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How is a product manager different from a brand manager?

Posted on February 9, 2009 · 9 Comments

Question: What is the difference between a software product manager and a brand manager?

Answer from John Mansour of ZIGZAG Marketing: A software product manager and a brand manager are conceptually the same in that they both manage a product or product line. But their perspectives for managing products come from opposite ends of the spectrum.

Brand management is most often associated with consumer products, whereas software product management is most often associated with B2B software. Hence, the key differences between the two are rooted in the markets they serve. Some examples:

  • Brand managers work for organizations that are wired to think market first whereas most software product managers think features or technology first. Here’s why. Margins for consumer products are far thinner than software, so the stakes are much higher for brand managers which forces them to run their product lines more like a business than software product managers.
  • Consumer product companies generally have exponentially more products than software companies so they rely much more on brand management to drive the business. In contrast, software companies with fewer products rely on product management much less to drive the business because they can still experience reasonable growth without much discipline, but only to a point. One could argue that the lack of product management is a key reason many successful start-up software companies are short lived.
  • Brand managers have to think about things like planned obsolescence, product line extensions, product line depth and width to make their living. These terms are generally not found in the software product management lexicon.

Brand management and software product management intersect in the larger B2C software companies like Intuit where you have brands like Quicken, QuickBooks and TurboTax. Product managers at Intuit function much more like brand managers because of the target markets they serve.

Software companies should view product management much more like consumer product companies view brand management. If they did, the industry may not have such a high failure rate at the company level. Unfortunately, the software industry is still driven more so by technology than by dynamics of the market, whereas consumer product companies are just the opposite.

The irony in this whole equation is the high failure rate in both consumer products and software. If only the market told us exactly what to do and didn’t change its mind so often.

9 other answers so far ↓

  • Saeed Khan // Feb 9, 2009 at 10:07 pm

    Hi,

    It is incorrect to define software product managers as people who think features and technology first. Perhaps BAD product managers do that, but software product management is fundamentally about the market, market needs, business strategy and delivering successful products that meet market needs and drive revenue and profit.

    There is certainly a technology aspect to the role, but the focus has to be on how to leverage the technology to drive towards business needs.

  • Aman // Feb 9, 2009 at 11:48 pm

    Product and Brand are 2 separate words, and hence their management has to be different, unless both words are synonyms.
    John, Can you please dissect the both in terms of the function points or functional area they need to address, to have clear demarcation between both .

  • Peter-John Taylor // Feb 12, 2009 at 9:15 am

    John your focus is too narrow and this may have misled your comparison of product vs. brand management. Beyond software, the field of products we manage is extensive and as Saeed notes “product management is fundamentally about the market, market needs, business strategy and delivering successful products that meet market needs and drive revenue and profit.”

    Our role as product managers is essential to, and influenced by, the priorities and challenges of both corporate and product brand management. And sales departments expect our collaboration for ‘competitive advantage’ in an increasingly complex marketplace.

  • April // Feb 23, 2009 at 3:38 pm

    Interesting post John.
    One of the big differences I see is that for many tech. products, the “brand” is the company brand and the product doesn’t have a brand separate from that. Some product managers have absolutely no tasks associated with driving the “brand” (this was certainly true at every one of the larger companies I worked at) but would of course be very concerned with the definition, sales and marketing of the product. I agree with your examples of Quicken, etc. as being exceptions where the product may have a real “brand” associated with it but wonder if there is a Brand Manager function there to manage those brands or if that is a task that is owned by the Marketing Communications group. It would be interesting to know.
    April

  • NWGuy // Feb 23, 2009 at 4:15 pm

    Thanks for the insights, you’re right that Brand Mgmt isn’t given much thought in the smaller technology companies. I see that partly as a function of company maturity and the different roles. Another aspect for software development, especially at smaller companies, is the drive to be first to market, with rapid upgrades to deliver full feature sets.

    Brand management is more about customer perceptions; what is the reputation in the marketplace. Product management is how to get products/services to the market. Hopefully both of these functions compliment each other so that product rollouts are well received, and feedback is incorporated into future products.

    Maybe with new Social Media tools the smaller companies will incorporate Brand Mgmt at an earlier stage. That may help them avoid the failure scenarios.

  • Roger L. Cauvin // Mar 2, 2009 at 12:22 pm

    It appears Saeed and Peter-John misconstrued the thrust of John Mansour’s answer. Mansour wasn’t defining software product managers as people who think features or technology first. Rather, he lamented the fact that they frequently do, and he suggested that software companies orient their product management more around the brand.

  • Ken Pomper // Mar 17, 2009 at 1:58 pm

    Brand is also very important in B2B. Ask the guy fixing your car what kind of tools he uses and he is likely to mention a brand for reasons that exceed the attributes of the individual products that he has bought.

    Brand is a company asset and products are only one dimension of creating value for that asset. Product, service, guarantees, community involvement, marketing, and graphics can all be important components of creating value in a brand and must be strategically and consistently deployed. An excellent product can potentially subtract value from a brand/company and an average product can potentially leverage a brand to create more value.

  • David Locke // Mar 23, 2009 at 6:28 pm

    John not all tech enters the market at the same place. If a product enters the late market, as with the current SaaS craze, then they need advertising on day one. If the product enters the market before the late market, they need advertising less. If the product enters the market before the IPO, you might only see advertising as a means of marketing to investors.

    Brand is always. You hand out your first business card, and zap, you’ve been branded. You don’t wait for brand. You might wait for advertising. Advertising is a cost that many startups cannot afford. It is this cost that accounts for why they wait.

    In the late market, the software commoditizes so quickly that you have to advertise. And, in the late market, the purchase decision is different. In earlier markets, it’s strictly economic buyer with user and technical enthusist recommendations. With the late market the user might just go totally with emotion. I’m not saying the economic buyer doesn’t buy on emotion and justify with facts, but the consumer won’t bother with facts at all. Different animals.

    Most new tech companies that push a new tech won’t advertise until VC money shows up. Only after that infusion of VC money can they afford advertising.

    Then, you also have to face the cultural division between techs and advertising people. Ad types don’t hire across the line. Maybe techs don’t either, but I’ve certainly seen the anthros and designers doing this.

    The companies, your potential clients, are doing what is rational for them to do. Map it. Understand it. And, sell within that reality.

  • Roger L. Cauvin // Mar 24, 2009 at 3:24 am

    David, I’m not sure what you mean by “advertising”. Marketing experts Al Ries, Laura Ries, and Seth Godin advise building a brand through PR and word of mouth, not advertising.

    Either way, brand management isn’t just a matter of PR or advertising. It can be strategic. It should precede and drive product requirements, marketing programs, packaging, and distribution.

What do you think?