Pam Forbus, Chief Marketing Officer of Pernod Ricard North America, talks to WARC US Commissioning Editor Cathy Taylor as part of Marketers Toolkit 2022. Forbus discusses the company’s focus on moving to where consumers will be, the surge in interest in at-home cocktails, and blending branding with e-commerce.

Toolkit 2022

This interview is part of WARC's Marketer's Toolkit 2022. Read more.

Key insights

  • During the pandemic, consumers have discovered at-home cocktails, so one pathway to innovation is through reaching this newly educated cocktail consumer, making cocktails more convenient, and tapping into consumer interest in exploration.
  • Given staffing issues at restaurants and bars, the trend toward easier-to-make cocktails may also be employed to help bartenders to serve their concoctions in a more convenient way.
  • Pernod’s decision to put Absolut vodka back on television this year for the first time in a decade helped the brand grow faster than the rest of the category during the time it was used.
  • While Pernod does have budgets for brand-building and performance, the brand realizes that to consumers, the brand is the brand, so no matter the channel, it is working to approaching all types of marketing with one voice.
How has the pandemic altered how you market, from messaging to media selection, packaging, the whole gamut?

It probably altered our marketing in four areas. First of all, consumers during the pandemic really doubled down on brands they trusted – the big brands – so we really focused on our core big brands and increased our media spend on them. It really paid off. As time went on, there was an era of premiumization and exploration, so consumers started trying newer things and spending a little bit more. We were just following the trends.

Secondly, without large-scale events, we had to figure out how to connect with consumers in the ‘non-event’ space, so we looked for innovation. These big changes create some really great opportunities for innovation. We did a lot of online experiential things, or we doubled down on our digital spend in new ways to connect with consumers where they were.

Third, we supported cocktails-to-go. A lot of states opened up that as an opportunity and changing laws to allow for that, so our sales force went very aggressively into restaurants … supporting them with insulated bags or cups, or even helping them with their digital online menus so that we could get the word out that cocktails were ‘to go’.

Lastly, we really saw the shift in online shopping. That [had been] very small in the alcohol world. [There were] governments changing laws to allow home delivery, platforms investing in new technology and new marketplaces popping up, so we really sped up our e-commerce team. Those are some really big, big shifts in the last 18 months.

Pam Forbus, Chief Marketing Officer, Pernod Ricard North America

What do you see now that we're not in the thick of the pandemic in the US, but not out of it either?

Some behaviors were accelerated trends that were happening before – they’re just going to continue to accelerate, like online shopping, so we will continue to invest there in learning as the consumer changes.

Consumers are really enjoying exploring at-home cocktails, so they've really upped their game. They're getting educated on what goes into a cocktail and how complex they can be. So we're going at it from two [angles]: how we make cocktails more convenient for consumers, and how we allow consumers to have more exploration, whether we're launching new innovation around flavors or in ready-to-drink areas.

How does the at-home cocktail culture combine with (somewhat) of a return to bars?

We’re loving reconnecting with those bars and restaurants, and trying to support them during the pandemic, but then bringing them innovation and new thoughts. As consumers come back, they're more educated, so how do you up your game at the bar?

Are there parts of the at-home experience that you've brought into bars?

You're going to see an explosion of ready-to-drink and ready-to-serve cocktails. But how do we also make that ready-to-serve more convenient for the bartenders? There's a huge issue with finding enough help in a lot of our restaurants and bars, so finding ways to make that faster and more convenient and allowing bartenders to serve their great concoctions in a more convenient way is another thing we're exploring in our innovation pipeline.

How have the events of the last 18 months altered your corporate mission, internally and externally?

I don't think our corporate mission has been altered. Our global mission is Creating Conviviality. It means unlocking the magic of human connections, having those moments of connection and conviviality – that is what Pernod is all about. During this pandemic, we've realized that humans are really resilient, but they also have this deep need to connect with others. You can have a virtual cocktail hour but it just isn't the same as when we all can get together. That moment of conviviality is really important. That's where you really connect as humans.

On the diversity, equity and inclusion front, we absolutely have a huge effort – as most companies do – in increasing DE&I. We hired several dozen new people who have only experienced our company during COVID, so [we haven’t had] the opportunity to be able to have a drink or have a conversation and connect as humans. It's really important to create that ‘safe space’ where people feel they can bring their whole self to work every day. We have a huge effort underway culturally to make that happen.

