For lots of companies, their central product is also, in a sense, their brand. Take Slack. Slack is a product. But it’s also a brand. When you hear the word Slack, you probably think of the app: the thing that sits on your desktop where you send GIFs—errrr important, work-related messages—all day. That’s the product. But you might just as easily think of their cute tweets, cool founder, and desire to dramatically change how we communicate. Those factors speak to the brand.
This can be confusing, because products and brands aren’t the same thing. And product managers and brand managers don’t do the same thing. So how are these positions different—and how do they work together?
Products vs. Brands
To understand these two roles, we first need to understand what it is they’re actually managing. As we’ve already explored, a product is a good or service offered to customers for benefits. It can be a tangible or virtual item (a good), or a package of activities (a service).
A brand, on the other hand, is a much more abstract concept. A brand is the “what” and “why” of an organization. It refers to how an organization is perceived—an inevitably abstract metric. As Seth Godin once put it, “A brand is the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another.”
PMs vs. BMs: Their responsibilities
So how do product managers and brand managers spend each day? Let’s take a look at where they funnel their energy.
Product managers focus on the design and features of a particular product. Their work can be highly logistical and (at least somewhat) technical, involving close horizontal collaboration with executives, developers, sales and marketing. They aim to improve, upgrade and maintain fluid functioning of their product, with a strong emphasis on how customers actually interact with it and how it fits into the market. They deliver the products that people use.
Brand managers focus on the maintenance and perception of a particular brand. Their work is often strategic, involving high-level curation of both their company’s image and the practical steps it will take to maintain that image. Brand managers often work at consumer product companies with mass-market output. They aim to enhance, maintain and inspire interest in their brand, with a strong emphasis on marketing and how their overall organization is viewed. They inspire feelings, reactions and loyalty.
Different value propositions
Another way to distinguish between product managers and brand managers is to understand their divergent value propositions.
“A value proposition is a business or marketing statement that summarizes why a consumer should buy a product or use a service.” –Investopedia
Product managers create value propositions that convey tangible rewards. They build products with the goal of offering measurable value: to make you more productive, to improve communication, to make beautiful roadmaps quickly.
Brand managers also create value propositions, but theirs are more intuitive. Brand managers spark perceived value—a sense that “buying in” to the brand will have a payoff. The nature of that payoff is more abstract. It could be something tangible (like actual, increased productivity) or it could simply be the feeling of increased productivity that the brand inspires.
Different pain points
Different jobs, different stressors. Because product managers are responsible not just for the development, but also the ongoing health and well-being of their product, they must constantly triage and address new requests, releases and bugs. Their job is far from finished once a product is launched. And while their product may operate on a long lifecycle, they must constantly and creatively come up with new versions and upgrades that will keep their product competitive.
Brand managers, on the other hand, typically work on shorter cycles. They are responsible for product line depth, width and extensions, and often experience more day-to-day urgency. Because it’s up to them to prevent brand obsolescence, they must constantly and creatively come up with new products that will keep the brand top-of-mind and top-of-market. Their function is much more than simply PR—they strategize how to keep the business (and the brand) current across every channel.
So how do they feed each other?
Guess what! Brand managers and product managers don’t operate in a vacuum. Their functions are interrelated.
The product manager supports—and sometimes helps create—the brand. Product managers are responsible for consistently building and maintaining products that serve as a tangible touchpoint to that brand. As brand strategist Peter Economides says, “Everything you say and do, and everything you don’t say and don’t do, communicates.” Products communicate, and product managers are responsible for making sure they communicate the right brand.
The brand manager, meanwhile, creates a mindspace for the product. Since brand managers are concerned about brand obsolescence—or rather, avoiding obsolescence—they need to drive the introduction of new products into the marketplace. While product managers might be responsible for the upkeep of one product, brand managers cultivate the soil in which new products can grow.
What else differentiates product managers from brand managers? Brand managers: what role do you play in product development? Product managers: how do you speak to the brand?