Brand managers at Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) companies are undoubtedly one of the sexiest jobs for most marketing professionals, especially when you represent household brands like Pringles or Magnum. But when it involves vices like alcohol or tobacco, there’s a strong stereotype that steers many away from the job, even if these brands are strong consumer brands in their own rights.
Common cited reasons for avoiding the alcoholic beverage industry are that “I don’t drink a lot”, or that “it’s a sleazy industry”. In this article, we get an insider opinion on what it’s really like to work as a brand manager in the alcoholic spirits industry.
Hint: It's not what you think.
Overview of the brand manager’s responsibility
Business managers with Profit & Loss (P&L) responsibility
Brand managers manage a portfolio of alcoholic beverage brands in their allocated markets. These brands are either proprietary house brands or third party brands, and each brand can have multiple SKUs (stock keeping units). Hence, for an associate to a mid-level brand manager, you could be dealing with 30-40 SKUs (this however varies greatly in different companies).
More importantly, brand managers have a responsibility over the P&L (profit & loss) of their portfolio. There are varying expectations from the management as well as brand principals* regarding the quantity you should be selling for each SKU. A brand manager has to plan his portfolio strategy well to allow for overall growth in revenue and market share.
*Brand principals are external companies that own the third party brands you distribute.
Marketing analysis, budgeting and planning
To bring in revenue and success of the brand portfolio, brand managers will have to plan and direct branding and marketing initiatives. These include advertising, trade marketing, consumer education and public relation efforts. The goal is to build a stronger brand, deepen consumer connection to ultimately drive up market share.
Branding and marketing – would you choose Macallan or Johnny Walker?
The success of brand managers, ultimately, lies in their ability to create a strong awareness and demand for their products. For example, what would make a consumer at the bar choose Macallan over Johnny Walker? To create this brand connection, brand managers conduct consumer education events and above-the-line activities (see below) to provide the brand identity and points of differentiation for their brands.
Consumer and trade education
Food pairing and tasting sessions are typical events, and they can be carried out in a variety of ways. Using whiskies as an instance, vertical tastings allows people to sample several different expressions or ages of the same brand, while horizontal tastings exposes you to brands of similar character but from different distilleries.
Such events also serve to educate the trade (bar owners or staff), so they are better placed to recommend your brand over others. For certain spirits like scotch, it is sometimes down to the detail of pronouncing the brand names so that they’re comfortable just to talk about it. Try saying Auchentoshan (Ock-Ken-TO-Shun) or Craighellachie (Cra-Gal-a-Key) if you think it is easy!
Mass media marketing (or above-the-line) activities
Most of the branding work is done through above-the-line activities, or in simpler terms, the use of mass media to promote brands and reach out to the target consumers.
Brand managers partner various publications and place advertisements strategically to target specific consumer segments. For example, whiskies typically attract mature working professionals and are hence advertised in luxury magazines such as The Peak or August Man, while vodkas have more of a younger party-loving audience and may be featured through event tie-ups on TimeOut or I-S Magazine. Publication partnerships go beyond paying for ads, as they organise product launches and events for their clients.
A caveat here: As a brand manager in a smaller company, you may be doing a lot more trade marketing rather than above-the-line consumer marketing. If there is a creative soul in you, look out for the bigger companies as you will be given a lot more space to do creative marketing.
A day in the life of a brand manager in a spirits company
If you are a brand manager in a typical alcoholic spirits company, you can be sure of a long and eventful day. About two to three days of a week will be as described below.
Morning is for internal arrangements
You’ll come into office at 9.30am and start the day by clearing emails or budgeting for inventory and expenses. A good number of emails will be related to media requests or partnership/sponsorship deals. Next, you will be speaking to your sales colleagues to gain some insights on the new outlets they have visited or new deals that you need to start branding for. If you’re not speaking to sales, you could be in discussions with other internal teams such as product development or finance.
