David Blecken
Jul 23, 2014

Positioning alcohol in Asia: Pernod Ricard's top marketer on finding the right blend

THE FACE BEHIND THE BRAND: Pernod Ricard’s Glen Brasington says positioning alcohol brands in the region means connecting strategic objectives to market needs.

Brasington: Advocates “working with local teams to...take a global brand and make it work for the local palate”
Brasington: Advocates “working with local teams to...take a global brand and make it work for the local palate”

The Chinese government’s crackdown on luxury spending has been troubling for alcoholic beverage companies like Pernod Ricard. Slowing sales in China played a role in the firm missing its third-quarter revenue estimates. But as a marketer in a region where tastes continue to mature from one day to the next, all Glen Brasington sees is opportunity.

“The performance of prestige products has slowed, but the mid- to long-term opportunities are still really strong across Asia,” he says. “What we have to do is ensure we are managing our investments and continue to invest for the long haul.”

That seems a fair assessment. In this year’s Asia’s Top 1000 Brands report, the likes of Chivas continue their ascent in terms of perception in Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines and in particular Vietnam, where the brand ranks 69th overall. Absolut is also on the rise in Indonesia and Malaysia.

As regional vice-president of marketing, Brasington’s role is anything but straightforward. He is responsible for 14 markets, all of which are home to consumers with very distinct preferences and habits when it comes to drinking. For that reason, he tries to simplify things as much as he can. 

“Over the years, things have been added and added [to the role of marketing] and objectives have got lost. The first thing is to get back to basics, understand the consumer and the brand position.”

Naturally, that is not easy. The Australian is no stranger to the alcohol industry: a former barman, he joined Diageo in 1997, moving to Pernod Ricard in his home market after a stint at PepsiCo. When he took on his current role in Hong Kong two years ago, he spent the first 12 months getting to grips with what the company needed to do in Asia.

“It’s about listening to a company’s strategic objectives and connecting them to market needs,” he says. Among the first things he noticed was the potential to grow the ranks of middle class female drinkers in emerging markets — people with no history of alcohol consumption. He also noted the movement of middle class drinkers towards premium brands. He identified finding a way into the meal occasion as the first step. Beer is one thing, but “finding out how to introduce with style spirits to that occasion is quite a challenge”, he admits. 

Brasington’s experience has made him a strong believer in localisation. Indeed, developing local solutions is a key feature of Pernod Ricard’s marketing activities. Last year, the company launched Martell Distinction, a variant designed to work well with Chinese food. “It sits at the mid-point in terms of portfolio,” he explains, adding that it took around eight months to develop and launch the product.

Local adaptation isn’t just a feature of less mature markets. Launched around the same time as Martell Distinction, Chivas Mizunara is Chivas whisky rested in Mizunara oak, and available exclusively in Japan. “It was a case of finding something unique and new that Japanese customers can try that’s more relevant to them.” Other products along these lines include Wah — white wine under the Jacob’s Creek label designed to accompany sushi, and Lamoon, a red that complements the heat of Thai cuisine. Both were developed in conjunction with acclaimed local chefs. In the case of Wah, the product has expanded into several other regional markets. 

“It’s a question of working with local teams to figure out what’s going to work best, understanding how to take a global brand and make it work for the local palate,” he says. “We’re flexible with a lot of brands. We won’t change Chivas 12, but… This sort of thinking is not very common in the alcohol world. It’s set in its ways. You have to strike a balance.”

Developing interesting products is the first stage. The next is getting people to drink them. Brasington’s approach centres on building influential advocates. He admits the strategy is not new, but says it works — provided the advocate has a link to the product or brand beyond simply wanting to cash an endorsement fee. “We use influencers like chefs and celebrities, but if there’s no deeper connection with the brand, then it’s just a short-term solution.” 

Sometimes a more effective way of operating is to identify “tribes” — “consumers or crusaders who embody the brand”. Nurturing these groups, he says, ensures the brand “has a home”, and that marketing money is being channelled wisely. “Focusing on the tribe helps focus investment. It has more longevity than celebrity endorsement.”

An example is Pernod Ricard’s approach to establishing Café de Paris, a sparkling wine aimed at young women in Japan. Brasington says the company identified a link between the target audience and nail artistry. Having established this, it set about turning nail artists into “crusaders” for the brand. Activities have included a major presence at the Tokyo Nail Expo (which draws a crowd of 50,000), sampling inside nail salons and cross-promotions (themed nail designs, for example). A big part of the ‘tribe/crusader’ strategy centres on education, with promoters suggesting how to get the most enjoyment out of a product.

Too much enjoyment can of course backfire for an alcohol company, and Brasington says an equally important part of his work is to encourage people to drink responsibly. “Our mantra is that we want people to drink better, not more.” 

In Japan, that takes the form of ‘No ikki’, a campaign that aims to discourage students from binge drinking. The company has also run numerous anti-drink driving campaigns, and, unusually, in India operates a roadside eye-testing service for shortsighted drivers. The initiative began to help the drivers transporting Pernod Ricard products around the country and grew from there.

Unsurprisingly, Brasington says the most difficult part of his job is measuring and evaluating the impact of all activity around the region. Advocacy is difficult to quantify, but he says he believes in setting “stretching” objectives. Digital work is also developed with a view to monitoring consumer sentiment in real time, and refining communications accordingly. One unexpected by-product of anti-counterfeit QR codes was a new platform on which to provide drinkers with offers and “drink solutions”. Technology continues to change the way Pernod Ricard engages with people, despite the fact that the bulk of promotion is done on the ground.

“We have to interact more in a one-to-one way than a one-to-many way. We’re consulting more with pure technology providers like Google to figure out how to position our brands in social environments. One of the hardest things is that our products are very physical. That’s difficult to recreate online. But digital is an enabler — it allows people to socialise more and alcohol is part of that.”

The introduction of an internal social network has also helped promote conversation around business issues and made it easier to share information. “We’re able to look at what’s happening in other markets, and competitive activity. It’s also a good means of interaction between senior management and frontline staff.”

Looking ahead, Brasington is enthused by the potential of developing markets like Cambodia and Mongolia. He admits “innovation” is an overused word in marketing, but says a commitment to ongoing innovation is nonetheless the only way to succeed. Pernod Ricard has ‘innovation managers’ in each of its markets. Above all, he is keen to stress that he and his immediate team, while responsible for the entire Pernod Ricard portfolio in Asia, are not “the police”. It is up to the brand owners themselves to drive consistency and compliance. From where he sits, “it’s about finding new opportunities and accelerating them”, he says.

2012 VP marketing, Pernod Ricard Asia
2009 Marketing director, Pernod Ricard Australia
2007 Regional marketing director, PepsiCo

Family Married with twins
Interests Skateboarding, action sports

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