make the project list, you have to come  up with the strategies from which the projects fall out of.  A good owner talks in ideas in a telling sense, rather than an asking sense.  It’s great to be asking questions as feelers, but realize that most are going to be looking to you for the answers.  They’ll be recommending and you’ll be deciding.  When managing upwards be careful of asking questions—try to stick to solutions.  “I think we should build a big bridge” instead of “any ideas for how we can get over the water”.  You just gave up your ownership.  I’d rather have you tell me what you want to do, and we debate from there, rather than you ask me what we should do.  I’ll be better able to judge your logic, your passion and your vision.  You run the brand, don’t let it run you.  
  2. A great BM provides the vision & strategies to match up to.  Vision is sometimes a hard thing to articulate. It’s sometimes easy to see times when there is a lack of vision.  You have to let everyone know where you want to go.  The strategy that matches becomes the road map for how to get there.  As the brand owner, you become the steward of the vision and strategy.  Everything that is off strategy has to be rejected and your role is to find ways to steer them back on track.  It’s easy to get side-tracked by exciting programs or cool ideas, but if they are off-strategy then you’ve got to park that excitement.  The expression of the strategy through ideas is a key skill–just as important as the strategy itself.  Learn to talk in strategic stories that can frame your direction.  Learn to think in terms of pillars—which forces your hand around 3 different areas to help achieve your strategy.  Having pillars constantly grounds you back in your strategy, and is an easy way for communicating with the various functions—the people you’re dealing with may only have 1 strategic pillar that matters to them personally, but seeing the other parts makes them feel as though their work is worth it.
  3. A great BM spends the effort to make their ABM as good as can be.  If you make your ABM better, then it reflects back on you.  Too many brand managers struggle to shift from “do-er” to “coach”.  They think they can do it faster than their ABM, so they may as well do it and they do.  The ABM really hates this.  But, they think their ABM will learn the hard way, just like they did.  They struggle to share the spot light, so it becomes hard to showcase the ABM.  They are too busy trying to prove themselves.  Keep in mind that the work of your ABM reflects 100% of who you are.  This challenge forces your hand on helping to develop your ABM.  Sometimes it can feel more motivating to just talk the positive stuff.  But if the ABM job is a learning position, then you have to provide areas for improvement.  Intuitively, you’d think the BM/ABM relationship would be constant “negative feedback”, but I see too many BMs afraid of going “negative”.  You need the balance.   My question is, that if you were coaching a gymnast and their “toes weren’t straight, wouldn’t they want to know?”  Then why are you not working on a relationship where you can get to that point.  Share with them better ways for doing things—which you have learned.  Spend some time teaching from your experience.
  4. A great BM gets what they need.   The organization is filled with groups, layers, external agencies, with everyone carrying a different set of goals and motivations.  Working the system entails taking what you have learned about ownership one step further.  You understand the organizational components, and then you go get what you need.  Again communication becomes key—you can’t let missed communications cause angst or concerns.  Also, its crucial that you get the best from everyone.  I have found it useful upfront to ask everyone for their best work.  It’s a strange step, but I have found it useful.   But you have to promise them you’ll support their best work. If you really have someone that’s good, you know they’ll respond to this.  The good news is that only 0.1% of people ask them, so it’s not like they’ve heard it that many times.  And let them know if they are or aren’t there yet.
  5. A Great BM Can Handle Pressure.   Ambiguity is one of the hardest.  This is where patience and composure come into play as you sort through the issues.  The consequences of not remaining composed is likely a bad decision.   If the Results don’t come in, it can be frustrating.  Reach for your logic as you re-group.  Force yourself to course correct, rather than continuing to repeat and repeat and repeat.  Relationships.  Be pro-active in making the first move.  Try to figure out what motivates as well as what annoys them.   Most times, the common ground is not that far away.  Time Pressure.  It’s similar to the ambiguity.  Be organized, disciplined and work the system so it doesn’t get in your way.   Be calm, so you continue to make the right decisions.

Love the Magic of Marketing–let it breathe and let it come to life.

Don’t just do the job, do it with all your passion.   Love it please so we can love the work that comes from your passion.   Or else just become an actuary and let someone else take your spot please.

