CMO interview: Why Bacardi-Martini’s Jonathan Sully predicts a marketing renaissance

Marketing director for A/NZ welcomes criticism of the digital marketing medium and touts the rise of commercially savvy, creative and fearless marketers as the key to brand love

Jonathan Sully
Jonathan Sully

A firmer desire within the corporate world to better connect with the consumer is driving a marketing renaissance that’s not only exciting, it’s transformative for all game enough to embrace it, Bacardi-Martini’s Jonathan Sully believes.  

Sully took up the A/NZ marketing leadership reins at the premium spirits producer six months ago after what he describes as an “eclectic” career in high-profile and content-rich brands such as Disney, Diageo, World Wrestling Entertainment, Hasbro and Fox Sports.   

At Bacardi-Martini, he oversees a wide portfolio of products, stretching from stellar, category-leading and iconic offerings like Bombay Sapphire, Grey Goose and Bacardi, through to the recently acquired Patron, 42 Below vodka, and Dewar’s blended scotch whisky. He sits on the executive leadership team alongside a director of sales, one of HR, and a logistics chief and says the remit is about monetising and getting value out of the group’s brands through connectivity with the consumer.  

“What I love is that it’s affording me the opportunity to pile in the new stuff but also be the back-to-basics marketer,” he tells CMO.  

Underpinning the modern marketer must be a sense of commercial reality, something Sully has picked up in spades in previous roles. It’s also vital in a world increasingly jaded by what digital marketing has to offer, he says.  

“Marketers of the past may have forayed into the creative arts without any commercial sense. It doesn’t work,” he claims. “My time at WWE was really about sales and marketing and general management. Running commercial P&Ls within countries and within a region is critical to really understanding the mechanics and what net effect connecting with the consumer can have.  

“Isn’t it great to be able to say how do we make money and prove it? It’s one of the basic remits within the marketing role, or it should be.”   

Jonathan Sully
Jonathan Sully

What Sully is most excited about is what he calls the “renaissance of marketing”. This is not because of digital, he suggests, but rather in spite of it, and it requires creativity as much as commercial acumen.    

“What is attributable to the renaissance in my view is a firmer desire within the corporate world to better connect and understand the consumer,” he explains. “That's where marketers should shine – they should understand what sort of conversations we want to have as brands with consumers and how we want to have those conversations.  

“What I’m striving for is a solution-based marketing approach where we actually help the sales team sell more. Where we help by producing a return on what could be considered an overhead. Where we are seen as an asset. That's what the renaissance of marketing represents: Instead of being seen as the opportunity to cut budget, it's how we put money into the business so we can see a return.”  

At the helm of this renaissance in Sully’s view are CMOs such as Procter & Gamble’s Marc Pritchard and Unilever’s Keith Weed, who are actively questioning the role of digital marketing both in terms of bottom-line impact and customer-led strategy.  

“These are the guys affording me the opportunity to challenge the market and business and ask:  Is digital really all we think it is? What’s behind that? Are we using other media in support of it, and traditional media constructively, and how are we connecting with customers and consumers?” Sully says.  

“Unfortunately, we’ve seen brands embark on digital journeys with no end point, no solution, or no result. Once interrogated, which is what we're doing now, we can see that the return perhaps isn’t there to the degree we thought.”    

Sully pointed to the recent Australian Census, which showed 82 per cent of 18 to 29 year-olds do not follow a brand. Connecting to these consumers in a world of clutter and confusion requires modern marketers to be data analysts, acutely commercially aware and responsible in budget management and outcomes and ROI, he says. 

“Those are just the cost of doing business as a marketer,” he says. “But unless you can cut through and use your curiosity to find the answers to connecting with the consumer, you are just an overhead.”  

Brand defenders  

Where Sully sees the real opportunity around digital and social is in harnessing brand fans not only as advocates, but as brand defenders that actively foster such connection. One priority area for Bacardi-Martini is the gin category, which is experiencing exponential growth thanks to the rise of boutique, craft-based competitors.  

“If you’re the brand leaders as we are with Bombay Sapphire, how do you capitalise on that?” he asks. “The answer is by responsibly owning and provoking the conversation… in the traditional sales funnel sense of awareness through to engagement and advocacy.  

