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Hold my drink: how Babe wine and Ballantine’s whisky embraced DTC

Instead of drowning their sorrows when bars closed, alcohol brands got busy exploring how they could capitalize on the direct-to-consumer trend, as senior marketers at Babe wine and Ballantine’s whisky told The Drum’s Digital Transformation Festival.

For many, alcohol has been the savior of the pandemic – a welcome tonic that has helped to soothe the emotional stress of lockdown after lockdown. With people unable to seek refuge in their usual bars, pubs, and clubs, alcohol brands stepped up to ensure that their customers could access their brands on tap from home, through smart direct-to-consumer (DTC) strategies.

“It’s been a great year in terms of reaching our consumers, though obviously a difficult year altogether,” admits Kathleen Braine, senior director, brand marketing at Babe Wine. “A lot of changes, a lot of scenario planning to reach our consumers in an entirely new way.”

Formerly known as Swish Beverages, the business was founded by Instagram influencer and self-deprecating comedian Joshua Ostrovsky (known widely by his Twitter handle 'The Fat Jewish') along with Alexander Ferzan and brothers David Oliver Cohen and Tanner Cohen. It was snapped up last year by AB InBev and is now growing at double the rate of the wider category.

“When the pubs and bars shut, we thought - we’re a booze brand, how are we going to sell anything?” recalls Josh McCarthy, global brand communications and digital director of Pernod Ricard-owned Ballantine’s. “The beauty of it for me was you got back to being entrepreneurial. You had to think outside the box and do stuff that you never thought you would be able to do.”

For both alcohol brands, looking at existing consumer behavior to figure out how to pivot to a more online experience was critical.

Being a brand built on meme culture, Babe Wine kept its ear close to Instagram, which helped it shape its advertising and product launches. “While people were primed to experience the brand online, but they weren't necessarily primed to purchase it,” admits Baine. “But because we already had that step in the door, we were able to pivot this energy and drive them to our website.”

Baine recalls that at the beginning of the pandemic, the team spotted a lot of social chatter, with people emphasizing how much they just needed a drink. “So we gave away $1m worth of wine. It was a nice way to tap into this human feeling and do something to help the situation – but it was also a way to drive people to the web page,“ she muses.

The stunt enabled Babe to capture first-party data so it could create an addressable audience pool of people online that it could, in turn, re-target through messaging. “It was strategic from a brand and emotional standpoint,“ Baine explains.

The aim of alcohol brands is to get as many cans or bottles into people's hands, often relying on things you do in person, like experiential or sampling - to do so. “DTC can be a proxy for the entirety of the online experience,“ Baine points out. “So we had to figure out how to you translate things that are normally in the real world into an online experience that resonates with our consumer?”

A long-term partner with Boiler Room, McCarthy explains how fortunate its relationship with the music streaming platform was to become. Starting as a webcam taped to a wall, for years, Boiler Room has been a regular feature at pre-drinks across the globe. Which meant it was in a perfect position to keep people entertained as they partied from home, with Ballantine’s in tow.

“We've done live streams all over the world in the past - so we’d already experimented with a lot of DTC packs that allowed you to enjoy the live stream at home while having a drink and sharing with friends,“ he says. “so we were able to take this to the next level this year.“ By adapting planned events to support artists under threat, Ballantine’s ’Streaming From Isolation’ series featured weekly takeover days on Boiler Room’s channels.

This also inspired Ballantine’s to send out kits to support people's nights out, or party packs to enjoy their Valentines, beyond just its Boiler Room online music events.

McCarthy explains that not having a long-term strategy actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise because the team was able to reinvent strategies on the fly different markets shifted rapidly.

“We were constantly looking for ways to get people to enjoy scotch whisky, in different unique occasions,” he recalls, adding that spontaneity was key. “People were deciding off the cuff, I need a bit of fun tonight. So we worked with apps like Glovo that offer services that aren't your typical Deliveroo or Just Eat.”

So12 months on, how are their DTC strategies shaping up - is it a long-term strategy or a short-lived trend?

“Our DTC website is more of a community, than just a platform for purchase. We did a lot of activations that had DTC as a focal point, and that will continue,” Baine says, pointing to some hilarious activations this year, including a Babe-branded pillow to scream into on election night, and scented candles that smelt like locker rooms, nachos, and jockstraps at the Superbowl.

“Normally, we might have done that in a different way, but because of the pandemic we were able to use our website as a central focus,” she explains.

“This hasn't just been a commercial opportunity - but a brand-building opportunity,“ explains McCarthy. “It's enabled us to bring value to the consumer and build that emotional connection with them. It was a chance to build some brand love and enjoy some time together in a unique space with your consumer.”

Baine and McCarthy spoke as part of The Drum Digital Transformation Festival, a global online event packed with expert insights and ideas designed to help marketers accelerate their digital strategies. You can watch The Drum's full interview below.