Why former Unilever, Naked Wines marketer is joining Big Red Group as CMO

Paul Connell talks to us about the new opportunities for growth at the experience business, what it takes to drive the experience economy, out-of-category marketing experiences, digital transformation and more

Digital transformation, more sustainable and inclusive experiences and deeper supplier connections are key ways Big Red Group’s new CMO sees the Australian experience organisation achieving its growth ambitions.  

Big Red Group (BRG) has appointed senior marketer and business executive, Paul Connell, as its new chief marketing officer, tasked with leading the next stage of growth. The role oversees a portfolio of experience brands including RedBalloon, Adrenaline, Experience Oz, Lime&Tonic and Local Agent.  

Connell has spent the last two years as sales and marketing director (CMO) for Naked Wines, helping spearhead brand growth and a mission to disrupt the Australian wine industry for the better of both sides of the market. The digital marketplace is now on the hunt for a new sales and marketing leader.

Prior to this, Connell was at Unilever, overseeing the homecare and refreshments portfolios in a range of senior roles. He also led several of the FMCG giant’s B-Corp scale-ups including Pukka and Ben & Jerry’s. Connell’s work at Unilever saw him recognised in the CMO50 for three consecutive years, including third in the 2019 edition of the list.

Alongside this, Connell is a board member at UnLtd’s social enterprise arm, Mood Tea, and mentors through the Marketing Academy and The Trenches. He indirectly replaces former chief growth officer, Matthew Cavalier, who left BRG after a two-and-a-half-year stint and is now growth chief at Mable.

BRG noted it’s working through a digital transformation and looking to recalibrate towards growth as Australia’s travel and tourism industry opens back up. Over the last year, the group has added further to its stable of brands, acquiring Experience Oz, which serves domestic holidaymakers, and Local Agent, a business-to-business platform supporting about 700 hotels nationally.  

Read more: RedBalloon restructures, unveils AI-powered digital marketing division

“Following significant fivefold growth, we are at a watershed moment in the company’s growth that requires the stewardship and experience that Paul brings in scaling from an already large market leading position to winning on a global scale,” BRG co-founder and CEO, David Anderson, said. “We’re thrilled to welcome Paul to the team, leveraging his rich experience to help craft the story and strategy for all our brands during this pivotal moment.”  

Connell told CMO former consulting work with BRG around its sustainability and purpose ambitions opened his eyes to the strengths of being a marketplace at the centre of the experience economy. He described the role as a “gift” that comes with huge opportunities to shift the way people experience life at a key moment for the tourism and travel industry. He also noted the rare opportunity to work for an Australian, privately-owned business with big ambitions for growth and the autonomy available to him as CMO.  

CMO caught up with Connell to hear more about the role, how his marketing and brand learnings can help to drive BRG growth, where growth can come from, and what it takes to operate as a marketer across categories.  

CMO: How did the CMO role at BRG come about?

Paul Connell: The ambition has shifted in terms of the impact we at BRG want to make, the number of brands we now have in the business, and the impact we want to make on supplier communities as well as consumers with experiences. I’ve come over at a time where BRG has been doing amazingly in the last 2-3 years since coming together as a group and is now really ready to grow.

BRG and your suppliers have been significantly affected by the last couple of years of the pandemic. What insights come from that in terms of how the business needs to go forward?

Connell: One of the reasons I joined was because this is an Australian, privately owned company. BRG values relationships, and the impact on its community as much, if not more, than transactions. This gives us a strong point for growth. We are already embedded in a supplier community of 3000+ suppliers, all slightly different in their ability to bounce back, and we have deepening partnerships with regional tourism and bodies to collaborate and help people come back. So in one way, the pandemic has helped us deepen connections with local and regional tourist partnerships, such as Tourism Australia and Destination NSW.

BRG has acted as a big citizen, helping that economy bounce back. The group should be very proud of how it has showed up over the last two years – it’s separated them from the pack in Australia for when times are better.

Credit: Paul Connell

What macro consumer trends are informing the way BRG needs to connect with end customers?

Connell: We know 78 per cent of millennials already say and are choosing experiences over material things in life. That’s great, and if they know how and are provided with great opportunities to do that, that’s a win for us. What we also saw through Covid across Australia was people being super passionate about local and wanting to know more about where their money goes. If we can connect people more directly to our 3000 suppliers, and more of Australia’s 50,000 small business owners in the future, that gives you as a consumer those local experiences, which shift the way you see your own country. That then ripples out to those other local communities.