Love what you do.  Live Why You Do it

To read the related story on how to be a succesful Assistant Brand Manager click on this:  Beloved Brands Story on Being a Succesful Assistant Brand Manager or read the following presentation:

Other Roles You May Be Interested In
  • Assistant Brand Manager:  It’s about doing; analyzing and sending signals you have leadership skills for the future.  It’s not an easy job and only 50% get promoted to Brand Manager.  To read a story on how to be successful as an ABM, click on the following hyper link:  How to be a Successful ABM and get Promoted
  • Marketing Director:  It’s more about managing and leading than it does about thinking and doing.  Your role is to set the standard and then hold everyone to that standard.  To be great, you need to motivate the greatness from your team and let your best players to do their absolute best.  Let your best people shine, grow and push you.  Follow this hyper link to read more:   How to be a Successful Marketing Director
  • VP Marketing or CMO:  It’s about leadership, vision and getting the most from people.  If you are good at it, you won’t need to do any marketing, other than challenging and guiding your people to do their best work. You have to deliver the results, and very few figure out the equation that the better the people means the better the work and in the end the better the results. Invest in training as a way to motivate your team and keep them engaged.  Use teaching moments to share your wisdom. Read the following article for how to be a success:  How to be a Successful VP of Marketing

email-Logo copyABOUT BELOVED BRANDS INC.:  At Beloved Brands, we are only focused on making brands better and making brand leaders better.Our motivation is that we love knowing we were part of helping someone to unleash their full potential.  We promise to challenge you to Think Different.  We believe the thinking that got you here, will not get you where you want to go.  grOur President and Chief Marketing Officer, Graham Robertson is a brand leader at heart, who loves everything about brands.  He comes with 20 years of experience at companies such as Johnson and Johnson, Pfizer Consumer, General Mills and Coke, where he was always able to find and drive growth.  Graham has won numerous new product and advertising awards. Graham brings his experience to your table, strong on leadership and facilitation at very high levels and training of Brand Leaders around the world.  To reach out directly, email me at or follow on Twitter @grayrobertson1


At Beloved Brands, we love to see Brand Leaders reach their full potential.  Here are the most popular article “How to” articles.  We can offer specific training programs dedicated to each topic.  Click on any of these most read articles:

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37 thoughts on “How to Be a Successful Brand Manager

  1. Great article, Graham. Love the “Idiot Curve” and the “5 key factors of success”.
    I would add “believe in your brand” somewhere to this discussion. To have passion for your career is great, but to have it for the brand you represent – shines through. Genuine passion is contagious and provides momentum for the whole team and produces better results and more meaningful connections with your customers.

  2. Totally agree on the passion. You show up as Authentic. You know when you go into a store and move the bottles around on the store shelf, you’re passionate. When I was SBM of Listerine, I remember speaking so passionately about gum disease, someone said “you know, you’re NOT actually Listerine”

  3. Good synopsis…the challenge with brand management is the migration of a brand manager from creative/visionary to be a spreadsheet/process manager. As a brand manager in the 80’s and 90’s i found the migration of roles to be an issue. Creativity is the key to brand management. The brand manager not only needs to be the creaive guru in the room – they need to know how to translate that vision into reality. Ironcically that means a good BM not only needs to have the strategic smarts – they also need to be able to sell their vision. Hence why a good BM is worth their weight in gold.

  4. if you are not passionate about your brand, you can not excite the consumer, I am a junior product manager and I have great ambitious to pursue a career in branding!

  5. Good article! I recently read something from Seth Godin that succinctly reflects your comment about passion for the brand and for one’s job. He said the “caring is a competitive advantage.”

  6. Great article. I understand number: “They get what they need.” On number 2, “What they need is the right thing to do”, one of the things I’ve found is that there is often not just one right thing to do. Sound strategic thinking, insightful analysis as well as experience and instincts can flush out a number of “right things to do,” and many can drive success.

  7. Hi Graham…Great theory agree on the part of Idiot Curve, already felt this after shifting from one brand to other brand. For one have to love his job and to it with whole heart and should be passionate about it, not for just doing for earning some monies. Company will come and go, but you have to be the one Brand whom people should respect and you must be followed by a good and aggressive team. Who should understand your requirement just with a eye contact.

