Interview

"Our latest campaign was fuelled by simply looking at Google" - just-drinks speaks to Beam Suntory's global chief marketing officer, Rebecca Messina

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Rebecca Messina joined Beam Suntory two-and-a-half years ago, after spending the previous two decades with The Coca-Cola Co, to lead the spirits group's global marketing. On Monday, Messina took time out from Beam Suntory's annual global conference in Barcelona to sit down with just-drinks and talk about what lessons she has brought from Coca-Cola to her current role, the challenges of marketing around stock shortages and why there would be no winners from a Trump trade war.

Rebecca Messina joined Beam Suntory from The Coca-Cola Co in 2016

Rebecca Messina joined Beam Suntory from The Coca-Cola Co in 2016

just-drinks: You've said elsewhere that Beam Suntory hired you from Coca-Cola (Messina was senior VP for marketing & innovation when she left in 2016) to turn it into a brand-driven company. What was Beam Suntory before?

Rebecca Messina, Beam Suntory's global chief marketing officer: We had a suite of great brands, probably not too dissimilar to most spirits companies, so I've just come in to take these incredible brands - which are a real pot of gold with a great suite of marketers - and I really just tried to bring a brand-building discipline - storytelling, driving authenticity, digging further in, consistency around the room - the pillars of brand building. Just a lot things I learned in the 22 years in my prior place.

j-d: What changes have you made?

"We have to be in all of the places consumers are looking for us, and then interrupt them"

RM: We need the best assets possible, so that's why I've set up a marketing communications department dedicated to doing this. We've got an incredible suite of brand builders, but they do many jobs. What we realised was we need people who were the right hands to the brands teams and dedicated to content creation. So, we got an in-house agency and we've got content creators who write the narratives, understand the stories and understand where those stories are best told. Sometimes consumers want a longer form of something if they've gone looking for it on a website. Others want a 15-second vignette and then they can choose to go deeper. We have to be in all of the places consumers are looking for us, and then interrupt them and intrigue them to go further. But, we have got to use every form of media at our fingertips.

For example, you'll never see (light Bourbon brand) Basil Hayden on television. That would just be heresy to how that brand shows up in the world. So, you don't have to be in every channel possible. You need to be in every channel where the consumer might be looking for that brand. Even how we show up on Google: The number-one most-searched term for Maker's Mark is "Do they really still hand-dip the bottles?"

Our latest Maker's Mark campaign (Mark of the Maker) was fuelled by what stories consumers wanted by simply looking at Google and finding out what they search for. Consumers can't believe that we still hand-dip every bottle. And, we do.

j-d: Suntory announced recently that some of its Japanese whiskies are to be delisted. What are the challenges of marketing around stock shortages?

RM: It's an education process for consumers because we live in an instant gratification society - they expect that if they want it, it's there. This is still one of those things that remind you that you can't have everything you want. I kind of love it because it plays up against everything in the world, and you can't do anything about it.

j-d: How do you make the consumer see that?

RM: You make them appreciate what they do have. That's how we've looked at it. Obviously, there are some high-demand Japanese whiskies in our portfolio, but we have other, more available House of Suntory portfolio members as well. We've been able to create a broad swathe of products, from our Japanese gin to Toki, which is a Japanese whisky for the US domestic market. There are other things that we have in the pipeline for House of Suntory. It reminds consumers of the specialness of what we have, and reminds us of the difficulties that we have in this job (around stock). I know that someone will be swearing about me ten years from now. They'll be saying, what a jerk she was, she got it wrong!

j-d: A number of countries have said they will implement retaliatory tariffs on products including US whiskey after US president Donald Trump's Government increased duties on steel and aluminium. Is there a chance that Jim Beam will be more expensive in global markets?

"No-one wins in a trade war, we'd love to see this settled without any additional tariffs"

RM: At the end of the day, we're playing our role on both sides of the ocean. No-one wins in a trade war, we'd love to see this settled without any additional tariffs. So, we have our fingers crossed and we're playing an active role to do everything we can because we'd love to keep these brands accessibly-priced. But, more than that, there's a lot of people behind these brands - there are farmers, workers all over the country. We'd love to steer clear of the tariffs in any way we can, and we will do everything we can to make that happen, but sometimes it is out of our hands.

These are price-sensitive brands and I'd much rather we remain an accessibly-priced option for consumers.

j-d: Your previous employer has been working hard to deal with challenges over heath concerns around soft drinks. Have you seen those concerns seeping into alcohol?

RM: I don't know if I'd call them health concerns. Consumers want lower-calorie, lower-alcohol options as part of a portfolio of options. We know that in the spirits business, consumers have a repertoire. Yes, there is a trend for refreshment, there is a trend for lower calorie, a trend for lower sugar, lower alcohol. But, there is still a space for fuller-bodied spirits.

j-d: Would you like to get involved with the lower alcohol spirits segment?

RM: Absolutely. Our innovation pipeline is in line with what the consumers are looking for. We have to stay relevant and in front of this.

j-d: What could be an example?

RM: Even just drinks strategies - cocktails that offer you those choices. We're also looking at a number of different things that we can do that are longer term in our pipeline that I think can be really interesting ways in to take advantage of that. I always say, I grew up on ketchup, my kids grew up on salsa. Twenty-four-year-olds are ordering Old Fashioneds, whereas I was ordering basic plus-one drinks. So, we have to stay where the consumer is going, and ahead of it.

Maintaining consumer trust in the social media age - Click here for a just-drinks comment


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