Five Potential Brand Management Career Pathways

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As we head into the new year, no doubt many brand leaders are thinking about their career goals and aspirations. And if you follow the most general career advice, you already know that you need to find a path that leverages your strengths, where you enjoy the work, and that someone else will pay you for.

Checking those boxes is a good start. But beyond that, I find a lot of brand managers don’t really know their options for brand management career development. A lot of brand leaders know they want to work in brand marketing but, once they’re there, aren’t sure what to do next.

So today I’m going to outline for you five potential career pathways—development pathways you can use to follow the brand career of your dreams. Or if you are a senior marketing leader, you can use these pathways when coaching your reports, guiding them to what suits them best.

Most brand leaders seem to gravitate towards one of these five, but often take an entire career to figure it out. Luckily, you get a glimpse of the top five options right now.

1. Traditional Brand Management Corporate Ladder

I’m starting with the most obvious to get it out of the way. The standard brand management ladder is what most have in mind when they being their brand management career. It usually goes something like this:

  • Assistant Brand Manager
  • Brand Manager
  • Senior Brand Manager
  • Associate Brand/Marketing Director
  • Brand/Marketing Director
  • Senior Brand/Marketing Director
  • Vice President, Marketing
  • Senior Vice President, Marketing
  • Chief Marketing Officer

While this pathway is relatively straight-forward, there are a couple of key challenges and decision points along the way.

First, you have to realize that as you climb this ladder, the open spots are few and far between. Since most org charts follow a pyramid structure, there are way less VP/CMO jobs than there are aspiring brand leaders. This means you inevitably will be faced with a choice to stick it out where you are, or job-hop your way to promotion at the highest levels.

Second, as you begin looking outside your current company, you’ll be faced with a choice regarding specialization. Should you build your career as an industry agnostic marketing leader, or as an industry-specific leader? Much of this decision involves weighing whether you have particular passions/skills for one industry, or if you want to keep your options open as a generalist.

There are no wrong answers to this, however you should know that companies in certain industries will prefer someone with industry-specific experience. You will often see this in more technical industries such as health care, industrial, software, and a number of B2B categories.

2. Strategy and Innovation Focus

Some brand leaders have a real knack for strategic thinking, vision crafting, and dealing with ambiguity. It’s these hard-to-find skills that make someone successful on long-term strategy and innovation projects.

If you’re the type of person that thrives in the unknown, this might be a good pathway for you. You could possibly max out in a Chief Strategy Officer or Chief Innovation Officer role if you’re able to get that far.

There are a few ways this can play out, depending on the structure of a company and their maturity when it comes to running long-term initiatives.

Companies that are smaller-yet-growing provide an opportunity for you to create new strategy and innovation roles that don’t yet exist—or possibly even create a new department around research and innovation. As the brand leader, you’ll likely want to take the lead on strategy while enlisting help/new roles to round out research and creative/design support.

If you work on a mid- to large-size brand, chances are they may already separate out strategy/innovation roles. You’ll see titles like Strategy & Innovation Brand Manager in the org chart. These roles focus on upstream development, eventually handing off projects to “base” brand managers once initiatives are finally in market. It’s relatively easy to transfer from base brand into innovation if you have skills, desire, and are willing to talk to your manager about your interest.

Finally, in the largest companies you may have a corporate strategy department. These teams work on the highest-level initiatives including cross-brand or highly secret initiatives. This would include things like a company’s geographic expansion, creating new brands, completely new category entry, licensing, mergers and acquisitions, and cross-brand partnerships.

3. Marketing Specialist Role

Now we’re starting to look outside of traditional brand management roles. Since brand managers operate as generalists, you will get exposure to many different specialties via working with your peers in marketing services and at agencies. As a result, you might gain particular interest in a specialty that you enjoy.

If this sounds like you, don’t be afraid to run with it. While you might lose some decision control moving outside the brand team, you might gain a rewarding career by applying your unique skillset to a job you actually love. I’ve seen many brand managers successfully move into specialties like market research, design, advertising/media, digital/social and customer marketing. Go for it!

4. Leap Over to the Agency Side

Similar to the marketing specialist role, a brand manager can go deeper into a single area of interest by shifting to the agency side. The most obvious fit is to move to an advertising/creative agency and work either in a strategy (i.e., planning) or a client-facing role (i.e., account management/business development). Agencies often look for people who think and speak the language of their customers—and that’s you.

But ad agencies aren’t the only place you can go. If you have interest in research, you can hop over to a research agency. Interested in design? Retail? There are agencies that specialize in those areas, too. In short, agency-side is simply another opportunity to specialize if your current company doesn’t have roles you’re interested in.

Brand leaders who stick it out on the agency side can often work their way into high-level roles like Chief Client Officer, Chief Growth Officer, or Chief Strategy Officer. But one thing to keep in mind is that agencies tend to have higher titles with lower pay compared to client-side roles.

5. Independent Consultant

Last but not least is the consulting route. Many brand leaders end up finishing their careers in consulting, sometimes by choice and sometimes not. Let me explain…

Some senior brand leaders get comfortable in their roles, only to find that one day the company decides to reduce headcount or eliminate positions, including theirs. Once you are at a senior level, it takes considerable time to line up a new job (easily an entire year or more). So many will slap on the title of consultant and try to secure some immediate work while their job hunt plays out. This is obviously a reactionary way to get into consulting, and the lack of preparation makes it difficult to gain traction.

In contrast, there are others who envision working for themselves one day. With an appropriate plan, they successfully transition into the late stage of their career. This success is enabled by four key elements:

  • Relevant experience. Companies hire consultants because the consultant brings experience to the table that the company does not already have.
  • Previous title. The title level that you achieved as a brand leader serves as a form of social proof. Director is good, but ideally you’ve held at least a VP role.
  • Connections. Your personal and professional connections will be the primary way you obtain your initial clients. You ideally build this network prior to making the leap.
  • Financial runway. When you start out in consulting, your income will be sparse and you need to give yourself some “runway” to get started while still being able to cover your living expenses. Your runway can come from savings, a family member, a loan or an investor. 6-12 months of expenses is recommended.

A lot of junior brand leaders think they can jump into consulting early on, but I don’t think this is a good idea. Remember that the value of a consultant lies in their experience. And if you don’t have much experience, you are not nearly as valuable to potential clients.

Start Experimenting Early and Go For It

Regardless of which pathway you are interested in, try to avoid the two biggest mistakes people make in their brand management career development. They don’t experiment enough early in their careers to figure out what they want to do, and later in their careers they are too afraid to make a change.

It’s ok if you don’t come out of school knowing exactly how you want your career to play out. No one really does. Get exposure to as much as you can so you can sort it out.

Then, once you have a sense of what you really want, go for it! Don’t be afraid to change your job, company, geography, title, or pay… Because staying in a job that isn’t the right fit is far worse/riskier than going after what you really want.

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