What is the purpose of brand purpose for Diageo?

Smirnoff partnered with street artist Joe Caslin.

What does the world’s biggest drinks producer do when the purpose it has spent years nurturing in its brands is challenged now the only certainty for people is uncertainty post Brexit, post Trump, post truth?

By accepting that cultural marketing as we know it is about authenticity and “almost not advertising,” answers Leila Fataar, Diageo’s first head of culture and entertainment at the end of her first year in the role. It’s a timely observation off the back of a tumultuous 2016 that saw the potential longevity of a brand’s values and convictions become more important in a world of evanescent ideologies.

Before she continues, Fataar stresses that this isn’t another marketer talking about “purpose having to be worthy”. On the contrary, “purpose is putting the fun into rum” and shouldn’t be political (for her brands at least).

Naysayers will argue it’s naïve to think a business that erected a five-story mural of a lesbian couple kissing in the heart of Belfast (where gay marriage is illegal) is doing anything but making a political stance. Yes, politics has lost touch with younger people just as marketers have begun to talk to them about the issues they care about. But spotlighting those issues - inclusivity as was the case with the Smirnoff mural - can be done without hijacking the political debate, argues Fataar, who would rather “provoke conversation” about those issues that matter to people rather than pick a side.

All brands can be meaningful in their own way, she adds. A rum loved by one person might be meaningless to another, which is why brand storytelling or “activating with purpose” is crucial.

This isn’t new to Diageo; the business has long since joined the dots between brand purpose and brand growth, with Johnnie Walker’s focus on personal progress perhaps the most obvious example. What is new - and is something Fataar honed during the 10 years she ran her own agency - is how Diageo delivers truth in its marketing by acknowledging reality. If circumstances on the ground are changing daily, then how do modern marketers form a logical argument for their brands, she asks.

Without revealing too much, Fataar says part of her answer is to rarely work with traditional agencies, preferring instead to partner with that she calls “cultural voices” - her shorthand for the likes of Boiler Room and WAH Nails founder Sharmadean Reid. “These are not agencies in the traditional sense,” she reveals. “They are creators that are not necessarily creatives and it’s about how you connect them with the connectors [social media platforms] who are bought, owned and earned.”

As effective as these “cultural voices” may be, it would be foolhardy to think they can fit into existing procurement and working models. Hence why Diageo created what Fataar calls the “non-model”, a way her team can work with the procurement division to “figure out what we’re trying to say and then find the right partners - whether that’s an agency, a freelancer or a Boiler Room - and be able to procure them into a system where we can orchestrate it all together”.

She put this into practice at the Notting Hill Carnival: “I knew we’d been exporting Guinness to the Caribbean since the 1800s; it’s such a big part of the culture there with things like Guinness Punch that we knew the 50th anniversary of Carnival was a good time to talk about the purpose of the brand, which goes back to how Arthur Guinness was really community-minded,” she explains.

Working with Boiler Room founder Blaise Bellville, the two decided that if both stout and event were all about “goodness” then there was a chance to do something that “was more than just a pouring deal”. They concluded that Europe’s biggest street festival always gets “bad press” and yet has never been broadcast on traditional media, the perfect opportunity for a music platform that streams sets mixed by the world’s best DJs.

2.5m live streams of eight of Carnival’s biggest and best sound systems later, and it’s easy to see why Fataar is excited about the year ahead even if she’s not yet landed on the best way to measure what cultural marketing means. Beyond the obligatory articles and engagement (Boiler Room’s social channels pushed the streams to 36 million people organically, while there were 500,000 instances of engagement on earned media), “everything we do needs to drive to sale”.

“When we talk about marketing that’s more than a pouring deal and not just about advertising then that’s hard to measure…people trust people. They don’t trust brands, “ she admits. “I know if you put a logo over something then that’s not going to gel with the people within that culture. What we do has to be authentic and you can only really do that if you’re part of it and respecting it as well.”

Consequently, she’s instructed her team not to come up with anything that people aren’t going to share – that’s the KPI, she says, though there is a bigger piece around quantifying advocacy currently in the works.

What might sound like an aimless rush for the much-maligned vanity metrics is really a search for a way to go from likes to leads with “advocacy at scale”. Having been high on her list of priorities since her arrival last November, Fataar and her team are “finding ways to measure sentiment”, she teases and establish what that “actually means for the business in terms of equity”.

If Diageo is to continue to eschew excessive branding in order to riff on culture like it did with the Smirnoff mural, then there needs to be away to quantify the value beyond the PR effect. Or as Fataar puts it: "In five years’ time if we’ve done one of those murals a year then that icon becomes a symbol of inclusivity that allows us to do lots of different activations. If we want to talk inclusivity, then we should act. I don’t think it’s just about talking about it anymore.”

In other words, Fataar wants Diageo to be able to tap into the rise of micro-influencers, in much the same way Uber has been able to incentivise people to spread the word via their social channels. One of her former employers Adidas is on a similar path, and Diageo’s marketer believes its importance as a process for telling the truth will only grow now that advertising isn’t solely reliant on a carefully crafted message, instead on the experiences of millions of people.

“It [marketing] has to feel like an eco-system of influence something that’s peer-to-peer rather than just one person going for reach,” she adds before talking up the importance of bought media to her plan. “You have to be able to hit the core people as well as the broader target, one doesn’t really work without the other, especially on big brands.”

In spite of all these changes, Fataar sums up her tenure as evolving an already strong marketing operation at Diageo rather than trying to reinvent the wheel. As much as she might have worried about how she would convince senior executives to buy into her ideas, Fataar says she has been “pushing on an open door” in that regard and bounds into her second year with proof that her approach works.

Proof that is arguably clearest in the Captain Wes Morgan stunt from May, which went on to become Diageo Europe’s most successful social campaign ever. What started as Twitter exchange between Captain Morgan rum and Leicester City captain Wes Morgan after the team won their historic Premier League title, snowballed into a commemorative bottle being produced, 11,000 of which were made for the city and sold out within 24 hours.

“I was nervous because I don’t come from FMCG background,” Fataar admits on joining a alcohol business with little knowledge of the category. “I come from an industry where we don’t have big media budgets and it’s all about influencers, collaborations, fashion and music. With alcohol, there’s all the regulation and rules so for me it is an amazing challenge because I’ve got 20 years of experience that I can bring to something completely new and really stretch what I’ve learned in that time.”

So what next for Fataar? Having inherited her team from Diageo’s marketing innovation division, the marketer plans to continue to build across Europe and complement some of the bigger Diageo brand launches with sharper localisation on-the-ground. Then there’s whatever new features the likes of Facebook and Amazon decide to release. However, she’s adamant her head won’t be turned by whatever new platform emerges, insisting that that it’s the potential around existing platforms and innovations such as Facebook Live or Amazon’s Echo and Apple’s Siri that has her most excited.

Memorable yet unpretentious, Fataar isn’t like other senior marketers at global marketers. There’s a sense on talking to her that she’d sooner hang out with people and learn about what they like that way than wait for the consumer insights team’s report. Her view on the world and how brands should be will no doubt help Diageo figure out its advertising in a post-truth world.

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