Natalie Yan-Chatonsky, Head of Consulting Practice at Brainmates, has a great interest in fleshing out the emotional needs of the market in the Ideation stage of product development. Her interest stems from her days as an interior designer where a successful design of a space captured both the client’s taste (meeting purely subjective needs) and functional needs for the use of the available space. She recently discussed how Brand and Product Management go hand-in hand with MD of uberbrand, Dan Ratner.

Dan’s career started in communications at CBA, designing screens for multimedia such as CD Roms, which evolved into web design, which then in turn led to interactive design. This culminated with an appointment as Creative Director for News Interactive, before he briefly stumbled into the world of product management.  

Dan believes that his product management days were informative and provided some of the most useful work experience insights possible which have served him well since leading uberbrand. He shares his thoughts on how brand, marketing and product management intersect, in this interview with Brainmates.

Tell us about your time as a Product Manager

Early on, I spent a lot of time doing many different things, so I dropped in and out of product development and product management by accident, and really, I wasn’t a very good product manager (*chuckles*).

When I was a product manager, I was involved in launching GoFish, an Australian auctions competitor to eBay. I experienced firsthand a product not coming to life, according to the strategy envisaged. There were many great learning experiences during the Dot.Com.Boom, including the importance of research, understanding the market, demand, and how this impacts communication at a product level.

The experience was highly beneficial in my career development as I learnt the importance and linkage between market needs and communications strategy.

Above and beyond the product, the communication is what generates consideration by a market. It’s something that’s often overlooked and bolted on, at the end of the product development process. Ultimately, a strong and aligned communications strategy is fundamental to the success of any product, as it will drive consideration and uptake and ultimately the success of the product.

This is what drove my interest:  bringing the offer to life through simplification and communications.

What role does Communication play in Product Management?

The role of communication in product management is to build consideration and ultimately choice for the target market. It’s traditionally described as positioning, and I’ve always liked how the seminal minds on the subject Al Ries and Jack Trout define it in their book Positioning, the Battle for your mind as – “how it (product, company etc) is ‘positioned’ in the mind of the customer”.

Good product communication strategy will be relevant, have cut through, generate interest demand and recall, but to be great it needs to do all this and reinforce what is unique about the company or organisation delivering the product.

One observation about product communications in competitive markets, and something I learnt in the GoFish experience, is that being early to market, meant our communications investment needed to be highly focused on educating consumers around the category; rather than building and driving consideration towards our product. It’s a classic failure in competitive markets. Building category over consideration, and retrospectively, all we did was educate a marketplace for our competition. While it’s a bit counterintuitive, sometimes being second to market allows you to leverage the communication spend of your competition.

These days, my suggestion to clients is, if you’re launching a product into a competitive market, look to borrow the media spend from elsewhere. If your competitor is communicating the value of your product category to your target market, leverage their spend and focus on building consideration toward your product.

What is the relationship between Product Management and Brand Management?

One of my brand heroes Peter Economides simplifies brand management into the idea that “everything communicates, because everything forms an impression….” It makes the role of branding to manage perception.

Every touch point is a customer interaction. It’s these that form impressions about who you are, what you do and what makes you different.

The ‘everything communicates’ idea applies to everything that is said, done and created by your company. So it’s verbal, visual, audio, taste, touch, behavioural, experiential and even product that creates an overall perception for a customer.

Product Managers also have a responsibility to the brand. Their product is a fundamental touch point in the delivery of perception and the promise set at a business strategy level.

How can Product Managers manage the brand for their product?

Many highly successful organisations have invested in developing extensive brand guidelines that include contemporary definitions of their brand, for example organisational values, business proposition and positioning statements amongst others.

In the product development process, Product Managers should consider how their product reinforces and delivers on the brand, to ensure that their proposition aligns and links with what their organisation wants to say and have experienced about itself by their customers.

For example, have you ever looked at a product from a company and thought, “wow”, now I wouldn’t have expected that to come from them? I’m sure you can think of a few.

Ultimately Product Managers need to be “Brand” managers. They need to understand and advocate their brand by ensuring that all the components that they deliver to their customers align with their organisation’s brand promise.

What are some of the Brand tools that Product Managers can employ?

For a Product Manager to use their product to bring their company’s brand to life, they need to understand their brand fully. Product Managers have to live the brand and become brand (and therefore) product champions. They have to find ways to connect to it and truly become brand advocates. They must build out the truth of their brand in everything they do with their products.  Just like the product guys at Nike.

