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A Conversation With Jessica Spence On Brands At The Heart Of The Business + Human-Centricity

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If accelerated transformation was the theme of 2021, with brands quickly discovering how to be customer-obsessed in ways that allow them to be more intuitive about customer needs, while being focused on delivering value every step of the way, was this year’s holy grail. . As we enter 2023, when people’s emotions are at an all-time high, this trend of human-centered transformation will only intensify as the lasting impacts of the pandemic persist and the landscape of consumption continues to flow more smoothly than ever. foremost through everything from gender to cultural identification.

With that in mind, for my final column, I wanted to speak to someone who is intimately involved in transformation efforts that focus on the brand, with a particular focus on being human-led, empathy and values-driven. For these reasons, I recently had the privilege of sitting down with Jessica Spence, President of Brand at Beam Suntory. Jessica is a marketing industry veteran having worked for major brands such as Carlsburg Group and SAB Miller. Here is a summary of our discussion:

Billie Howard: You started as President of Global Brands for Beam Suntory in 2019. Since then, you have undergone a significant transformation that puts brands at the heart of your value creation model. I love this. Tell me more, especially about your approach to premiumization and the results obtained.

Jessica Spence: This opportunity is the reason I joined Beam Suntory. The opportunity to join a world leader in premium spirits, with phenomenal but under-leveraged brands, at a time when it wanted to operate a major transformation motivated me enormously, it’s the kind of challenge that I love! It also prompted me to move to the United States for the first time and to our new global headquarters in New York.

Simply put, the strategy puts our brands at the heart of our business, recognizes them as how we create value and is organized around this notion. We are transforming Beam Suntory from a market-centric business model to a brand-led global company that drives value creation. This shifted our P&L growth to be price and mix driven versus volume driven.

Our approach to premiumization begins with a deep understanding of our brands’ DNA, history and truth, and how this connects to our culture which involves a deep level of human-centeredness and empathy. We bring this to life through experiences – online and offline – that connect and engage our consumers and build our relationships with them. By improving the customer experience across our portfolio, our teams delivered double-digit sales growth in 2021.

We have also strengthened our capabilities in the prestige segment for which we were not always known, having achieved record prices for Bowmore expressions at auction and created major partnerships with premium brands such as Sotheby’s, Aston Martin and Wimbledon.

It is important for me to emphasize that this journey and this success would not be possible without our teams, composed of the most brilliant, the most human and the most empathetic leaders with whom I have had the pleasure of working alongside. To ensure that our brands live at the heart of our business, we have created homes for each global brand that are managed as separate global business units with end-to-end P&L accountability. This structure is a completely new approach for us and requires managers with both in-depth knowledge of brands, but also a real entrepreneurial spirit and general management skills.

Howard: So many people have overpriced performance marketing in recent years and done so at the expense of brand. Tell me what the right modern mix of the two should look like?

Spencer: I’m afraid we’ve tended to see this as a dichotomy. Performance marketing is a great tool, but it should be at the service of brand building and revenue generation. Ultimately, every connection you have with a consumer is a chance to do three things: understand and understand that person better, engage them in a meaningful way, and generate a sale. We often tend to think of them as separate tasks and divide our efforts and even our teams in this mindset. Consumers don’t see it that way. They don’t know when we’re ‘tactical’ or ‘branding’ and we shouldn’t allow our teams to think that way. A thought that I always have in mind is that “brands are just collections of memories”. Everything you do creates a memory and therefore needs to be managed to accommodate your full brand program. My core belief is that the gap between marketing and sales is over and will be unrecognizable in 10 years. This is also why I like the structure we are creating at Beam Suntory where we have brand leaders with full P&L responsibility. This structure gives a brand the organization it needs to ensure marketing and sales goals are met, as opposed to an “either or else” mentality.

Howard: Why are you so interested in Gen Z trends? You mentioned a variety of things that I don’t think others have thought of but relating to both how to get the right data from them as well as new ways to segment and understand it.

The Gen Z consumer seeks more personalized, human-centric relationships with brands and is strongly values-driven in many ways (though not as purist as sometimes thought!). They are looking for brands that match them and their approach to life, which is a change from previous generations who used brands more to express and explore who they were.

I think one of the most fundamental challenges of Gen Z is their rejection of the previous “classification” that society has constructed. This is one of the biggest generational schisms we’ve seen since the 1960s. Gen Z consumers are unwilling to submit to the definitions that we have historically used widely in society, nor how we think about targeting and segmentation, which is key. If you think about most of the ways we talk about a consumer target – gender, ethnicity, social class are often at the core. These are not definitions that this generation sees as “established” and they expect acceptance and understanding of the fluid definition of identity across multiple dimensions. It will challenge us to think about how we connect and understand consumers in a fundamentally different way. I don’t believe many of our processes, systems, or approaches are set up to do that, industry-wide. It’s going to be fascinating to see how the industry responds to this change and reflects it in our changing world.

Our strategy is fundamentally people-based, so getting to the heart of that is key to our success, and we’ve focused on two things to achieve that. I’m incredibly proud of the Global Insights & Analytics function we’ve created, with a broader mission and a mission to put human understanding (not just as consumers but as whole humans) and empathy at the heart of our business. We’ve staffed the team globally over the past year and are building exceptional capacity here. The second big catalyst for this is a big investment in getting and leveraging first-party data. This is central to our strategy as we believe it will enable us to deliver the type of brand relationships that this new group of consumers expect.

Howard: You’ve created a culture that empowers creators and builders and you said that to do that you had to work to balance emotion and process. Can you share some best practices that others should consider as they realign their cultures to better adapt to the current environment and attract top talent?

We create a culture that empowers our talented people to create and define great brands. Each of our employees plays a role in designing a deeply meaningful experience to realize the full potential of our iconic brands, and they deserve a culture that enables them to succeed.

I have successfully completed many transformations, and my biggest learnings are that you have to do three things well. First, you need to look for agile learners who are fundamentally driven by the ability to build from scratch. I tend to look for people who have a proven track record of handling disruption, creating structure in uncertainty, embracing change, and loving a clean sheet of paper. It’s not for everyone, so finding the right people is crucial.

Second, as leaders you must understand that you will only retain this type of talent by consistently engaging them on an emotional and rational basis. This type of talent is demanding. They need to be clear about an overall vision, it needs to make sense to them and they need a lot of freedom of action. Your job is often to put the minimum process in place to allow things to run smoothly while creating the maximum amount of space for personal impact and creativity.

Third, you need a high level of personal honesty and a clear view of what you do. In times of transformation, you need to be open to the fact that not everything is understood yet. Leaders who claim to have all the answers will lose the motivation, hearts and minds of top talent. You have to be honest about how far you’ve come and let people contribute to it. It’s about balancing being very clear and confident about the destination, but being very open about the ways to get there, asking for feedback, and creating a culture of learning and challenging.

This journey has only just begun, so there is a unique opportunity for each person to build the future of Beam Suntory, to be a creator, to help decide our path forward, and to have an impact not only in the United States but around the world. And I absolutely cannot succeed on this journey without our people and teams who share my core belief in the business model that brands create value.

I like to say that Beam Suntory is entering its golden age, where everyone has access to a blank canvas and the opportunity to contribute a new way of thinking. We are excited about what our future holds and welcome brighter, more caring, empathetic leaders to join us in our new home of New York to shake up – not stir – things!

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