by Erna George (@edgeo23) Managing portfolios is a balancing act, whether it’s finance or brands. I’ve seen many struggle with this and it’s a fine coordination that needs to occur. The challenge for marketing managers or CMOs handling portfolios of brands within the same categories is not only the brands but also helping the brand managers and the agency partners to each stay in their lanes to get the true impact and influence generated by a portfolio.


Key is getting everyone to see the same ecosystem and then buy into it, so there’s little crossover or, at least, managed synergy. First define the space for each brand, get all to embrace it and play nicely — put the portfolio first

Start by defining the playing field and your players, and be clear who you are competing against. Eg, you may be in breakfast such as healthy cereals. Decide which offers the size of prize, scope for growth and ability to be distinct, then proceed.

Within each portfolio, there’s a view of future-growth potential; this is integrally linked to business strategy so mustn’t be taken lightly. A portfolio play allows you a bigger playing ground but how you play is critical. Within the portfolio, each brand will have a strategic role, like chess pieces, and margins and returns for each of these will be different, so resources must be allocated according to role.

If working on the ‘manage-for-value’ brand, accept that budget will be minimal and your focus on tactical activities is at the core. Strategic or power brands, where the significant growth and profitability are expected, need the lion’s share of investment. This may shift depending on the job at hand but know that assigning equal share of budget is not a choice; it’s a cop out.


Share the portfolio play and roles with the full brand team and agency contingent to dispel potential confusion. Marketing bosses, try sharing the love and energy across the team. It’s not easy working on the poor cousin set of brands; this may lead to boredom, frustration and clamouring for ideas that push boundaries, even if a poor fit. Also consider (depending on portfolio and brand size) that agencies could work across the portfolio or on more than one brand in the portfolio to own and keep visible the distinct spaces. Crafting the team to be unified behind one vision is critical for success.

When roles, brand proposition and distinctiveness are well-defined, judging creative is easier but you need systems and great clarity to ensure everyone stays in line. If an idea that an agency or brand team member comes up with fits another brand in the portfolio, let it go where it will flourish. Apply it incorrectly, or to the incorrect brand, and incongruence will be known and felt. Consumers recognise when a brand strays and, with increased competition, there’s just less room for play and error.

Imagine if you had both Lindt and Smarties brands in your portfolio… when a quirky, and lively, idea is presented from the agency managing Lindt, what would you do? The temptation to force a fit could be strong, especially you’ve taken the time to brief the agency, time is ticking and, of course, the idea is breakthrough. But, if anyone can see it for what it is — a Smartie idea masquerading under a connoisseur hat — pull back. Pause and ask the question: which brand for which opportunity?

When you’re too close, you may be wooed by great ideas — I still can be — so set key criteria by which to judge the ideas:

  • Fit with brand personality/tone/character
  • Fit with objective (growth/brand equity building…)

You get the idea — keep yourself honest and make navigation clear for you and agency partners.

Do unto yourself before it’s done to you

Now, staying in line is admirable but not 100% possible; I do believe in the principle of “do unto yourself before it’s done to you”. That’s where managing a portfolio has great power. You have a set of brands that may be effectively used to cover market spaces, fight competing brands and take advantage of new opportunities by extending with sub-brands or stretch as relevant. Think back to when online streaming hit the market: DStv didn’t get overconfident or shy away, imagining that its days were numbered. Would it have helped to fight it? No, it introduced Showmax among other tactics to protect and grow. The benefit of a portfolio is that value options can play a clear role while a new innovative offer can be paired with other sub-brands for great impact. DStv then rides the wave of change, testing what’s working and dialling up or down different options.

A portfolio allows you to play and protect income streams. You can’t go at portfolio play in siloes as then you’ll fight yourself and damage company brands. In managing a portfolio, the left and right hand are in unison even when they are covering different activities; each play is crafted and the impact on your brands is calculated for the best impact against competitors. Co-ordinating the dance is everything. Even if what you do will hurt one of your brands, do it on your terms and strengthen your other players for enhancing relevance.

If DStv had sat back and left Netflix be the only play in digital, it would have lost hand over fist. Now having accepted part of its portfolio relevance has diminished, this has allowed it to share a new growth stream while building armour for the existing one.

In the future, some elements may be rationalised, some will become cash cows allowing the most relevant brands to then grow. This isn’t possible if each brand team is protecting their income stream at the cost of the whole.

Not what you want

And it’s not about what you want.

I hear all too often language that indicates brand teams are bored and want a different direction. Or agencies, which want to be energised with something new, push an idea. No offence but portfolio owners can’t allow empathy for bored brand and agency teams to cloud judgement. While you must ensure teams are motivated, managing a portfolio requires a level of strictness. I’ve been given ultimatums by agencies with “if you won’t take the idea, I will just have to give it to brand x”. It’s taken me a few years to not succumb to the “What if I miss a big one?!” Now, I say, “Go ahead.”

You can reinvigorate while being true to the brand; it just takes more effort. You wouldn’t suddenly want to own hot pink in the detergents category as the Surf or Sunlight brand manager, just because your colour is ‘so last year’– unless you really want to look like a copycat or Vanish wannabe. Mixing things up and being unexpected is important but within a portfolio, when you do this, you have to think it through from every angle twice to stress it’s not owned by another or that it builds on years of heritage. Most of us, even if we work on a brand for more than five years, are but a blip on the history of that brand. Don’t screw it up.

A brand portfolio strategy is about a family of brands that, when activated in unison, allows brand teams to have more widespread relevance with differentiated offers and, therefore, more influence over market performance. But, even though it’s a family, you’re not the parent of the family of brands, as parents often struggle to treat their children in a non-discriminatory way. You care for each brand but you must be somewhat detached in application.


Brand portfolios offer leverage and, therefore, recognise the role of each of your loved brands and then allocate resources accordingly. Remember:

  • Portfolio strategy links to business strategy, define the playing field, brand roles and communicate this — coordinating the dance of the brands is everything
  • Use your portfolio to do unto yourself before others do to you in order to stay ahead of the wave of change while maximising income
  • It’s not personal; it’s not what each brand wants to be; it’s what the portfolio needs for growth.


Erna GeorgeAfter starting at Unilever in a classical marketing role, Erna George (@edgeo23) explored the agency side of life, first as a partner at Fountainhead Design, followed by the manic and inspiring world of consultancy at Added Value. She has returned to client-side, leading the marketing team in the Cereals, Accompaniments & Baking Division at Pioneer Foods. Her monthly “Fair Exchange” column on MarkLives concerns business relationships and partnerships in marketing and brandland.

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