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Is Brand Management Regaining its Lustre?

Marketers are starting to win back the authority to deliver on their brands’ promise

The Essentials

Over his more than 30 years of teaching and consulting, Ken Wong has seen an evolution in the marketing function and the management of brands. In this first in a series of video commentaries, Wong, Distinguished Professor of Marketing at Smith School of Business, talks about how marketing has evolved from a general business practice, driven by the so-called 4 Ps, to a more specialized and limited promotional function. Marketing is now starting to come full circle, he says, and is being given greater authority to deliver on the brand’s promise.

When you consider the foundations of marketing, it was an agricultural practice: most of the concern was how to get farm products efficiently to marketplace. There was a lot of focus on the grocery industry and physical distribution. Over time, marketing became anything considered essential, beyond production, in order to consummate an exchange with the consumer.

This was captured in a ground-breaking book co-authored by Jerome McCarthy called Basic Marketing. In it, he categorized these responsibilities under four headings: product, place, price, and promotion. That became the calling card for marketers. What happened was that people took it to the extreme. Suddenly, marketing managers had this responsibility for the four Ps, and marketing management became the equivalent of general business management. If you were a young graduate interested in running a business, brand management was where you wanted to be.

Over time, however, companies started to realize that it was not the best way to organize themselves. Some areas were siphoned off and given more specialist attention. There were new product development departments, pricing departments, logistics and supply chain management departments. So much so that when IBM conducted a survey roughly 10 years ago and asked what marketers actually do, the only thing that came up consistently was promotion.

Marketing started to lose the general management lustre. Our best and brightest didn’t go into marketing; they didn’t want to run ad campaigns, they wanted to run a business. The money and opportunities were greater in consulting and investment banking, and marketing moved into the area of promotional management.

Our best and brightest didn’t go into marketing; they didn’t want to run ad campaigns, they wanted to run a business

Things are starting to turn back. If you follow the thinking of David Kincaid of Level 5, his book The Value of a Promise Consistently Kept captures the essence of what a brand represents. If you believe that, then brand management must become management of a business system. You can’t give the marketing department the responsibility for sales just on the basis of being the messenger when marketers have no hand in crafting the message. They have no hand in the physical distribution, in the pricing, or product design. Marketing may still be considered largely promotional but the marketing perspective is becoming a more general management perspective embedded in business strategy. It may not be practised by someone called the marketing manager but it is, in essence, what brand management used to be.

The change (away from general management) had to do with accountability. Consider the famous quote, “I know I’m wasting half my marketing effort. I just don’t know which half.” Perhaps you could get away with that at the time but you can’t any longer. Consumers are increasingly value and price conscious and as such you don’t have room for superfluous activity that isn’t creating value for the organization and the consumer. You see this in lean manufacturing — if you don’t need it, don’t do it because you’re adding cost you’ll ever recover from the consumer. When you look at all these metrics about awareness generation or trail generation, all these steps we could use to move the consumer through the sales funnel, they don’t become relevant unless they produce results. So marketing return on investment became a focal point.

That brings us back to the notion that if you’re going to make marketing responsible for profitability, you’ll have to give them the authority to make some calls when it comes to things that affect profitability.