Regardless of the channel framework selected, channels usually perform better if someone is in charge, providing some level of leadership. Essentially, the purpose of this leadership is to coordinate the goals and efforts of channel institutions. The level of leadership can range from very passive to quite active—verging on dictatorial. The style may range from very negative, based on fear and punishment, to very positive, based on encouragement and reward. In a given situation, any of these leadership styles may prove effective.
Given the restrictions inherent in channel leadership, the final question is "who should lead the channel?" Two important trends are worth noting, since they influence the answer. First, if we look at the early years of marketing, i.e. pre-1920, the role of the wholesaler (to bring the producer and consumer together) was most vital. Consequently, during this period, the wholesaler led most channels. This is no longer true. A second trend is the apparent strategy of both manufacturers and retailers to exert power through size. In a type of business cold war, manufacturers and retailers are constantly trying to match each other's size. The result has been some serious warfare to gain channel superiority.
Under which conditions should the manufacturers lead? The wholesaler? The retailer? While the answer is contingent upon many factors, in general, the manufacturer should lead if control of the product (merchandising, repair) is critical and if the design and redesign of the channel is best done by the manufacturer. The wholesaler should lead where the manufacturers and retailers have remained small in size, large in number, relatively scattered geographically, are financially weak, and lack marketing expertise. The retailer should lead when product development and demand stimulation are relatively unimportant and when personal attention to the customer is important.