Brands’ new model army

Forrester Research is calling for a complete overhaul of the marketing function, in which brand managers are ditched in favour of a new model of working involving ‘brand advocates’. But can a reactive role creating ‘on the fly’ plans really work for businesses? By Maeve Hosea

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There was a time when brands could demand consumer attention and retailer distribution simply by buying TV airtime. But these days, companies have to develop “relationships” with consumers through multiple media. So much so, that a controversial report from Forrester suggests that the current corporate marketing set-up is ill-equipped to cope.

The report, Adaptive Brand Marketing: Rethinking Your Approach to Branding in the Digital Age, suggests that companies should go as far as ditching their traditional brand manager roles in favour of new-style “brand advocates”. The research business says that the onus is now on marketers to change their structures to cope with a world of rising media fragmentation and consumer power.

While many believe the concept of brand management has stood the test of time, the Forrester report brings into question whether brand management needs to evolve in response to the changing world we live in.

Lisa Bradner, principle analyst for marketing leadership at Forrester, says: “Too many marketers still use old brand management models built for a mass homogeneous media market, not for an ‘always on’, multichannel, connected global world.”

She reveals the chinks in the armour of classic brand management, claiming that national brands are ceding ground to private labels; the fragmentation of media means that brands are only existing on the edge of consumers’ social spheres; and that engagement is harder to achieve and to track.

“When you talk specifically about brands, the old hub and spoke model uses a lot of energy managing channels,” says Bradner. “As marketers, we get very far away from the people we sell to and by defining them as our ‘target’, it is almost as if they are our enemy.”

Forrester argues that calling those who manage products and services “brand advocates” would help reposition them as sitting in the centre of the new environment in which marketing has to operate. The research business claims that using the term “manager” sums up a lot of what is wrong with the current marketing model.

Kevin Kells, national industry director of consumer packaged goods at Google, agrees: “Because of constraints on time and staff numbers, we’ve become managers – not marketers – looking for the one big bet, instead of frequent singles and doubles.”

The brand advocate, by contrast, works inside a local market, says Forrester, executing regional programmes, reacting to local tastes and feedback and constantly experimenting with creative ways to get his or her message across.

The idea is that the brand advocate would be more consumer-centric than the standard brand manager, reacting to developments in real time. “The brand advocate really has to be that consumer, they need to ‘go native’,” says Bradner.

Forrester suggests “brand advocates” be responsible for rapid adaptations of global brand platforms and programmes, with centralised global brand strategists ensuring local managers conform with a company’s brand equity and strategy.

Some brands are excited by the ideas raised in the report. Patrick Cairns, chief executive of baby food brand Plum Baby, admits: “There is a real challenge, especially in low interest categories and where the marketing strategy is run remotely from a regional or global innovation centre.”

He suggests that the old ways of managing marketing departments are definitely shifting to a new mentality within brands. Cairns reports: “Centralist planning based on empirical evidence is, in the most successful organisations, ceding ground to intuitive, empowered local activists – either within the organisation or its broader agency network.”

This modern media world requires deep expertise in vastly different areas. Hence the increasing need for the flexible and dynamic management of a stable of agencies on any one brand. Simon Clift, Unilever

Forrester suggests that the change to brand advocates will also entail a wider view of the business in terms of how marketers plan and budget for their roles. With Twitter-savvy consumers expecting brands to respond in real time, there has been a real shift in the pace and variety of media channels and opportunities where marketers must appear, says Bradner.

“The idea of doing one annual marketing plan and living off it for the year is outdated,” she warns. The Forrester report argues for the concept of brand managers no longer having money earmarked for specific media, such as TV or online, and instead creating “on the fly plans”.

Not everyone is convinced. On the fly plans will never replace an annual budget and well-thought out brand and business building marketing plans, says David Taylor, managing partner of branding agency The Brand Gym.

However, he agrees that allocating part of the brand’s spending to more reactive plans is a good idea. “Done well, this can create impact, excitement and connection with the target consumer,” he says. “This works even better in conjunction with clever media buying. A good example is the Veet “Goodbye Bush” press ads run on the day of Barack Obama’s inauguration.”

Steven Sturgeon, former group marketing director at drinks portfolio William Grant & Sons, agrees, saying it is useful to devote a portion of the advertising and promotion budget to “opportunities”, which can be used when a great initiative is identified and justified with an agreed return on investment.

He warns, though, that any brand asking advocates to save a discretionary fund for “opportunities” needs to make sure that it is only used on plans which fit the strategy set out for the brand. “Otherwise, there exists a danger that exciting initiatives will be pursued for their own sake and not for what they can do to meet brand objectives.”

Andrew Seth, former chairman and chief executive of Lever Brothers (now Unilever), thinks Forrester may be getting over-excited in its recommendations to brands. He says: “I feel Forrester is mixing up two key elements which are forcing companies or boards to make changes.”

He says the first element the research report is picking up on is that with a global brand, strategy must be driven internationally for obvious scale reasons, but with local implementation being placed market by market.

The second element is that marketing as a discipline is driven by the complexities of available media, disaggregation and interactive technologies, which means it now has a very wide agenda.

“The media diversity issue is secondary and always will be,” argues Seth. “The best companies want marketing to address their current and future consumers; own the company strategy and relate it to the brand strategy for the brands they manage; and develop an innovation and growth approach for these brands which can then be written into the company’s annual and longer term plans.”

At Unilever today, though, the marketing department claims to be recognising many of the trends identified by Forrester and has or is making organisational changes along the lines proposed.

It created the role of global brand director in 2002, which aims to explicitly acknowledge that influences on the brand image are no longer exclusively under the control of the company.

Because of constraints on time and staff numbers, we’ve become managers – not marketers – looking for the one big bet. Kevin Kells, Google

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Unilever CMO Simon Clift says: “This modern media world requires deep expertise in vastly different areas – not just executional but also strategic. Hence the increasing need for the flexible and dynamic management of a stable of agencies on any one brand, with skills in consumer promotions and events, mobile, internet, content production and, maybe most significantly of all, the once undervalued discipline of brand public relations.”

He adds: “This makes the management of agencies increasingly complex and raises challenging questions on how best to measure value added by the respective partners and, consequently, how to manage remuneration.”

Brand advocacy is already here in organisations where there is a deeply embedded brand culture, agrees William Grant & Sons’ Sturgeon. “I have always subscribed to the principle of a universal insight or truth – consumer and brand, respectively – a global idea and local execution,” he says.

Being a brand advocate, he suggests, is less about needing to totally reorganise the ways marketers work across the board and more about finding a way to make everyone working within an organisation clear about the collective goal.

He argues: “This can only work when everyone is clear of the brand strategy, essence and guidelines. This requires ownership; someone to champion the brand within the organisation. It is the brand champion who excites the business to deliver that strategy.”

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