Slouched in an exit row on a plane, on the runway, waiting to fly somewhere, I whipped out my iPhone and tried to entertain myself with LinkedIn. As I scrolled through my feed I was almost immediately depressed.
‘The Brand Manager is Dead…Long Live the Brand Activist’ was the title of the post at the top of my feed. Above it there was an image of several young, millennial-aged managers holding placards. I harrumphed into my G&T and swore under my breath.
This was not a surprising article. We marketers are all members of a kamikaze discipline. Whenever a marketing concept is established it takes barely a few days for someone in our industry to declare it dead, redundant or useless.
The CMO role is crucial; no it’s actually outdated. Targeting is a core tenet of marketing; in fact it’s pointless. Net promoter score is the only number you need; turns out it’s totally irrelevant. Pricing is a key marketing challenge; marketers don’t need to do it anymore. On and on it goes.
One marketer tries to instil discipline and order by building marketing fundamentals; the marketer behind takes a sledge hammer to it as soon as she steps away. All we are left with is lots of disparate ideas and contradictions. A discipline without any discipline. A profession that cannot – will not – act professionally.
It is a cut of the very deepest, most serious kind because it comes from within, and high up.
This new act of disciplinary nihilism on LinkedIn was therefore not a surprise. As someone who has taught brand management for 20 years and worked with brand managers for just as long, I was depressed at the column, but with the kind of philosophical, relaxed depression with which you miss the last tube or step in a puddle wearing new shoes. It’s a pity, but you expected nothing less.
But as I read the next part of the post, my mouth dropped open in shock and bewilderment. So sudden was the sensation that I actually rubbed my eyes and concentrated on the text like a cartoon character. Was my jetlagged brain playing tricks on me?
The author of the post was Hanneke Faber. You may not know the name, but you certainly know where she works: Unilever. And she is no junior executive either. Faber is the president of Europe for Unilever. That makes her, in branding circles, a double-VIP.
First, Unilever is one of the great homes for brand management. After arch rival Procter & Gamble, it is probably the next great repository for the people, thinking and practice of branding. And then there is Faber’s seniority. She is literally one of the top five people at the company.
Faber denouncing brand management as “dead” is a bit like Lenin questioning the practicality of socialism. Or the Queen proclaiming a constitutional monarchy irrelevant and archaic in the 21st century. It is a cut of the very deepest, most serious kind because it comes from within, and high up.
Lead by example
Let me address Faber’s post in some detail. Can I first suggest that it is a total failure of leadership. By my personal count Unilever currently employs around 20,000 people globally who carry the title of brand manager. I wonder if Faber gave some thought to these people, their job titles, their professional pride or Unilever’s employer brand when she denounced their current roles as “dead” so publicly and in such a professional place?
I lose track of what the latest trendy management theory tells us is the true definition of leadership. But I am sure declaring a job title dead when you are the president of thousands of people who have that title is the direct opposite of what being a leader is meant to be all about.
Second, her thesis that brands need “both performance and genuine purpose to thrive” is not necessarily false, but it is certainly not universally true either. A clumsy aspect of all the tiresome, purpose-driven marketers that cloud the current airwaves is their totalitarian prescription that you must have a purpose or you will not succeed. Purpose is certainly one of the ways you can add meaning to your brand and thus grow, but it is not the only path to that outcome.
Faber makes the common error of assuming brands used to stand for “performance”, and now “purpose” has arrived to add depth and meaning to their offer. That is simply not an accurate reflection of branding history. For decades, some brands have positioned on performance but some have also communicated benefits to their target customers that are not necessarily purpose-related, but are high-level, cultural meanings beyond a simple product benefit.
Again, I am not completely resisting the potential of purpose to attract and retain customers. But I see purpose not as a pre-requisite for modern branding success like Faber, but rather one of the many alternatives when it comes to how you might position a brand. Put more strongly, brand purpose may well work for some brands, like Ben & Jerrys. But there are hundreds of very successful brands, many of which are currently outgrowing Unilever, that clearly lack any purpose-driven agenda of any kind.