  8. Good post, Graham. I just like the fact that the Idiot Curve looks like the quirky smile of a person caught in a stupid mistake. Very reassuring words and I can attest to the curve.

  9. Hi Graham:

    Great article.

    Like you, I am a brand coach.

    Agree with what you’ve said, especially that brand managers (and directors) fail to become good coaches themselves.

    I have found it useful to show those in brand management how to answer these five common sense brand building questions. And then empower them to show their juniors how to insightfully answer these questions themselves. Once these are answered, building brands becomes as easy as riding a motorcycle.

    1. What’s the obvious emotional truth that the brand is based on?
    2. Therefore, what business is the brand really in?
    3. In which case, at whom is the brand aimed?
    4. If the brand were a person, what personality traits would attract such an audience?
    5. What’s the organizing idea that captures the essence of the brand, that the user would like to champion?

    Sumit Roy

    • Dear Summit,

      These questions sound very intuitive and meaningful yet difficult to answer, could you Plz answer them for our learning, assuming you’re a BM of Panadol.

      I would be highly grateful if you could Plz.



      • It shouldn’t be that difficult to answer.

        Panadol is not entirely global. But I will take a stab.

        Emotion: no mother wants to see their kids in pain
        business: human well being & happiness
        aim: moms
        personality: a caring doctor
        idea: trust panadol to help your kid be his happy self again.

        Realize it’s midnight, and I took all but 10 minutes for this challenge. If you can’t answer these questions, you have some fundamental problems with your brand strategy. I think brands don’t always answer it right. In which case, consumers will play that back to you. But if you don’t have a brand if you don’t at least try to answer these questions. You simply have a product. A brand is that intangible something that goes above the product, and without these answer, you simply cannot build the brand. Not saying you’ll be successful just because you have the answers, because then you have to determine the right tactics, etc.

      • Hi Rashid:

        I am sorry that I am seeing this response so late! Another response led me back to this thread.

        Fortunately, Jeannie has answered the questions well.

        Don’t know whether you will get to see this, Jeannie, but well done.

        As you see, Rashid, these questions are really easy to answer. Most Brand Managers tie themselves in knots by writing too complex a document and miss the simple building blocks of any brand.


  10. Very interesting and impactfull article particularly the idiot curve and the passion factor.

    I wish we could have interactive sessions for our emerging ABMs.



  11. Fantastic publish, very informative. I’m wondering why the opposite specialists of this sector don’t understand this. You should proceed your writing. I am confident, you’ve a great readers’ base already!|What’s Going down i am new to this, I stumbled upon this I have discovered It positively useful and it has helped me out loads. I hope to give a contribution & assist other users like its helped me. Great job.

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  13. I Will have to visit again whenever my course load lets up – however I am getting your Feed so i can read your web blog offline. Cheers.

  14. I just want to mention I am just new to blogging and site-building and honestly enjoyed this web-site. More than likely I’m want to bookmark your site . You certainly have very good articles and reviews. Regards for sharing your website page.

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  16. Excellent article Graham. Amazingly insighful into the practical problems a ABM/BM goes through on daily basis. Found myself re-reading it many tmes. Glad to see that these are issues all marketers go through at some point! and that I’m not alone. Looking forward to future posts.

  17. Thank you Graham for your great article!

    I found the ‘idiot curve’ interesting, and must embarrassingly admit I’ve experienced it. You had a lot of great points, such as your helper vs. owner of a brand, grounding pillars, and strategic stories.

    I realized that people can get too sucked into the client’s beliefs, or we get out of touch while being in our ivory towers. We sometimes forget that the brand isn’t what we are making it out to be, but what the consumer believes it to be.

    • “We sometimes forget that the brand isn’t what we are making it out to be, but what the consumer believes it to be.”

      Well said. This is the essence of why many manufacturers fail to truly connect with an audience in a meaningful way. My favorite quip to remind myself of this: people don’t buy 1/4″ drill bits, they buy 1/4″ holes. With a firm grounding in this understanding you will go far.

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