What is Pernod’s overall approach to media?

Basically, we're on a mission and a path that all of our marketing activity is going to be based on predictive science, so we've put a number of new data sets and analytics in place. We are constantly monitoring the shopper and which touchpoints matter. We continually find that it's a reinforcement loop of investing in the things that work, and not investing in things that aren't working. We have that system in place, and we're operating against it. It's really exciting.

We've got a lot of [media] innovation in play – things like connected TV, dynamic content, and definitely thinking about e-commerce in a way that both builds brands and drives conversion.

What touchpoints are really intriguing to you now?

The majority of our spend is in digital and social. That said, we made the decision to put Absolut back on television for the first time in 10 years, and for the first time in 10 years, Absolut was growing faster than the vodka category for several weeks. We put the analytics in place to measure it so that we make sure we learn from it. 

Secondly, digital is working, and we're learning you can optimize the engagement through the right creative. We call it “magnetic marketing.” 

What’s a good example of magnetic marketing?

In the end [it’s something] consumers [find] mouth-watering, that “I’ve got to taste that,” and the hedonic signals of delicious experience. We're learning that you don't necessarily need to target a person or an age group or demographic for it to be effective, so long as you understand that path to purchase and what matters for that consumer. You can use other data signals, and put your ad in the [right] place.

Jefferson's whiskey is one of our brands; we have a campaign right now about it being aged at sea, so why not have that ad show up in adventure-type articles, where someone's very adventurous? They're in the right mindset to be inspired by that creative. Context is becoming really important, especially in a cookieless world.

What are you doing to isolate the impact of your marketing investment?

We started this journey about four years ago. I have a deep expertise in analytics and insights. That's my training, so we brought additional heavy hitters into the company… How do we measure everything we're doing and understand what works and what doesn't, [building] that continuous improvement cycle?

My mantra is: “We’ve got to stay where the consumer and the shopper is headed, not where they are.” We have to over-invest in the next thing, so that we can measure it and decide if that's something we want to do. It's really about showing that marketing is a growth driver, not a cost on the P&L.

Right now, there’s a collision of branding and e-commerce. How are you balancing them?

At the beginning of the pandemic, we saw [e-commerce] as a huge opportunity. We really over invested, set up a whole new team and brought in a lot of talent outside of the industry, even outside of consumer goods [experts] that are experienced in building this technology and ‘building the pipes’. That's been going great, and we feel like we're ahead of the game so far as the growth in e-commerce.

There’s 2x-3x growth happening, but now we're really thinking thoughtfully about the consumer in the middle. How did they experience the brand throughout the journey? A lot of people think of brand-building and performance marketing as being two separate plays, but to the consumer, the brand is the brand. Whether I'm experiencing an influencer talking about the brand, or I'm [responding to] “Buy now” on Drizzly, it should be one voice, so that's what we're working toward. It's an integrated brand experience, and also an integrated channel experience. The sooner we can think of these as an integrated strategy and architect the path-to-purchase, the better we'll be at both brand building and conversion.

Do you ever find customers are frustrated when something that's branding doesn't connect them to the ability to purchase?

What we're really focused on is what we do to stimulate demand. Does it show up in-store, on-channel in a way that says, “Oh, yeah, that's that brand I saw?” We call it ‘media-to-shelf’ and we're totally in sync between our brand team and our channel team to ensure that thread is there. Because [with] the consumer, you don't want to put any speed bumps along the path.

When you plan, are you putting proportions to brand dollars vs. performance?

Yes, we are. There's – I call it – pre-point of sale stimulation, demand stimulation, and at point-of-sale, brand conversion. So that could be the television ad, the point of sale in the store – that's the two extremes. E-commerce is a bit of a blend. E-commerce be very much “Buy now, stock your bar now’ and play [a] lower funnel [role]. It also could play a higher [role], i.e “Here's some new ideas for Father's Day” … so it can be all the way through upper funnel awareness all the way through to conversion … the smarter we can get in our media targeting, we’ll orchestrate that, so that we're not stimulating a conversion before consumers are ready.