“I've got advocates walking out of bars. I can use this base through ‘digital’ as advocates to talk about our brands without going ‘here we are everyone, we’ve a new product’.”  

That means being part of what is already happening in the market. “We are the right drinks at the right time in the right place. Full stop. But that’s not by accident, and we have put ourselves in that position. What we want to do is facilitate that conversation,” Sully says.  

An example of how Bacardi-Martini achieved this is with 42 Below vodka around the topic of Australia’s gay marriage vote. It wasn't the picture or post that proved vital, it was the conversation, Sully says. In this instance, the brand already had authenticity by being associated with the LGBTIQ community.  

“By empowering the individual brand manager, we got stuck into that conversation as the tone of voice of 42 Below, a reverent New Zealand brand,” he says. “We interjected into the conversation and responded. The reach numbers were huge. But what I was impacted by was the longevity of conversation, the fun, and the fact it was real people talking to real people. The conversation itself brought out not just advocates, but brand defenders.”  

Being fearless  

To make this happen, marketers have to be fearless enough to tackle live conversations and embrace experimentation, Sully says. What is helping Bacardi-Martini foster such a culture is its family lineage, going back to 1862.   

The company broke away from a 13-year joint venture with multinational giant, Lions, two years ago, and since then has been on a journey to build a fresh relationship with consumers and trade partners. Three words are central to the Bacardi-Martini business, Sully says: Fearless, founders and family.  

“Fearless is about allowing me to go in and question whether digital display is really going to turn our business around, or would we be better bringing people together,” he says.    

“Our ‘founders’ mentality means that it’s our money and our company. If we want a brilliant brand to propel ourselves forward, for example, Patron is an answer so we acquired it.”  

Family and doing the right thing is the third element. “Everybody in the company is called ‘primo’, which in Spanish means ‘cousin’. It’s a nice nuance Facundo Bacardi, the great, great grandson of the founder in 1862, has led. This is where the authenticity and brand love comes in,” Sully says.  

“If we as marketers have a brilliant idea because we've been fearless and challenged thinking, and we know it's our money and our bottom line, and we convince these cousins of ours to believe in it, we’re able to pitch for that opportunity.”  

Sully then employs his own three words for marketing strategy, first learnt from BBH creative director, John Hegarty: Relevant, interesting and motivating. A practical illustration is the continuity and consistency of the Bombay botanicals brand story and experiential initiative. This focuses on the blue bottle and ten botanicals used to make the gin itself.  

“It’s a simple story, but it tastes different because of the way it's made [through infusion]. This is the functional stuff,” he says. “The emotional is that the blue bottle is the best. What we've done over the course of two years is present both the functional and emotional rationale. Here’s why the botanicals make that such a beautiful product. Meanwhile, the bottle was designed in the 1980s by the same designer as Absolut, so there’s a more contemporary provenance.  

“We learned from that relevance and made it more interesting and motivating by putting a light show on top and creating an amazing, immersive experience [Project Botanicals] that 6000 people who we entertained as ticket paying advocates told everybody about.”  

Today’s consumers are expectant of functional delivery. “The emotional experience only spirit brands can provide in these environments is where we have learned to do more,” Sully says. “With the botanicals program, we’ve built an emotional connection, which is attracting interest and new people to Bombay.  

“Craft gin is generating 20 per cent growth in the category. There’s lots of interest but where do people gravitate to? The consistency and brand truth of Bombay Sapphire. Yes, the excitement, bells and whistles are bringing people into the category, which is critical and we want to be part of that. But we also want to be the quality, premium brand.  

“If the origin of Bombay is something different, innovative and original, how do we reassert those brand credentials? Not by just saying we were, but by saying what we are.”   

Supporting Bacardi-Martini to understand its increasingly diverse and changing customer base is the on-trade. “We engage with those guys very directly - we bring them into the office, take them to Laverstoke in England and show them the sustainability credentials of Bombay,” Sully says.  

“Those bars are a shop window for us with expert individuals who talk to consumers when they say I’d like a gin and tonic. They don't give them one, they ask which one, and help them understand more. The complexity of that engagement can’t be underrated.”  

Up next: How Bacardi-Martini measures marketing success and where it's investing next

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