Drink. That powerful aphrodisiac/social uninhibitor/confrontation-catalyst once described by the renowned prophet Homer Simpson as: “The cause of, and solution to, all life’s problems.” In the marketing world its significance runs even deeper, often translating to an opportunity for the sort of creative and sexy advertising that other types of companies dare not touch.
They are the kind of briefs that ad agencies crave. And, as sales development and marketing director at Halewood International, Bob Rishworth is one of the men responsible for commissioning them.
On a chilly December morning Rishworth agreed to be harangued by The Marketeer about his career, past and present, as well as his views on marketing in the drinks sector in general.
It’s a field Rishworth knows like the back of his hand. Having acquired his marketing diploma over three years of night classes, he joined Allied Domecq, eventually working his way up to become commercial director of the company’s Spirits division. Following this, Rishworth moved on to Morrison Supermarkets, where he again rose to the position of wines and spirits director, before joining Halewood. Rishworth has now been at the company for 12 years. He wryly comments, “I’ve been working since 1960, which obviously makes me qualified to sell alcoholic drinks to today’s 25-year-olds.”
Modesty aside, Rishworth has played a direct role in the company’s growth over the past 12 years. Whether in terms of building on existing brands or introducing new ones, Rishworth’s lean four-strong marketing team is constantly at the forefront of shifting bottles off shelves.
In fact, Rishworth cites the company’s ability to launch innovative new products as one of its key strengths. He says: “Introducing new products is the strength of our chairman, John Halewood, who owns the company. It’s his principal interest and we work closely with him to introduce brands into the marketplace. It’s one of our strengths that we can quickly introduce things, but this can also be a disadvantage, as it doesn’t always leave us much time for research. Although we have found that this isn’t always such a bad thing, as research can sometimes do as much harm as good.”
This knack for product development and innovation has led to the launch of brands such as Red Square, the bottled drink targeted at 18- to 24-year-olds that was introduced after Halewood foresaw the mass appeal of the Vodka/Red Bull mix. Other recent launches have included Caribbean Twist, Shakers Schnapps, Elements and Hardcore, while more established brand Lambrini is currently selling more than 40 million bottles each year and is the lead drink in its target market of 18- to 34-year-old women.
Next year is to herald further product launches, though Rishworth is not forthcoming with too many details. He says: “We are currently looking into introducing a wine range in the not-too-distant future that will aim at a younger target audience than the traditional wine market.”
Investment in more product ranges would certainly seem to show a level of confidence in the market, a view that Rishworth reinforces. “Well, most product areas are performing reasonably well,” he states. “Some doing much better than others. It’s holding its own. According to research, alcohol is actually performing better than food products at the moment. Some spirits are moving backwards but they are counterbalanced by spirits that are doing well, such as Vodka, which is particularly strong at the moment. If you look at a graph of growth they seem to be on the plus side, rather than the minus side.”
In light of this healthy market, Halewood has not been subject to the slash in advertising spend that many companies have been forced into over the last eighteen months. Much, it can be assumed, to the relief of its marketing agencies.
Rishworth does point out, however, that due to Halewood being privately owned he has to make his budget, said to be “between £12-15m”, stretch that little bit further.
“We are a private company, so we have to remember that every pound we spend comes out of the chairman’s pocket,” Rishworth says. “Every pound we spend counts for two of everyone else’s, so we have to be completely sure we’re getting the most return on investment.”
Giving clients value for money is something Northern agencies are undeniably skilled at, and this is supported by the fact that, out of six marketing agencies employed by the company, five are based in the North. Halewood splits its advertising between Manchester’s CheethamBell JWT and Leeds-based Advertising Principles, while its main incumbent PR agency is Manchester-based Staniforth Communications. Brazen PR handles the account for the recently launched Hardcore brand while the only southern marketing agency, Westbury Communications, handles PR for the company’s wine portfolio. Media buying is commissioned through Mediacom in Manchester.
Although he states that there are no plans to review Westbury’s position on the Halewood roster, Rishworth does display a distinct preference towards the North. He says: “In the main, I’d prefer local agencies because it is so much easier to meet up with them. We’re having a meeting later today with both Mediacom and CheethamBell JWT. I don’t know whether it’s here or in Manchester yet, but it doesn’t matter – Manchester is just 40 minutes along the motorway. If I need to carry on to Leeds it’s only about an hour away. All the agencies I’ve appointed have been in the North.”
This said, the company has worked with a London ad agency in the past. So how does Rishworth think Northern agencies compare with those in the South?
“In my experience of the Northern operators I would say, yes, they measure up to London. I’ve worked with Leo Burnett, but in my experience they weren’t any better than Advertising Principles or CheethamBell JWT, otherwise I would have considered working with them again.”
Choosing an ad or PR agency is of course just one of the challenges Rishworth faces in his role.
“I think the biggest challenge is to be innovative and to introduce products that immediately have consumer appeal,” he explains. “Introducing something that will interest the consumers, who have increasingly fickle tastes in what they like to drink. It’s finding something that appeals to these promiscuous young drinkers.”
He adds: “Promiscuous in their drinking habits, I mean, not their personalities.”
For drinks manufacturers, however, the consumers aren’t the only ones that have to be kept happy. The drinks industry comes under heavy scrutiny from not only the Advertising Standards Authority but also trade watchdog the Portman Group. The Portman Group is an association promoting “sensible drinking” that keeps a careful eye on how drinks manufacturers promote their brands.
Rishworth explains: “The other thing is to keep on the right side of the legislators. We have had warnings in the past. We introduced a product called ‘Sorted’ and we received a warning that ‘sorted’ was a drug term. I’d certainly not heard of it, as had none of my younger colleagues. I thought it was a bit unfair, but we ended up changing it anyway.
“We had some flack on Hardcore as well. We hadn’t actually run with anything yet, but the trade press had alluded to what we were going to run with. The Portman Group had trouble with what we were saying about the strength of the drink. Eventually we decreased the size of the notice on the bottle. Ironically, at the same time that this was happening one of our competitors was getting into trouble for not having their alcohol percentage shown big enough on the bottle.”
The main challenge, Rishworth states, is a combination of the above two. “Anyone can bring out a bland product that meets all the guidelines, and it’ll go the way of all bland things,” he says. “I think when you’re marketing to marketing-literate youngsters you have to be on the edge, which sometimes draws the attention of the regulators.”
To the question of “what has been your biggest achievement?” Rishworth says “Surviving,” before adding: “Being President of the Wine & Spirits Trade Benevolent Society means that, in the eyes of the industry, you are respected, but I think to survive in this day and age is a good enough achievement.”
As to the future, Rishworth and Halewood will no doubt continue to produce products and campaigns that push the boundaries of innovation and guidelines alike. Rishworth, the modest man himself, says: “I don’t have a personal ambition except to continue to survive and continue to help the company grow in the same way it has since its formation in 1978.”