Tom Kile-Hartshorn, co-founder of digital marketing agency Nation

Tom Kile-Hartshorn, co-founder of digital marketing agency Nation

Two months ago, Tom Kile-Hartshorn's digital marketing agency, Nation, won the right to handle Grolsch's global digital content and social media platforms. It was the agency's biggest contract to date and they had their work cut out. According to Kile-Hartshorn, the SABMiller brand was represented online by about three or four mini-sites, some of which were getting about five hits a month.

“Branded sites are always very difficult,” says Kile-Hartshorn, who before starting Nation worked on brands such as Strepils and Nokia. “Everyone thinks they need a website but no one knows exactly what they want from it.”

His team is working to change that for Grolsch. The company scrapped the mini-sites (which were mainly just hosting ads) and has helped launch Canvas by Grolsch, a constantly-updated online channel that has now rolled out globally. As opposed to the hard sell, Canvas intends to create “brand warmth” for Grolsch among the 25-35 age group with articles on new trends, designers, photographers and films.

“It's a microclimate of content without ever being brand shouty,” Kile-Hartshorn says. 

just-drinks: How is Canvas working out for the Grolsch brand?

Tom Kile-Hartshorn: It seems to be really picking up pace for Grolsch and it's a nice spot in the market. There's not many brands that are doing it [reaching the target demographic] particularly well.

j-d: Where does the brand connection for the consumer come in? How do you link the brand without overtly selling it?

TKH: We're not ignoring the fact that the stuff that we're doing is attached to a brand but we make it so that it is Grolsch presenting all these articles and videos to the audience. We were struggling with that exact question in the past year. We had a website that was cool but almost ignoring the brand and that was taking us in the wrong direction. We already have a lot of fans who like the beer. So if everything we do is 'Grolsch is presenting this to you', then that's enough.

j-d: Is this how marketing has to be now? Constantly giving the consumer new content to drive the brand forward?

TKH: The market is so fractured. Some of our target consumers might be really into a small beer in the US, whereas ten years ago they would never have heard of it. Now everything is so global there's a lot to compete with. There are also very big hitters who have 40 times the budget of Grolsch. So we have to be very targeted and as clever as possible without doing things like sponsoring the World Cup.

j-d: Is keeping a consumer loyal to the brand more difficult? 

TKH: It is more difficult, but that's part of it. So, instead of sponsoring one big sports event that will see you remember the brand for two months, we try for a constant build up of being the brand that the consumer associates with things they are interested in.

j-d: Has it taken the alcohol industry longer to get on board with digital?

TKH: The regulatory stuff is very difficult. With social channels it has been a battle. SABMiller wants to be on these channels but if that social network isn't catering to the needs of alcohol brands then it is very difficult for them to be there. We need age-gates, we need control over those systems, otherwise we run into trouble.

In the last six months, Instagram has turned on age-gate control. But, previously, we had to build a small workaround and turn all our Instagram channels to private and make an external age-gate. It was a very hackneyed way of doing it but we knew people wanted to follow us on these things and if we weren’t there then we were missing out.

j-d: How do you deal with the regulation around alcohol marketing?

TKH: SABMiller has to be so ahead of the curve and self-regulatory, so they don’t ever have to have those conversations with the regulators. We have very strict communication guidelines, and rightly so. We have to make sure we are working with those things rather than against them and that everything we do is carefully managed.

j-d: Do you think SABMiller now 'gets' digital marketing?

TKH: They seem to be very on top of it and starting to put into place some very interesting platforms, internally. They do a lot of social listening, a lot of analytics and reporting, to learn from the projects that we're doing.

Some say that alcohol has been a slow industry to get a handle on that sort of thing, but I would argue there are a lot of brands out there that are the same. SABMiller has really pushed ahead with it in the last couple of years and I think they've got their heads around the idea of doing interesting things with content, platforms and social channels rather than spending all of the budget on a TV ad.

j-d: Are there any industries that do get digital?

TKH: A lot of interesting things are happening in fashion because it is so competitive that they are always trying new things. They are always trying to be on the cutting edge of things. With alcohol and the regulatory stuff, it is difficult but they can be a little bit trepidatious because of that. There's so many things that we'd love to try but we have to be so far ahead of the regulations. I'd love to do interesting things on Periscope, Snapchat and WhatsApp but it's a very treacherous line that we walk.