Pre-MBA’s Guide to Brand Management and Consumer Goods

Do you dream of using your first job post-MBA as a sort of second business school? Do you love the idea of shaping products that are in people’s homes and daily lives, that solve some of their most basic needs or bring them joy? Are you heading to business school to develop a career in marketing or general management? Then keep on reading, because CPG and brand management might be great for you!

What is CPG? CPG stands for the consumer packaged goods industry, and let’s break down what these companies do. Essentially, they manufacture products that we, as consumers, use every day. Think of the products that you go to the grocery store to pick up – the products in the center aisles, fridges, and freezers are more than likely produced by CPG companies. Here’s a sampling of CPG products:

  • Food and beverage: soda, ice cream, coffee, cereal, granola bars, condiments, etc.
  • Personal care: deodorant, cosmetics, toothpaste, shampoo, razors, skincare, etc.
  • Cleaning products: bleach, laundry detergent, trash bags, sponges, etc.
  • Pet care: pet food, cat litter, etc.
  • CPG companies also make products in other categories, like over-the-counter meds

Brand managers act as the CEOs for individual brands at a CPG company. They monitor the financial health of the brand, set pricing and branding strategy, work with agencies to create ad campaigns, oversee retailer relationships, work with R&D to develop innovation for the evolution of future products, and are ultimately accountable for the success of their brand. 

It’s a role with a ton of ownership, scope, and autonomy. And interestingly enough, when people talk about marketing post-MBA, the roles they’re talking about are traditionally in brand management (or more recently, the PMM role in tech, which you can read about in our guide to tech). In the long term, going into brand management could give you a solid foundation for future general management-type roles (with an eventual path to CEO) or marketing roles in other industries (with a path to CMO).

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Typical Post-MBA Roles

MBA grads are generally hired into Associate Brand Manager (ABM) roles. Depending on the company, you could rotate through a few different specialties, such as communications, innovation, and performance; or you might focus on one of them.

On a day-to-day basis, as an ABM you’d work with a broad group of cross-functional stakeholders (often senior folks) to do things like: analyze sales data, forecast demand, write briefs for advertising, talk to retail teams, prototype product innovations, manage projects, and support the annual planning process. 

It’s worth noting that most CPG companies only make full-time job offers to their summer interns. So if you’re interested in brand management, it’s to your benefit to pursue internship recruiting during your first year and see how it goes.

Draws and Drawbacks

So, what do we love about brand management?

  • You learn a ton! You reinforce core business skills like accounting, finance, ops, and strategy (ooh, breadth!) and become an expert in your product / category and the dynamics of that industry (ooh, depth!)
  • You get experience across the whole marketing funnel, from conception to product delivery, getting products into retailers, and convincing consumers to make the purchase at the shelf – which will serve you well in future marketing roles
  • You have ownership and accountability right away, even as an ABM – you can see how your projects and decisions actually affect your brand’s P&L
  • In CPG, the brand team is at the nexus of decision-making (unlike marketing roles in other industries), which is why there’s so much learning and accountability in this role

And what are some potential dealbreakers?

  • Brand management can have a slower promotion timeline than other post-MBA jobs (~3 years vs. ~2 years post-MBA), and there can be a bottleneck for promotions because the person in the role above you needs to leave or move up to create space
  • Unfortunately, ABMs generally don’t make as much as some other post-MBA jobs (especially consulting or banking)
  • Finding the right exit opportunity can sometimes have additional challenges, like marketing roles with less accountability or scope, or employers not understanding that brand management is a GM role (not a marketing communications role)
  • If your brand’s category has really low margins, there will be pressure to find savings or efficiencies from your budget or even from perks like expensed lunches or travel

Top Schools for Brand Management

In terms of reputation, the top schools for brand management are Wharton, Northwestern Kellogg, Duke Fuqua, Michigan Ross, and Columbia (especially for New York-based companies. Let’s see how this plays out in the data):

We see our list of reputed top schools represented really well on the list of schools that send the highest number of students to CPG companies, along with some other schools like Chicago Booth and NYU Stern. On our list of schools that send the highest percentage of students to CPG companies, our friends at Minnesota Carlson, Indiana Kelley, and Cornell Johnson likely have regional ties to CPG companies in the Midwest and New York that students benefit from.

Top Employers in Brand Management

So, how should you think about what companies to recruit for in brand management / CPG? Let’s explore a handful of broad tracks and types of companies you can consider:

Brand manager as GM (CEO track). These companies train brand managers to act as the CEOs for their companies, and the focus is on a well-rounded GM skillset. Most CPG companies fall under this umbrella, and perception of their prestige is based on how big the company is, revenue-wise. The top tier of companies here are mainstays like Procter & Gamble, General Mills, Kraft Heinz, and Unilever. Other great, smaller companies include Nestlé, Colgate Palmolive, S.C. Johnson, Mars, Johnson & Johnson, L’Oréal, Kellogg, and Clorox.

Brand manager as marketer (CMO track). These companies put a lot of focus (and money) into advertising, and their brand managers pick up great brand strategy and creative / communications skills that serve them well in future marketing roles. Companies under this umbrella include PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Anheuser-Busch InBev, and Diageo.

Smaller consumer brands or start-ups with traditional retailer distribution. If you’re intrigued by the idea of working for a smaller company, take a look through the shelves of your local grocery store or Target and see what products you’re passionate about. Keep in mind that a lot of smaller brands have been bought up by larger firms – for example, KIND bars are part of Kellogg and Shea Moisture was bought by Unilever.

D2C (direct to consumer) companies and start-ups. These companies include Honest, Casper and Brooklinen – think of trendy companies selling you things directly through social media. Keep in mind that since these companies are structured differently from traditional (large) CPG companies, the roles they have might differ (for example, instead of a Brand Manager role, you might be looking at a Product Manager role that is responsible for the P&L of a set of products). It goes without saying that these start-ups probably don’t recruit on campus, and you’d need to do a networked search to find a position with them.

Want to see the top employers in CPG? Check out our awesome Career Report, which includes insights about which industries, functions, and employers are the most common at the top 30 US MBA programs!

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Jackie Laine

Jackie Laine

Playful Problem Solver | Senior
Instructor and Chief Marketing Officer

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