The essence of the Nike brand, as quoted by the then head of advertising in the book A New Brand World, was ‘authentic-athletic-performance’ (and still is). Their products need to deliver on this brand idea though design, construction, and materials as well as processes and in Nike’s case, the selection of manufacturing facilities. But the brand also informs how they communicate externally. They use sponsorship of authentic and athletic heroes to demonstrate it. I find how they do this quite interesting, for example they maintain a sponsorship with Tiger Woods, although he’s had a few rough patches, as they recognise his authenticity which aligns well with Nike. Lance Armstrong on the other hand, was dropped.

What is the difference between brand and value proposition?

To me, the brand is the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of the organisation while the value proposition is the ‘how’ to the customer.

It makes the value proposition the connection point of the brand to the user. This is the fundamental reality point between the brand and the customer – it’s a vital consideration to the success of any product.

A way to build the brand is through defining what we call the Brand DNA, or the combination of notable attributes that make an organisation unique and what empowers the brand at its core.

The essence of the brand is the abstract, not it’s uniqueness.  Interestingly, the essence of Nike’s brand, ‘authentic, athletic performance’, could be claimed by its competition, for example Adidas or Puma (did you know that the forefathers of Adidas and Puma were brothers!) but really it is the demonstration of the unique Brand DNA that sits at the heart of Nike’s value proposition that differentiates it and its products to its customers.

Which company has successfully delivered value through both their Brand and Products?

I can’t really get past the work that Apple did. It’s a story most people are familiar with, but it’s one of the greatest brand stories ever. When Steve Jobs took back the reigns in 1997, one of the first things he did was look into the brand. And at the internal relaunch he said: “marketing is about values…and to really define who we are, what we’re about and where we fit in the world…(we) needed to (re)define the brand”.

At its very core, the essence of Apple is – “People with Passion Change the World.” And this was most effectively demonstrated in their initial brand advertising campaign – ‘Think Different.’

What’s really interesting is that the brand came first. It was later that Apple launched the iMac, iPod, iTunes, iPhone and iPad products. What went on at Apple was the brand led the decision-making. The essence of the brand, the Passion to Change the World, needed to find its way through every stakeholder touch point, whether that be product, employment, advertising, experiential or any other.

Going forward it will be their ability to remain consistent that will keep them relevant and on top of the game. And since the passing of Steve Jobs, it will be interesting to see how they continue to deliver the ‘Passion’ in context to a now even more competitive market landscape that has learnt so much from Apple over the last 15 years.

How can Product Managers learn from Brand Managers when it comes to influencing their executive stakeholders to create an impact?

Assuming your organisation has done the brand work, it is applicable both top down and bottom up. So, learn from Apple and take advantage of your company’s investment by ensuring you’re using the brand to inform and drive product development.

I’d recommend that during the business case stage, Product Managers even spend time demonstrating how the proposed product actually reinforces and delivers on the brand from the outset.

The advantage of this is that the final product not only delivers on the physical and functional features and benefits of the product, but the customer experience will have been factored in to align and reinforce the organisation’s brand.

It means that you are delivering a ‘brand led product,’ and I’d hope that this not only translates more easily into communication activity, but grows brand advocacy internally and externally as well.

Do you have any advice for Product Managers to live the brand of their company?

Product Managers work in the detail of features, benefits and the functions of what their product fulfils.

They need to rise above the detail and ask themselves, why would anyone buy my product?  What will make it successful? And ultimately, does it even make sense that the product is coming from my company (brand)?

They should always be building products that are ’on brand’ as the product itself is a real and tangible brand touch point and given “everything communicates,” what does the product communicate about who and what you are?

I know that in corporations the brand sounds like a marketing responsibility. But in truth, it’s everybody’s responsibility.

So I’d suggest Product Managers (and everyone else) understand the brand. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and interrogate the brand. That way you can take ownership, connect and be empowered by the brand. Bring it into your work. It’s there to be used and I think if you use it, it will make getting your ideas and thoughts through the organisation that much easier.

A simple process for Product Managers to consider brand in the product development

  1. Take the time to understand your brand, the values and the unique promise that sits within your company’s proposition (you should find this in the front part of any quality set of brand guidelines)
  2. Develop your product strategy to consider and reflect on the attributes outlined in the brand guidelines
  3. Translate the product strategy into a brief for a really compelling idea that will both connect your product and your brand to your target customers
  4. I’d recommend some testing with potential customers to ensure the proposition works
  5. Build your product whilst developing your go-to-market strategy to ensure you connect your product with the audience you intend to connect it with
  6. Activate a product and marketing campaign that both drive consideration and reinforces your brand

Thank you to Dan Ratner for sharing your insights into how brand and product management fit in together. We look forward to seeing how product management will start to consider developing more brand-led products to appeal to the emotional needs of their customers.

For more information please contact Natalie Yan-Chatonsky at Brainmates, or Dan Ratner at uberbrand.