Product Manager or Brand Manager? It’s not your title, but what you do that defines your role

Image: iStock

Image: iStock

Take a look at how you spend most of your time each day. Regardless of your title, does your daily project list define you as a product manager, or a brand manager? We’ve found that many companies confuse the two roles, and people with the title brand manager are really serving as product managers. Getting products to the shelf is product management, getting products to leave the shelf with happy customers is brand management.

A typical division of managing a product line follows this pattern: product developers and sales teams are working on projects, and at some point in the process they ask for help to add logos and bring their tools up to graphic standards. Advertising and audience engagement is managed on its own track, independent of other business goals, until it’s time to promote a new product, then all energy goes to create support materials to execute that launch.

If your work model looks like this, then brand management has been whittled down to become graphics management. Without upstream brand involvement, you are at risk of diluting your brand position, and are often relying on retail partners to bring customers to you.

“Clove is in! Let's make pickles flavored with clove!" You’ve seen this before, someone in R&D has come up with the “next big thing”, and then starts exploring the costs to make a new variety, possibly creating a commercialization budget, too. Creating new stuff and planning to get it to the stores is product management in action.

"Can our pickle fans be clove fans, too?" Involving brand management as part of product planning starts at product conception, thinking about your target customer before you think about the next big thing. Ask about their desires first, and if the answer is a hell yeah, then get rolling on developing those clove pickles.

"How do we describe clove flavoring on our Perfect Pickles packaging?” It's easy to just let the package vendor add a new descriptor to your pickle jars. Many packaging companies give the design away for free or at minimal cost. Package design is part of brand management, and free is not without a cost to you. Packaging that misrepresents your brand means less product is leaving the shelf. Money "saved" on design will show up later as sales discounts, or returned product because you didn't set proper expectations with your shoppers.

"Gimme a sell sheet with our product, package, price, and program." Your sales reps want the tools so they can hit the street in a hurry. Good brand management ensures that all of your sales collateral presents your story well by including not just your logo and font styles, but all the intangibles (things like photography style, tone of voice, tag lines) that add value to your product line. A strong brand is able to give less away at the negotiating table.

“Want to try our new clove flavor? It’s great with chicken!” Once you've secured that coveted shelf space, things like shelf wobblers, aisle violators, product demos, coupons and bulk deals are tools that your sales manager can use to move units. Each of those tactics takes a cut out of your margin. Those fees are typically assigned the category "cost of sales,” but they are also hidden costs of brand management. A string of tactics is not a brand strategy. An effective strategy will include a communication plan that will create demand without cutting the price point.

"Hey pickle fans, try out our new clove flavor at Wegman's!" Engaging your fans, long before a product announcement, is a vital part of brand management. A social platform is not about meaningless noise, but a way to connect with people who are truly interested in your products. An active social audience is a great place to try out ideas with a fairly low cost to your company. If you are already connecting with them, use them to test your concepts. Not so sure about clove? Try polling your fans about their tastes as an active part of research. Planning a product demo? Tell your fans to stop by and try out a new flavor.

Incorporating a brand strategy holistically across all company activity will move you from product manager to a brand manager. Yes, it adds to every process, but the incremental spend on brand management across all functions can have a multiplying effect on sales. Strategic brand management can also create a level of engagement with your customers equal to the pull of your retail partner. You’ll become a stronger partner for your retail channel, and you’ll increase your bottom line.