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Do you drive using headlights or the dashboard?

October 10, 2012

Last week I was a guest at the External Advisory Board meeting of the Wisconsin School of Business’ A.C. Nielsen Center for Marketing Research. I attended a panel entitled Brand Managers and Consumer Insights Managers as Partners: Implications for MBA Education.

As a former MBA student AND a recovering Brand Manager, the talk put my own experience into perspective.

I admit I was frustrated as a brand manager. I was also probably a pretty frustrating one. A brand manager is charged with meeting a number. Wall Street is counting on it. Your bonus and your boss’s bonus are riding on it. Disregard that little consumer voice over in the corner! What kind of package change is Wal-Mart demanding? I tended toward a long-term view, a strategic vision, for my brands. To be honest, that really isn't the job description. It wasn’t a good fit for me, to say the least.

After last week’s panel, I better understand why.

First, two of the four panelists were former colleagues of mine from Kraft Foods -- now known as Mondelez International. One, Tanya Schooley, Senior Director of Consumer Insights & Strategy, was my mentor and go-to person for my first Kraft brand, Back to Nature. I've always appreciated her perspective. And she delivered again last week when she said, “Consumer insights are the headlights of an organization.”

Just think how effective Brand Managers could be if they used BOTH the headlights and the dashboard to drive business on their brands.

She went on to explain that unlike shipment volume or sales data or coupon fulfillment information—the things that Brand Managers attend to—it is the opinions and attitudes of consumers that illuminate what lies ahead. So the Brand Managers, who really hold the power in consumer packaged goods organizations, are, to keep the analogy going, driving without headlights. I’d like to think this is why I disliked the job so much.

Rather than dwell on the misery of my CPG years, Tanya’s talk got me thinking about other parts of the car.

It is pretty clear Brand Management is the driver of the car. And if Brand Managers aren't relying on the headlights, what are they using? The dashboard! And I would argue that dashboard is akin to Business Strategy.

Let me explain. The information presented allows the driver to see what is going on in many different areas--temperature, MPH, etc. You could argue these discrete bits are Business Analytics. But because a dashboard shows all sorts of different measures at the same time, it allows the driver to assess the interaction—or potential interaction—of various internal activites. Business Strategy. It also allows the drvier to make a judgment as to what the car is capable of. If my engine is revving at 2800 RPM, that means I’ve got about 4000 more to work with before the baby blows up. This is akin to assessing potential upside and risk. Modern dashboards even allow the driver to see what is behind and around the car, an analogy for historical information and external market forces.

There are other similiarities, of course, but the key takeaway for me is that, save for the engine itself, there is nothing more important than pointing the car (brand) in the right direction and navigating the terrain appropriately. This requires both Consumer Insights and Business Strategy. Just think how effective Brand Managers could be if they used BOTH the headlights and the dashboard to drive business on their brands.

So, you may be wondering, what is the engine of the car? Stay tuned to find out....