Afternoon is for logistics preparation
After lunch, you’ll start making logistical preparations for the evening event. You’ll have to prepare the products, education leaflets, finance documentation, beverage glasses, standees and all sorts of things. Trust me, logistical matters always take up more time than you expect. You will then head down to the venue early to set up everything properly, and brief the venue staff. The event typically starts from about 6pm and ends at 8-9pm.
Night is when the fun begins…?
Nights are for outlet visits to partner nightspots. Sounds fun? You will be visiting key partners at their outlets to drink and chat with them. This helps to foster a good trade relationship and to understand their business plans to explore further opportunities. This goes on till about 11pm, before you head out to another outlet for a second round. The ‘party’ finally ends only at about 1 to 2 am.
The number of outlet visits depends on the individual brand manager, and above that, it helps to build your relationships with trade partners, as well as with your sales team as it shows that you have teeth in the game and know what happens on the ground. As a brand manager, your portfolio success depends a great deal on the sales people who sell many other brands in addition to yours. You will need to win their respect by showing that you’re involved in the sales process. Sometimes, the relationship with outlet owners helps to pull off certain favours too, such as when you need them to help clear stock of certain SKUs or host third party brand principals who are in town.
The brands you manage determine where and how often you spend your nights out. Vodka and liqueur brands are mostly consumed at parties at modern clubs, while whiskies are savored at bars or member clubs that attract the more affluent middle to high-income professionals. This means that if you manage vodka brands, you will have to go for special events or promotions during Halloween or end-of-school parties; if you manage whisky brands, you will find yourself attending smaller group events more frequently.
Are there lots of drinking branding the alcohol industry?
Before you start imagining countless drunk and wild parties for brand managers in this sector, let me clarify that being-forced-to-drink-till-you-are-drunk situations don’t typically happen. The unspoken rule of this trade is that you do not get drunk during work, and if you need help, your colleagues are there to help you get out of the situation.
As long as you are discerning enough, the brand manager role in this industry is not as bad as most people make it out to be. It is a different story however for sales representatives who are practically out there drinking every day (from mid-day till early morning) to win new business deals.
But you still need to be able to hold your liquor well
Not having to get drunk does not mean you can avoid drinking altogether; after all, you are in the alcohol industry. Sometimes newcomers to this industry may not have set their expectations right about how much they need to drink being out on the front-line. On an extreme day, you can have up to 15-20 glasses, but spread over 8 to 10 hours so you will still be pretty alert most of the time (no worries, you’re not expected to down all 20 glasses at one shot and still stay alive).
Handy social tips while drinking
And you’ll learn how to get away at times. Imagine a scenario where you’re drinking with your business partners. Everyone would have had a few drinks (and probably just a little tipsy), and the table would be filled with plenty of bottles and glasses. You can pour more mixers (e.g. harmless green tea) and less liquor into your glass and no one’s going to notice what you did. Remember, you don’t want to be drunk since these people are your clients. What also helps is that you will build your resistance over time; you will master the art of keeping your mind alert and working even when intoxicated.
Progression as a brand manager
There are lots of opportunities for progression being in this role. For example, a brand manager that handles only vodka brands may see his portfolio expand to include other spirits brands, or take on a larger regional role. Every new addition to your portfolio is a great learning exposure in international business. As your portfolio expands and you continue to do well with larger responsibilities, you'll get a chance to move up the ranks.
Fresh graduates may be able to enter this career path as a brand executive, or start as a sales representative before moving into a brand management role. A marketing internship in a consumer goods company will help boost your chances of getting through the door.
Yes, brand managers in this industry do have to enjoy alcoholic beverages, and they must like the entertainment scene too. Otherwise, it’s hard to sustain the lifestyle in this occupation. However, you don’t have to be an alcoholic, nor will you be forced to drink more than you can. This is, ultimately, still a professional and well-respected marketing profession. Definitely not everyone will have the stomach (literally) to do this job, but if you love hanging out at night socialising with different people over drinks, you could be in it for a long time. Free drinks, anyone?