Jessica Spence is used to watching American and western Europeans’ “eyes light up” when she talks to them about China’s digital ecosystem, including the ways customers engage with brands through mobile and the closely linked social media and ecommerce systems.
“They’ve never seen anything like it,” explains the chief commercial officer for Carlsberg, speaking to Campaign at Rise conference in Hong Kong. With the brand for seven years, Spence has spent four of those living in Asia and continues to split her time between here and Europe.
She says there is still “a big education job” to be done in the industry to make people aware that Asia is ahead of the rest of the world in many senses. At the recent Cannes Lions festival, Spence says she was “frustrated” by the prevailing feeling that “western Europe and the US were leading, and everyone else would somehow come along in time”.
“[Asia] is leading in some very specific things and if anything, western Europe and America should be looking much more to what’s happening in Asia, and particularly in tech and hardware in Asia, to see what’s going to hit them next.”
Carlsberg was “lucky” to recognise many years ago that Asia would be a major driver of growth, she says. It is now the brand’s biggest and fastest-growing region. “A lot of what we’re doing on the global brands is often Asia-first,” says Spence. “I think you can do much more exciting things here.”
Spence’s presence at Rise, where she spoke on a variety of panels about Carlsberg’s recent efforts to reposition itself (in the UK, the brand took on feedback about its beer’s bad taste and changed the recipe, re-launching the new drink with a high-risk campaign in which it switched up its famous slogan and admitted it was: ‘Probably not the best beer in the world’), is something of a personal Carlsberg swansong. She will leave the company in September, “a very difficult decision”, and join the spirits brand Beam Suntory on October 1, being based in their Chicago headquarters but still spending plenty of time in Asia, she says.
At her future employers, a subsidiary of the Japanese Suntory group that produces, among other brands, Jim Beam, Courvoisier and Sipsmith, Spence sees a lot of potential, particularly in the area of premiumisation, currently a major trend across the alcohol world. While many of Beam’s brands are quite small in Asia, she thinks they have the heritage, story and craftsmanship behind them to easily sit at the more premium price points.
Yet the time is also right for more expensive beer in Asia, it seems; Spence says a lot of Carlsberg’s growth in Asia in the last few years has come from the group’s more premium brands. “Younger consumers the world over are drinking alcohol a little bit less frequently,” says Spence. “But what we are seeing, and this is particularly true in Asia, is that they are willing to pay a lot more.”
Some Asian markets are extremely mature alcohol drinkers, she says. “If you look at India or China, the Tier 1 cities, even in China the Tier 2 cities now, you’re reaching that point where people are beginning to value that experience a bit more, to look for something where there is maybe a little bit more substance to it.”
The big challenge, particularly for beer, is how to work it into the new social meeting places that have come to replace pubs and bars for many people around the world. The answer may lie in something non-alcoholic.
“Beer is for when people come together,” explains Spence. “It’s a social moment, it’s when you connect. And what we’re seeing is some of those moments are actually shifting into spaces and channels that we’re not present in. When I was growing up, the idea of going to have a coffee with somebody wasn’t really an option, you went to the pub. Now, people are going to Starbucks, or they’re going to Joe and the Juice. They’re going to lovely spaces where they are still feeling the same connection but there’s no real role for beer in that at the moment.”