Beam Suntory global CMO on taking lessons from Coke to build a billion-dollar bourbon brand

Beam Suntory CMO Rebecca Messina

Beam Suntory’s global chief marketing officer arrived in 2016 after more than two decades at Coca-Cola. She tells The Drum how she’s shaken up the marketing team – and strategy – to build a billion-dollar bourbon whisky brand.

Rebecca Messina was, perhaps, a surprising choice to fill the vacant top marketing role at Beam Suntory, which counts Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark among its flagship brands. She had spent her entire career at soft-drinks giant Coca-Cola, joining as a graduate in 1994 and holding nearly 10 different marketing roles before eventually overseeing its marketing and innovation division.

“I grew up at Coke," she says. "I was part of its greatest growth years. I wasn’t really looking to leave; over the years I got different phone calls and I was just never tempted, until this one. So, I stayed at Coke for the same three reasons I left: people, growth and brands.

“Beam was the opportunity to run towards something, rather than away from it.”

Though there was the obvious challenge of learning about a sector she had little knowledge of, Messina was also battling with a massive internal shake-up as the Beam company became accustomed to its new Japanese owner, Suntory, following a $16bn takeover in 2014.

“Everyone else had a ‘before Suntory’ and an ‘after’; I only had an after," she says. "So, I had to be quite sensitive to many; it was already in a state of change and I came in and added to it. But Suntory brought, and brings, things that are a marketer’s dream; like a long-term focus and attention to detail and an unbelievable desire for quality. I came at a great time, even though it was a sensitive time."

Shaking up the marketing structure

Despite the challenging timing, Messina didn’t waste time in overhauling the marketing division. She applauded her predecessor Kevin George but said she arrived to a team in need of a “rallying cry” from someone who could “give them permission and instil the brand building discipline".

She says she "found an organisation that relied heavily on brand building but hadn’t yet built all of the muscles around it – like marketing communications or marketing technology".

The marketing structure is relatively simple in that Messina has three global brand leaders for Jim Beam, Marker’s Mark and Courvoisier, who she works with day-to-day. Then under them are the regional brand leaders for its non-core brands, like Sipsmith Gin, Knob Creek and Pinnacle Vodka.

But adding to this, Messina engineered a marketing communications function and a marketing technology division.

“When I got into marketing, it was a simple; we had a brand and a category team. But over the years it’s become more fragmented. What Beam had done, to its credit, is keep everything under the brand manager. But in a fragmented world, we needed to start to bring in additional capabilities.

“The marketing communication function, first and foremost, is about content creation. Brand strategy sits with the brand strategists but [we needed] someone who can focus on agency relationships, creating briefs, and on being single minded on insight."

That team is now 18 months old and creates content across the portfolio of brands. It has also welcomed the group of in-house “media specialists” that have been sitting in the company for the past decade.

“That team is now growing. They have a home now and are really thriving,” Messina says.

The second division developed is marketing technology, or “the marketing R&D department".

“Marketing is under construction. It’s an evolving function and we have a team dedicated to where it’s going, what we need to work on, new models of marketing, [finding] things that are on the cutting edge and preparing us for the future,” she says.

Though it’s a relatively small team, just three people, she stresses it’s a massive area of focus for both her personally and the wider business as it forges into new areas in order to find growth.

“If you only market in places you know are effective then you will be left behind, that’s the nature of marketing," says Messina. "You’ll not be able to stay current.

“I tell our brand leaders not to marry themselves to the numbers. It’s 70/20/10 – 70% of spend should be measurable. 20% on things you think are good but not certain and 10% totally experimental." The formula is another lesson from Coke, which works against the same model.

Most recently this experimental spend has gone towards direct-to-consumer, Amazon and voice technology projects.

“We’ve trialled voice but not really embraced it. It’s ripe for us but we’ve not taken advantage yet.”

Finally, Messina’s arrival has brought a shift in the way Beam Suntory values marketing. Luxury drinks brands, particularly those niche ones, rely heavily on industry awards to measure the success of not only the quality of their liquor but the effectiveness of the marketing around them.

“The thing I think I’ve been able to help galvanise is the tremendous role of brand building. If left to it, [the spirits industry] is one that could rely on objective measures like awards. But what I’ve tried to bring is that you can get brands to fire on subjective measures like meaning, emotion and stories, and then you’ve got a real advantage.”

Building a ‘hybrid model’ for success

In this regard, agencies to her mind are a vital source of creativity and inspiration. Despite its growing in-house team, Messina assures that Beam Suntory is as hungry to work with the agency landscape as it is for the brand.

“The gift of an in-house agency is that they know our brands inherently and are always on your side. They are focused on speed and of course the cost structures are completely different. One of the unintended consequences is that they are so good for your culture; having creative people really embedded in your business is great,” she explains.

“But what we’re really trying to drive towards is a suite of agencies that are more like partners, who have more skin in the game and feel like they want to give the best talent. To command great work from agencies you have to be great clients. It was a mantra I had at Coke – I managed agency relationships there and I really believe that partnerships, performance reviews and the basics of making them feel like they’re partnerships on your team.”

This hybrid-model that she advocates for will live and die on her ability to attract the right talent internally. “You need the right capabilities in-house to manage out-of-house,” she stresses.

She points to the near 60-year relationship bourbon brand Maker’s Mark has with a boutique agency based in Louisville, Kentucky. Doe-Anderson, she says, “knows the brand as well as any family member and is a real guardian of it” and as a result it’s trusted to the same extent as any in-house marketer to execute the brand’s strategy.

But that’s not to say Messina isn’t keeping an eye on alternative models. The much-discussed set-up that P&G established earlier this year is “encouraging,” she says, and when brands of that size can push forward new ways of doing things Beam Suntory will ultimately benefit.

“I want the P&G’s, Coke and Unilevers to be trying all the new models out there – to be encouraging agencies to think and act differently. I don’t know if we can be the ones commanding that. We don’t have the budgets or breadth of brands, but we do [as advertisers] have to rely less on spend and more on specialists. But I’m glad they’re doing it first.”

Selling more whisky to women

The brand Messina is currently focussing on is the namesake Jim Beam. She says it’s “on track” to being a $1bn brand, currently sitting as the seventh largest in the word behind the likes of Johnny Walker and Jack Daniels.

As much as 30% of this growth will come from recruiting a new generation of female drinkers.

“A third of the consumer base is women but we’re seeing that growing at the highest rate – it’s the highest growth consumer for us.”

But the “clumsy” pink-powered marketing of other alcohol brands is something she plans to avoid, believing her role as a “female CMO in a male dominated field” is as much about helping the wider bourbon sector to evolve as it is about building Beam’s brands.

Jim Beam’s partnership with actress Mila Kunis is Messina’s key asset in this fight, with the marketer saying she wants to use her “more as a role model than a model” moving forwards.

The latest campaign with Kunis was centred on the idea of an ‘invitation’ to drink a glass of Jim Beam, based on the insight that women “come in” to drinking whisky via someone else – often a male but much faster if it’s a woman.

“Women want the category to be demystified. We can’t be what we can’t see – just show women ordering whisky - and in doing so we don’t alienate men, but we bring in more women.”

For the Maker’s Mark brand, it plans to try something similar by leveraging the fact that it was founded by a woman, Margie Samuels. “When you have that in your fingertips it makes it really easy. We can just tell that story.”

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