Monday, September 10, 2012

Brand Management: The Skills that Matter Most

What skills matter the most for brand management or marketing jobs? What separates the winners from the also-rans? Although this is an important and often-debated issue, I’ve not seen any empirical research on this. An answer to this question would be useful for teachers in business schools; it would help them decide what to include and what not to include in their curriculum, what aspects of the curriculum should be emphasized, and what parameters should they use to evaluate the students. It would also help the students at business schools to prioritize areas for personal development.

So I requested two MBA students from the 2012 class of the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University – Mike DeCoste and Suman Dasgupta – to do a study to find out what skills matter the most for a marketing job. I did not expect a conclusive answer to the question. What drives career success is far too broad and nebulous a question to be conclusively answered by one study. Nevertheless, the insights generated by even attempting an answer seemed promising. So Suman and Mike did a semester-long study to identify critical skills for marketing leadership positions. They began by doing one-on-one exploratory interviews with eight Johnson alumni at middle and senior management positions. Based on the insights from these interviews, they came up with an exhaustive list of skills that are considered relevant for marketing positions.

Then they designed a survey to rank the relative importance of these skills. The survey was administered to the members of several professional networks. Fifty eights managers at different stages of their careers – Associates (29%), Managers (24%), Directors (25%), and Executives (22%) – completed the survey.  Not surprisingly, the largest representation was from marketers in the consumer packaged goods industry (41%), although other types of marketers, notably business-to-business marketers (17%) and service marketers (13%), also responded to the survey.

What skills matter the most? Identifying consumer insights, strategic thinking, and oral communications were the three skills that received the highest importance ratings for marketing jobs. Identifying consumer insights refers to the ability to identify new cause-and-effect patterns, behavioral patterns that consumers themselves might or might not be aware of, to predict consumers’ response to a marketing stimulus. Strategic thinking refers to the ability to formulate a competitive product and market (i.e., positioning) strategy that can guide tactical marketing decisions and P&L forecasts. And oral communication refers to the ability to prioritize the right elements of a message, to use the right tone, stories, metaphors and body language to persuade internal and external stakeholders.  The graph below depicts a summary of the importance ratings collected on a five-point scale.

Another important finding is how the perceived importance of these skills changes by experience level. The skills considered important at the junior levels are quite different from those considered at the senior levels. Managing cross-functional colleagues (e.g., getting co-operation from Supply Chain and Finance) and managing up (e.g., influencing a supervisor) are perceived to be among the three most important skills at the associate level, but not at the director or executive levels. The proportion of respondents choosing the top-two boxes on the five-point scale are shown below. 
The usual caveats apply – the sample size is small, and survey responses reflect the respondents’ beliefs that might or might not be accurate. Nevertheless, there are some pointers here for MBA students on what many recruiters expect from a marketing manager and how the expectations change over time.