Unilever does not have any brands in the current Interbrand ranking of the world’s most valuable brands. But in that list at number two, growing at 6% a year, you will find a company that recently admitted to developing drone bombing software and which actually removed the words ‘Don’t be evil’ from its set of stated values.
At number five, growing at 29%, is a brand that pays its workers so little that a significant proportion of them are dependent on food stamps to survive. And at number 40, growing at 1%, is a car manufacturer that illegally cheated on emissions testing to enable its cars to emit poisonous toxins into the atmosphere, which were partially responsible for the death or disability of hundreds of people.
My point is not to criticise these brands for their ethics or approach to corporate strategy. My point is that they should not be in the top 100 list if Faber’s point about the essential nature of purpose was true. But they are. So it’s not.
There are hundreds of very successful brands, many of which are currently outgrowing Unilever, that clearly lack any purpose-driven agenda of any kind.
She might argue that time will tell and these brands will falter from a purposeless approach, while Unilever’s star will rise. I will happily offer her a $50,000 bet that in five years’ time these three purpose-free brands will exhibit an average growth rate significantly superior to Unilever’s.
Faber claims: “Unilever’s fastest-growing brands are those with a clear purpose. They grew 47% faster than the rest of the portfolio and delivered 70% of company growth in 2017.” But this is possibly a very bad case of causal misappropriation.
It could well be that the brands in the portfolio with purpose are growing faster than others because of purpose. But it is equally probable that Unilever picked its biggest, highest-potential brands for the purpose makeover first because that’s what companies do when they roll out a new marketing approach. Richard Shotton has already done a splendid job of pulling apart the ropey maths and dodgy calculations that make purpose appear so productive on paper, and his logic applies equally well to Unilever.
Again, I am not saying that brand purpose is not sometimes a significant factor in success and growth. I am saying that the casual causality in Faber’s claim that brands that have purpose always grow faster than those that do not is specious stuff. Any marketer, president or not, that starts coming up with general laws and rules for what will make all brands more successful in all situations is – in my experience – full of it.
The power of purpose depends on alignment with all the usual moving parts of marketing: the target customers, the competitors, the category, the brand origins and all the other annoying micro-variables that ensure the only rule of branding is there are no general rules. No matter how hard or aggressively those in positons of power try to tell us that their approach is the only way to now get branding right, they will always end up with idiosyncratic egg on their faces.
Brand management is bigger than brand purpose
Faber might want “brand activists” to replace brand managers at Unilever. Can I humbly suggest that this is a ridiculous suggestion? Brand management is much bigger than brand purpose. In fact, purpose is a great new addition to the class on positioning that I teach MBA students, within my 12-week class on brand management. But there are other, equally tenable, approaches to brand positioning that are often superior to brand purpose that also need to be taught.
And aside from the task of positioning, brand managers complete a lot of other essential duties too. There is research, tracking, segmentation, new product development, pricing, brand architecture, communications planning and so on. In Faber’s brave new organisational structure filled with “brand activisits”, do they ever put down their placards and do pricing? Is there ever a respite from worthiness to conduct a conjoint analysis?
Faber ends her post with the emotional conclusion that her father, who protested Nixon in the 1970s, would now be “proud” of her efforts with brand purpose. It’s an affecting and effective coda but raises an interesting question: was he not proud when she made and marketed products?
When did leading marketers like Faber decide that satisfying needs, making great products and managing wonderful brands was unworthy? Do we only feel pride for brands that support social causes these days?
When did marketers become ashamed of being marketers? When did brand management become a vocation deserving of the death penalty? When did Unilever become a place where brand managers were deemed unnecessary and brand activists their replacement?
I am proud to work in brand management, proud of the MBAs and executives that I work with who carry the title. I see no dishonour in managing a brand, quite the reverse. I look to the founding thoughts of Neil McElroy in 1931, sat alone at his type writer, hammering out the principles of brand management as the starting point of a wonderful and rewarding profession. A profession that is far from dead.
Mark Ritson will be speaking at the Festival of Marketing, which takes place in London on 10 and 11 October. For more details, go to festivalofmarketing.com.