Back on course

Courses which offer practical advice on brand management skills are thin on the ground. So where can brand professionals looking to hone their skills go for training?

Brand manager is a title which covers a multitude of roles ranging from a senior marketer to a bright graduate with two or three years’ business experience. But whatever their level of experience, there are some core skills that all brand managers should possess.

Professional bodies, business schools and consultants offer courses and workshops to help aspiring brand marketers hone their skills, and each of these outfits has its strong points and its limitations. To get value for money clients need to understand where the differences lie, just as they need to identify the roots of their own strengths and weaknesses.

Able marketers who are fully conversant with the principles of strategic marketing often fail to exploit what they know because they are too bound up with the day-to-day problems of tactical implementation to be objective about their own brands. Above all else, they need to take a step back from everyday pressures and think laterally.

Finding the right environment to rekindle creativity is not easy. Industry conferences, for example, contain useful intelligence on fellow practitioners’ strategies but lack intellectual rigour and rarely engage delegates in active participation.

Short courses offer a more structured environment, but often struggle to hit the right balance between theory and practical application. A third option to consider is the increasingly popular practitioner workshops or master classes offered by brand specialists.

Strategic marketing consultancy New Solutions runs a series of “Brand Master Workshops”, aimed at marketers with two to three years’ experience, which typify the participative learning environment to which such events aspire.

Kate Blake, who runs the workshops, says: “We don’t lecture on strategic marketing, but we help delegates think more strategically by sharing some of the tools and techniques that we have adapted from strategic marketing principles. We also encourage the delegates to learn from each other by giving consumer feedback on their products and services.”

Exposure to different sectors and analytical tools may help mature marketers gain a new perspective on their brands, but the master class approach cannot correct fundamental weaknesses that stem from inexperience or an incomplete skill set. In the early stages of their careers, many brand managers don’t know how to work effectively with media agencies. Undergraduate and business school courses rarely tackle the subject, yet it is fundamental to running profitable and successful campaigns.

Financial know-how

Another common handicap is having a poor appreciation of the financial factors that drive brand profitability. Although finance is included in most marketing and business degrees, the approach is often too modular and too abstract to prepare would-be marketers for the commercial realities of managing a brand.

“Traditional degree courses contain a bit of finance, but rarely relate the profit and loss account and balance sheet back to brand profitability,” says Sandra Wasson, a brand manager at Cadbury, who graduated in International Business in 1997.

Courses that provide practical guidance on how to be an effective brand manager are few and far between. For experienced professionals, the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) offers a number of three-day courses that cover brand strategy and the practical problems of implementation, such as how to get the most from agencies.

Ashridge business school offers an intensive two-week brand management development programme, targeted at more junior managers with six to nine months’ experience.

Much of the Ashridge programme treads ground that would be familiar to graduates of conventional marketing and business courses. However, some sessions have a more practical orientation. One of the best received sessions of the 1999 programme was a two-day role reversal exercise, in which course participants were given the task of pitching for a communications contract with a fictitious client, played by directors from Leo Burnett.

Glenn Reynolds, brand manager for Club Europe British Airways, says: “The role play has helped me form more effective partnerships with agencies. It brought home the fact that the clearer the brief, the better the outcome. The sessions on brand finance were received positively too. The programme showed how you can make a direct impact on brand equity, on the balance sheet.”

Cadbury’s Wasson, who also attended the course, says: “Marketing finance was well handled, but some more depth would have been useful.”

Web training

E-commerce and the Web represent another growth area for training suppliers. Programmes that explore the implications of interactive media for building consumer relationships and brand equity are particularly in demand.

This spring new media agency Ogilvy Interactive will begin a series of workshops on new media marketing, ranging from sessions for novices to master classes. In the autumn, the CIM will run two new short courses exploring the impact of new media on established brands and building new brands over the Internet.

Courses on new media are not to everyone’s taste, however. Some observers of the digital scene argue that the very concept of a taught course is at odds with the entrepreneurial culture of the Internet.

Peter Matthews, managing director of Nucleus, a consultancy which specialises in building digital brands, says: “When everyone is learning, there is no point in waiting to be taught. The way to learn is to read online magazines, share ideas though online discussion groups, such as Vault.com, and participate in new media get-togethers, such as First Tuesday events.”

Few brand professionals would dispute Matthews’ basic premise – that conventional marketers have to get inside the digital world and explore its capabilities for themselves. But that does not preclude a role for professional educators, even if this role is only to acquaint Web-illiterate marketers with the online resources and contacts that hold the key to their digital education.

The arrival of interactive media undeniably creates new opportunities for self-directed learning. The most innovative educators, such as the Open University, have already assimilated this potential and others, such as the CIM, are moving in the same direction.

CIM portfolio development manager David Thorp says: “By 2001, anyone who has attended one of our courses will have access to a course-related Web-page containing a chat room, suggested reading and updates on new material. The concept is to create an alumni association that develops our commitment to the individual into a long-term relationship.”

New media blurs the distinction between formal development programmes, which have conventionally taken place outside the organisation, and continuous development within the day-to-day working environment.

Other developments are moving in the same direction, particularly the growing demand for programmes that raise the level of brand awareness among operational people, from the chief executive through to call centre staff.

Leslie de Chernatony, HFC Bank professor of brand marketing at the Open University, says: “We are witnessing a shift away from the classical model of brand management in which the brand was seen as something that was done in the marketing department, to a model which places greater emphasis on the role played by all staff as brand builders.”

Internal brand-building programmes, under the aegis of a brand team which includes representatives from finance, operations and human resources, can achieve a more inclusive sense of brand ownership.

Brand-building programmes that focus on corporate values and behaviour necessarily involve introspection, but they must also look outwards to remain relevant to consumers. This is the approach recommended by Circus, an independent communications consultancy, which is committed to the principle of developing the brand from within the organisation.

Katherine Atkin, an associate at Circus, says: “We do not train brand managers in a formal sense, but we help them develop an interesting view of their brands, and give them opportunities to learn from other sectors.” As an example, Atkin points to a programme Circus ran for the UK division of Microsoft. This included a series of presentations exploring different aspects of brand management led by marketing strategists from Virgin Group, Tesco and BMW.

Changing role

The concept of the brand is constantly evolving; so too is the role of the brand manager. Within the foreseeable future, the conventional brand management function may disappear entirely as responsibility for brands is diffused throughout the organisation.

What will not disappear, however, is the need for brand marketers skilled in the art of listening to consumers, and able to develop powerful brand strategies that express this insight through conventional media, digital channels and the day-to-day interactions between consumers and front-line staff.

Trainers have a role to play in equipping brand professionals with the skills they need to succeed in this environment. However, they are only one facet of an ever-expanding network of educational resources which includes consultants, online discussion forums and the sharing of strategic insights with fellow practitioners from other markets.

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