Why Everyone In Your Company Should Be A Product Manager

The definition of "product" should be expanded to include everything a company puts out into the world, from its website to its marketing materials, argue Jens Martin Skibsted and Rasmus Bech Hansen.

Recently, Ikea made headlines for something other than its affordable-chic furniture. It bowed to cultural pressure in the Middle East and airbrushed all female models out of the catalogs it distributes in that part of the world. The faux pas was widely reported. The episode was clearly not a good story for a global brand, especially given the fact that its primary audience is women. The company, realizing the potential backlash its mistake could cause, went into damage-control mode. The Swedish furniture giant issued an apology claiming that its decision was not in line with its corporate values. The firm promised to enact procedures to make sure it didn’t happen again.

There is much to learn from the incident. It shows how potentially dangerous even a seemingly trivial compromise (in this case, photos in a product catalog for an ancillary region) can be to a large brand. The realities are that brands must always abide by the values they espouse. This is nothing new, but in a globalized and increasingly transparent world, this is more true and important than ever. There is nowhere a brand can hide. Every single place consumers see or hear about the brand is an opportunity to convey the company’s core principles. In last month’s Harvard Business Review, we argue that creative and non-creative companies have a greater chance of succeeding if they are guided by a clear vision and a unique set of values. The Ikea story shows how difficult it can be for a corporate philosophy to translate into every aspect of the company—even for Ikea, which has a tremendously strong culture, invests heavily in making sure every employee internalizes the Ikea way, and has a crystal-clear vision about democratizing well-designed furniture. Other great brands, like Nike (remember child labor) and Google (privacy breaches), have struggled with it as well.

So how can a company avoid making similar mistakes? By treating absolutely everything it does as a product, the integral vehicle for delivering value to its customers. In a previous post, we have argued that the shift toward hyper-transparency has increased the importance of the product at the expense of other parts of the marketing mix. Now, it’s time to broaden the definition of "product."

Ikea has come far with a product-over-everything-else philosophy. The company’s founder, Ingvar Kamprad, famously says that Ikea’s identity is its product range. Conversely, the product range embodies and expresses the Ikea philosophy. Values and vision drive product development, performed by a select group of designers with a deep understanding of the Ikea concept.

But the catalog issue demonstrates that Ikea must take its product-centric approach a step further, to treat all of its marketing activities as part of its product mix. The catalog—the publication with the largest circulation in the world—is not just a book of furniture; in the eyes of consumers, it is a part of the Ikea product and service offerings. That’s why a catalog that doesn’t live up to Ikea’s principles of diversity and equal rights is as big a PR problem for Ikea as tainted bottles of Coke would be for Coca-Cola.

For all brands, treating every touch point with the same care, the same attention to detail, and the same focus on value to customers is not only a tremendous challenge but also a big opportunity. Among other things, it means that everyone becomes a product manager. An insightful analysis in the McKinsey Quarterly, "We’re All Marketers Now," argues that to create true pull and engage customers, companies must expand the grasp of marketing to all parts of its organization. The consultants compare this to the challenge many companies faced in the early days of the quality movement of the late ’70s, when quality control went from being an organizational unit to an integrated part of general management. In the same way, branding is changing from being the responsibility of a dedicated team to being the responsibility of everyone. As a result, McKinsey recommends smaller dedicated marketing teams with traditional marketing duties spread out over other departments.

Much of this, especially the organizational implications, is right, but the consultancy is mistaken in one important aspect: where this movement should start. Rather than everyone becoming marketers, they become good product managers, developing materials and events that contain the same qualities as their products. It’s time everyone must become product managers. Ikea, already very product focused, could learn from the Middle East fiasco and show the way.

Written by Jens Martin Skibsted and Rasmus Bech Hansen.

Rasmus Bech Hansen
is the London-based strategy director at Venturethree, a global brand consultancy. He writes on how brands can do well by doing good and has helped to relaunch the United Nations Global Compact brand, the world’s most successful CSR initiative.

[Images: Arrows and Boxes via Shutterstock]

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  • Ludhiana Mann

    The issue is not women, Saudi Arabia won't have any problems with women in catalogs as long as they follow the dress code in the region (no flesh shown except face and hands as in Indian Salwar Kameez). Western catalogs abound with women wearing revealing clothes (obviously what in west means a revealing dress amounts to nakedness in Saudi parlance). In a country where most women and men too wear long covering clothes, Ikea should accept cultural differences.

  • Cwmqat

    In most cases, Saudi Arabia's treatment and rules WRT women in society are fundamentally the opposite of what Islam teaches. Women are fully equal to men in Islam, and rules like women not being allowed to drive, or work in certain environments etc. are only derived from the MOST extreme interpretations AT BEST. Women in Islam have historically been leaders, teachers, soldiers, scholars, benefactors etc. and played a full role in society.

    When companies like IKEA try to appease religious extremists, no one benefits, certainly not the women of Saudi Arabia, who are kept invisible by the Saudis as much as possible and then invisible by IKEA removing them from catalogs.

  • Osama

    I am a brand manager myself and I agree on the idea of every employee being a product manager, its really well written, but when talking about corporate values I think it's quite different from displaying women in products catalogue... every global brand could maintain his values by lots of means and directions according to the targeted markets, and also he shouldn't produce the same marketing materials all over the world with difference translation.

  • James Mattison

    I'm vaguely intrigued by the reaction to IKEA's decision to remove women from its Saudi Arabian catalogue. Whilst there is a wider global political implication to the move (that IKEA have already stated they do not wish to be a platform for), surely the main motivation was not to upset the people who would be receiving the catalogue on their doorstep and ultimately visiting stores to buy products.

    As a western born and trained graphic designer that has been working in the Middle East for over six years, including work for companies in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, this kind of cultural and religious sensitivity is a constant factor.
    Whilst we're quick to jump to the defence of women's rights in this matter, in doing so, are we not infringing on the rights of the people of Saudi Arabia to choose how they follow their religion?

  • AhmadEzzat

    How is what IKEA did is any different than what all companies do?  They catered the message (catalog) to their target market (middle-east).   A company should abide by its values. but should also respect and understand the values of its target market. 

  • Brook Bollinger

    IKEA's biggest market is women.  Removing women from the catalog in an effort to placate a group of people who undervalue women and act to keep women repressed is against IKEA's corporate values.  As Bill Maher once said, "Don't be so tolerant that you tolerate intolerance."  I applaud IKEA for changing the catalog back and living up to its values.

  • jcott

    Agreed.  If one's values are diversity and equal rights, it often means that one needs to allow and respect people who think differently.  Diversity inherently needs to allow differences; equal rights means people are equal.  Neither one means "the same as me"...