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A New Toolbox For Today’s Brand Leaders

It used to be that good brand management simply meant finding the right positioning, leveraging well-understood media channels and delivering solid quarterly returns. Not anymore.

It used to be that good brand management simply meant finding the right positioning, leveraging well-understood media channels and delivering solid quarterly returns. Not anymore.

Managing a brand today means navigating a rapidly shifting landscape of global issues, emerging technologies and newly empowered consumers. Brands are now contending with a complex mix of issues and market forces –faltering economies, climate change and social media as just a few examples – that makes even five years ago look like a simpler time.

Keeping up with the changes is challenging enough for brands that simply want to stay competitive with their peers. It’s even harder for those brands looking to carve out a leadership position in a marketplace that increasingly rewards a progressive stance on sustainability and social responsibility issues.

This leaves brand managers with the considerable task of mastering a set of skills well beyond those on yesterday’s job description. With the demands of 2012 and beyond, corporate leaders need to take on a whole new set of roles.

Sustainability specialist

Long gone are the days when the only expectation of a company was to turn a profit. In fact, consumers worldwide expect brands to shoulder rather significant responsibilities in today’s society

A substantial 81% of consumers feel that companies have a responsibility to address social and environmental issues beyond their local communities, as found by the 2011 Cone/Echo CR Opportunity Study. And they’re using their wallets to show support or punish transgressions: a majority of consumers within the previous 12 months bought a product with an environmental benefit (76%) or associated with a cause (65%) or boycotted a company upon learning that it behaved irresponsibly (56%).

To stay competitive, brand managers need to identify and become knowledgeable about the issues most relevant to their industry, whether carbon emissions, farming practices, recycling or water conservation. Whatever the issue, the leaders will be the ones who use their insights to formulate a strategy that differentiates the brand and establishes an emotional connection with consumers.

Community builder

It’s no longer enough to just have customers. Now it’s essential to have brand loyalists, advocates, tribes. By any name, it’s a group of consumers who form a community of interest around a brand, powered by social media and enabling that most sought after metric: word-of-mouth endorsements, be it in the form of a Like, Tweet or +1.

These consumers don’t just want to buy a product or service. They want to be wooed, entertained, heard and informed by the brand and fellow enthusiasts. Unfortunately, the majority of brands are still struggling with the “many-to-many model” offered by social media, as found by an A.T. Kearney study. Instead of leading and facilitating conversations, brands opt to treat what should be an interactive forum as early Internet “cyber billboards.” In fact, A.T. Kearney’s study of Interbrand’s Top 50 Global Brands found that only 5% of their company- to-consumer posts on Facebook actually engaged consumers in discussions – an important step in community building.

If 68% of Chief Marketing Officers feel unprepared to manage the impact of social media on their business, according to the 2011 IBM CMO Study, then the leaders will be those who both appreciate the need for brand communities and understand the role of social channels. This means getting to know the major platforms – Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, LinkedIn, Google+ – as indispensable marketing tools.

Crisis manager

When corporate agendas combine with environmental and social issues in the age of the networked consumer, the mix can be explosive. Consumers, employees and other stakeholders now expect brands to be publically accountable for aspects of their strategy and operations that were once buried in corporate social responsibility reports. Missteps – real or perceived – can spiral out of control, lighting up Twitter feeds worldwide.

The long, hard work of building a brand and a reputation is quickly undone by a crisis, whether over environmental damage, treatment of workers or some other issue that breaks public trust. Oxford Metrica estimates that most companies will lose more than a fifth of their value every five years as a result of a major crisis.

The challenge for brand managers is to understand the risk factors, keep watch for signs of an escalating situation and have a crisis management plan at the ready. The speed of social media leaves limited time to react before the swirl of media commentary and public opinion has tarnished the brand.

Leadership in a new era

Consumer expectations have never been higher. Brands are expected to be upstanding corporate citizens, savvy entertainers and responsive online community leaders, all in addition to providing quality goods and services at an appropriate price.

If brand stewardship in 2012 comes with weighty expectations, then the successful leaders will be those who are able to switch between roles – sustainability specialist, community builder or crisis manager – as the occasion demands.