Alumni from General Mills, Frito-Lay, and Procter & Gamble discuss how to break into brand management, with or without prior experience

Whether they’re MBA or Master of Marketing candidates, many Vanderbilt students come to Owen in the hopes of launching a career in marketing or brand management. But because of all the required classes in Mod I, they might not even touch a marketing course until Mod II — meaning they may have to start the recruiting process without any marketing experience.

Last year, the Career Management Center (CMC) launched the Brand Symposium to help new students figure out if branding is the right career path for them. Similar to the HOP Symposium, the Brand Symposium happens only a few weeks after school starts and features Owen alumni from prominent brands talking about their experiences and responsibilities.

Amanda Fend, Senior Associate Director of the CMC

“We realized through the years that if students were interested in brand, they had to commit to the recruiting path early,” said Amanda Fend, Senior Associate Director at the CMC, who helped coordinate this year’s Brand Symposium. “It’s hard to make that commitment if you don’t really understand what brand management entails, so having an early event that was really a deep dive into (the industry) seemed like it would be valuable for students.”

Alumni who have spoken at the two symposiums to date have experience at a variety of big-name consumer-goods companies and retailers: General Mills, Mars Petcare, Procter & Gamble, L’Oreal, NBTY, Frito-Lay, Heinz, Nestle USA, Target, SC Johnson, and Pepperidge Farm. Speakers explain what typical brand management work looks like at their companies and share tips for acing the recruiting process.

“The most valuable part of the symposium is hearing what these alums actually do and have done in their roles. What does a day in the life look like, and how does that vary across companies, brands and experience levels?” Fend said. “Students walk out with a much firmer understanding of brand management and hopefully feeling that it’s more appealing or less appealing than when they walked in from a personal fit standpoint.”

This year’s symposium, held last Friday, opened with a panel discussion about “Brand Career Paths and ‘Day in the Life.’” Approximately 50 attendees then split up into three longer breakout sessions, which gave students a chance to discuss their unique career concerns with the panelists. The half-day session ended with the panel “Brand Recruiting Insight and Advice.”

“(The recruiting process) is insanely fast, so the more info students are armed with, the better they can align their personal stories with brand recruiting and prepare for interviews,” Fend said.

THE SPEAKERS

Alex VanVliet

Alex VanVliet (MBA’15), marketing manager at Frito-Lay (part of PepsiCo), told listeners that brand managers must become absolute experts on what products they are given, since everyone will rely on them for expertise. “You need to be the go-to person for that business (i.e. your brand), and if you’re not, you’re failing at your job,” he said.

Devin Kunysz (MBA’15), senior associate marketing manager for snack innovation at General Mills, urged students to determine what factors matter most to them in a future internship or job, and then prioritize that during recruiting. “The CMC has a really nice framework,” he said. “Figure out (what you want): Is it industry? Is it (job) function? Is it geography?” He also discouraged interning at a company you don’t want to work for post-graduation, since re-recruiting is difficult.

Cara Trasgeiler

Cara Tragseiler (MBA’10), a brand manager for the BRAUN division at Procter & Gamble, explained how brand management is much more than just marketing; in fact, at some companies it’s seen as must-have experience for employees aiming for general management positions. She estimated that 90% of senior leaders at Procter & Gamble came up through brand management. “Brand is our training ground for general management,” she said.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

No brand experience? No problem. All three speakers offered strong encouragement for students hoping to switch into a brand management career without any prior experience. In fact, it’s rare that someone does have brand experience before coming to business school, and companies like Procter & Gamble do a lot of recruiting out of MBA programs for this very reason. “Everyone is new to brand management…very few people did it for three or five years before business school,” Kunysz said. “Don’t feel like…everyone you’re interviewing against is this experienced brand manager who will crush you. You’re all in the same boat.”

Devin Kunysz

Reach out to alumni early. Because the recruiting cycle for brand management starts so early, reaching out to alumni for informational interviews needs to happen quickly as well. Students should take these conversations seriously and treat them like interviews; “the follow-up note is really important,” VanVliet affirmed. While reaching out cold can be intimidating, most alumni are happy to help, and many are interested in actively recruiting Owen students (“I genuinely would like more Owen alums at P&G,” Trasgeiler revealed). After all, alumni have no way of knowing you’re interested in their company unless you proactively contact them. “The people who reach out are the people who get help,” Kunysz said.