How a Shot of Technology Helps Bring These Bacardi Brands Closer to Their Customers

Patrón, Grey Goose leverage real-time engagement

Lee Applbaum, CMO of Patrón and Grey Goose, behind the bar with Adweek editorial director Jim Cooper. Dianna McDougall for Adweek

For Bacardi brands Patrón and Grey Goose, innovation is a delicate balancing act. Leveraging technology for technology’s sake will do little to enhance the customer journey, explained Lee Applbaum, CMO of Patrón and Grey Goose. Rather, it’s the right blend of media that drives innovation. This sentiment was echoed by several top marketers who, like Applbaum, attended Brandweek in Palm Springs, Calif.

Here, Applbaum delves into the challenges and opportunities of marketing spirits in the digital age.

Adweek: How does Patrón and Grey Goose balance marketing technology with tried and true traditional approaches?
Lee Applbaum: Philosophically, for our brands, I’ve always maintained that technology needs to be a means to an end rather than an end in and of itself. By that, I mean that we don’t invest in or deploy marketing technology solutions to prove that we are smart or innovative. Rather, we utilize them as tools that help us address and exploit brand and commercial opportunities that link back to our core strategic pillars. This ensures that we stay honest and don’t fall in love with flashy technology for its own sake, or worse yet, to simply be recognized as innovative and lavished with awards with no understanding of the brand or business ROI.

That said, innovative marketing technology is a key part of our consumer and trade marketing strategy, alongside more traditional above-the-line media like TV, print and out of home. We’re unabashedly media agnostic. It’s not about one medium versus the other but thinking about the customer journey from when they wake up to when they go to sleep and then cohabitating with them at key points of the traditional funnel, whether it be consideration, intent or purchase.

Voice has played a key role in Patrón marketing. What technology are you eyeing next?
Voice is a great example of our cohabitation strategy. Consumers increasingly are using voice as a way to more easily access content, and we want to ensure we are part of that journey. We were one of the early brands to support the Amazon Alexa platform, and we did that through our “Ask Patrón” skill which enabled consumers to identify cocktails that met their needs and learn how to easily make them at home.

We’ve since expanded this across all major voice platforms and continue to see high rates of engagement because it addresses a real consumer need rather than just being a clever use of technology. We were very early to adopt VR as a platform as well as AR and will continue to explore both as they are rapidly evolving. Again, it’s not about technology, per se, but about how that technology helps us better partner with our consumers. When we see a solution that can aid in this effort, we invest and deploy as rapidly as possible.

Do you see direct-to-consumer brands as a threat? In what way are you embracing the challenger mentality?
Currently the spirits category has regulatory barriers to direct-to-consumer in the U.S. but it is something we are watching carefully. More relevant, perhaps, is the role that ecommerce will play as juggernauts like Amazon explore the space. In countries like China and Germany, there is strong growth in spirits ecomm and we must ensure we are at the forefront of that move. Much like media, we are channel agnostic. The key is helping our consumer get access to our brands and products however they choose.

Customers have high expectations these days regardless of their channel choice. What big swings have you taken that worked and/or failed to bring you closer to the customer?
Our category is unique by virtue of the distribution model which keeps us at arms-length from consumers transactionally, essentially restricted to communicating through media, both above and below the line. That said, social media continues to be an incredibly powerful tool for us to have dynamic interaction with consumers and the trade.

We have real time conversations and engagements with them and can leverage our huge social footprint (Patrón is the largest spirit on social media globally) to syndicate key consumer moments or react to opportunities or challenges. We spend a lot of time listening to what is being said about and asked of our brand online, and I’m immensely proud of the fact that the content we deliver is directed not by our agenda but tailored to the consumers’ stated or implied needs.

Describe how your company culture is set up to enhance the customer experience. Are there areas for improvement?
The customer experience is critical for us, although far more challenging since we do not engage with them directly at the point of consumption or sale. We must rely on our partners, be they bartenders or waitstaff or a sales associate in a spirits store, to talk intelligently about our products and brands and communicate what makes our artisanal product so unique. That’s a massive challenge, but something we take very seriously.

Much of our focus over the past five years that I’ve been at Patrón has been on helping to educate the trade and consumers on the authenticity that sits behind the swagger of our brand. The digital ecosystem has been key for driving this agenda, but traditional media and old-fashioned one-on-one selling, training and education from our sales and marketing teams has been key. The truth is that much of this is done at the individual level which makes scalability difficult but is highly rewarding and a significant point of differentiation.

What is the biggest challenge connecting data-driven marketing with creativity and brand storytelling?
I’ve been very vocal about the fact that I think marketing has lost a lot of its gut instinct, replaced by big data analysis. Consumers (human beings!) haven’t evolved that much over the past several decades as it relates to the basic drivers of what motivates purchase. However, smart people tend to make simple things complex, and I believe that while data can be powerful, it should never be a replacement for instinctive marketing which drives creative storytelling.

We are marketers and consumers, and all the focus groups and big data parsing in the world cannot replace creativity and gut instinct. Please understand I’m not suggesting that data doesn’t have its place in marketing. It does. This isn’t the Mad Men days, but there has to be a balance, and my feeling is that this decade has seen too dramatic a shift back to left-brained marketing leadership, which is a mistake, and has led to a lack of great creative storytelling with many of our most iconic global brands.

@lgranatstein Lisa Granatstein is the editor, svp, programming at Adweek.