Digital Transformation Brand Strategy

Diageo CMO Cristina Diezhandino on its ‘unprecedented’ e-commerce engagement


By Sam Bradley | Senior Reporter

December 14, 2021 | 8 min read

As voting opens for The WFA’s Global Marketer of the Year, The Drum meets finalist Cristina Diezhandino, chief marketing officer at Diageo.

Throughout the pandemic, Diageo has had to deal with the threat of Covid twice over. While the company has busied itself protecting staff and, like many other organizations, erecting the infrastructure required for a remote or distanced workforce, it has also shared in the hospitality sector’s crisis, with pubs, hotels, nightclubs and other venues – its primary routes to the end consumer – shuttered.

According to chief marketing officer Cristina Diezhandino, it forced a radical reassessment of the way in which the beverages giant sells.


Cristina Diezhandino, Diageo’s chief marketing officer, at its flagship Johnny Walker Experience in Edinburgh

“I’ve always thought that you build brands in the on-trade. A lot of our efforts activating our brands, such as connecting with influencer communities, had to do with the on-trade,“ she explains. While advertising and promotion can get a brand’s name front of a customer’s mind, it’s up to bartenders and publicans to stock it on backbars, ready to be served whenever a punter says: “What’s good?“

So, while her team has looked for ways to support the hospitality sector, it’s also carved out alternate routes to market.

Coming into the job facing “an unprecedented set of circumstances“ last summer, Diezhandino responded by bringing reactive, flexible thinking to Diageo – working in terms of weeks and months, at a company habituated to thinking in terms of 12 and 25 years at a time.

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In particular, she introduced a practice of quarterly reporting within the marketing department. “It was very hard to think about what was happening in 12 months, in yearly cycles and so forth. Thinking about three months was a lot more useful, a lot more practical and it gave us a way of articulating with flexibility and agility,“ she explains.

“We’ve kept that notion of agility, because although we can now restore our longer-term planning, and imagine what the world will be like in 2030 ... things are changing faster than we previously experienced. We can apposition ourselves in a place where we can adjust our plans much more quickly.“

Virtual venues

That flexibility has been brought to bear on what Diezhandino calls “the biggest challenge“ – the collapse of the hospitality sector and, consequently, any on-trade marketing activity.

An existing project, the Diageo Bar Academy, an educational platform for bartenders, held promise. Diezhandino’s team scaled up the operating and were able to attract many more users. “We enhanced our learnings and our advice and created a community for people. We doubled our user base and got 1.6 million bartenders active on the platform.“ She says it “took on a renewed, more powerful, more meaningful life,“ not only supporting bar staff looking to keep their skills sharp, but maintaining Diageo’s relationship with that community.

Embracing digital channels also helped rescue the World Class tournament, a bartending competition sponsored by Diageo. While the tournament would normally take place live, in person, at venues across the globe, this year it was hosted virtually.

“It’s a passion point ... a wonderful expression of the creativity that communities find beautiful. In 2020, we had to cancel the event, which was really painful to do, and in 2021, we felt it couldn’t possibly be presented live.“ While Diezhandino says she was initially pessimistic, she says it became an opportunity to make the event bigger than ever.

“We embraced the possibility. What if this was not a diminished version of World Class? What if this one was the best one ever, encouraging more people than ever before? It’s an example of what is possible when you’re faced with very challenging circumstances ... but with the right people, the right mindset and the right partners, the unthinkable is possible.“

The global final reached an audience of 10 million in 50 markets across five days, she says.

Direct and social commerce

Meanwhile, Diageo has looked to open up new avenues to customers. “Compared to other industries, our [e-commerce activity] has been a little lighter,“ she says. “But we’ve done a lot more more than before.“

Earlier in the pandemic, her team capitalized on lockdown boredom by providing readers with more recipes and content than before. The “unprecedented degree of engagement“ that followed pushed the team to expand its direct sales channels. The work paid off and Diageo recorded 16% organic growth in its half-year results, driven in part by e-commerce. Split between direct-to-consumer and third-party retail platforms, the channel now accounts for 5% of its sales.

Gifting is a particular growth area, she points out: “Now that we’ve approaching the festival season ... we have these beautiful brands and liquids, and people are tapping into those for gifting and celebrating each other, which is really nice.“

To further those efforts, Diageo is tentatively experimenting with social commerce. “I think this is a big opportunity area for us,“ she says. Its first major effort in this area has been an AI-driven flavor profiler that matches customers with their ideal whisky, called What’s Your Whisky?

“It’s a platform that uses AI to match customer flavor preferences with a perfect brand for them.“ While still in testing mode, she says Diageo is “partnering with customers like Amazon and Alibaba to integrate this technology into their platforms, and we’re going to look at how we can roll this technology across other experiences as well.“

Although the last two years have seen major obstacles on the route to market for Diageo, direct and digital routes to consumers have allowed it to find a way through. Diezhandino’s plans for the company’s branded tourist destinations suggest it’s applying those lessons to its own outlets, which include the recently-opened Johnny Walker Experience in Edinburgh, the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin and a range of distilleries across Scotland.

“We’ve got some phenomenal brand homes. These properties are wonderful consumer engagement locations, and they can be real content generators. And that content can be shared throughout the many digital platforms available to us.“

That portfolio is expanding, she says – there is now also a Guinness location in Baltimore and a Taproom will soon open in Chicago – and with it, Diageo‘s capacity to conjure up real engagement both digitally and in reality.

“In the context of spirits, we’re a large company. But I like to think about our teams as startups in many ways. We consider ourselves as entrepreneurs,“ she concludes. “We’re thinking about where growth may come from, how we can adjust and shape the future.“

The World Federation of Advertisers (WFA) and The Drum have partnered once again to find the Global Marketer of the Year. We’ll be running interviews with all finalists ahead of the vote closing on December 31. You can cast your vote to crown this year’s winner here.

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