With Experience Oz, and as Australia gradually opens up, how we make sure that’s true for people coming from overseas as well is another focus. We have also seen a shift towards more sustainable tourism and people caring about what impact they’re having on the land they are visiting, gaining education from the experiences they are participating in. There’s a big ambition for us to continue helping that shift.

Then there’s one of the simplest macro issues, which is there are still $980 million of Christmas presents that go to waste every year – one in three are put in the cupboard or thrown away. That’s terrible. We’d much rather see people spending their time with friends doing something positive in the world than just get stuff.

In a recent interview with CMO, Intrepid Travel’s MD for A/NZ detailed a number of ways it’s working with suppliers to help them be more sustainable, as well as changes to itineraries and transport within trips. How much further can BRG go to support more sustainable experiences?

Connell: It’s in train and there is a lot more to come. In the last couple of weeks, for example, we have worked with one of our balloon providers to create a fully accessible ride for wheelchairs or less abled users. When you want to make experiences work for all, this is key. A lot of providers have the intent and want to, but many don’t have resources. Eighty per cent of our suppliers have under five employees. We can make a big impact there in highlighting the experiences that are more responsible by design.

Coming into the business, what’s your initial assessment of marketing structure and strategy?

Connell: It’s easier to talk about the gifts than the changes on day six. Our marketing director has been doing a very good job of how to bring our brands to life, how they work together as a house of brands, and also how we increasingly work with to supplier communities in a B2B marketing way. Our head of ecommerce has a good structure around training and continuing to grow our supplier experiences and therefore grow the experience economy.

Already underway at BRG is a digital transformation, focused on how we make sure we get all the benefits of scale. We probably have the largest database of insights around experiences and people engaging suppliers. How we make that work well across all these businesses we have acquired and brought in is another priority. We have been building scale in the experience economy over the last couple of years and to be able to do that from a tech perspective that’s different and proprietary has been a big part of the transformation over the last two years already. So there was a good amount of change underway already as a I came in and the team are in a really good spot.

The why is important here. We want to grow and shape this experience economy to create a great marketplace for everyone. There’s a great opportunity for leadership: No one does what this business does in Australia with the same level of intent and ambition. It’s a great opportunity to think about how you shift the way millions of Australians experience life through that scale. And increasingly, how you shift things for the 50,000 suppliers existing in Australia, so they benefit too.

How do you see your experiences, skills and learnings at Unilever across multiple brands as well as Naked Wines informing your approach at BRG?

Connell: Unilever gives you experience in how to bring brands to life in the best environment and to do that across a portfolio so they all complement versus compete. It also gives you an ingrained understanding of a multi-stakeholder model and how to create wins for all stakeholders that isn’t at odds with your ambition.

Naked Wines was a good double down of that – it was a fantastic marketplace business looking after independent wine makers, trying to give them scale and presence and change the way that industry worked for the benefit of everyone involved.

Working with BRG the first time around opened my eyes to the role a marketplace business can play and how different it is when you can be at the middle of that change, facilitating it. It also showed me how quickly you can move when you’re a tech-based, Australian privately owned company. You have complete autonomy to go after that. It’s probably what you have seen from BRG in recent years as it set up Big Red Group.

It's good to see a marketer with diverse category experience coming into this role. Do you see it as a different field for you to be coming into?

Connell: It is and it isn’t. To keep it simple: This is an amazing business that is creating experiences and telling stories of experience for people who are giving or receiving. Armed with a thousand stories, we just need to keep finding ways to tell them and keep people engaged with them. That’s marketing at its best. Then it’s pulling together different parts of the organisation to deliver those experiences, whether it’s technology, product or working with a supplier community on the ground. It’s not that different to working with any good, cross-functional business.

The reason I came in was the passion and ambition to be a business that doesn’t need to be either family or growth minded but can be growth. We can go after our purpose but in a way that transforms an industry from here in Australia. That’s quite rare.

Where’s the challenge for you as CMO then?

The challenge is where to start. There is no absence of opportunity. There are going to be challenges in that we are in an environment that is potentially recessionary at the moment with some cuts to discretionary spend. That’s ok – if we can help spend on things that really matter, I’d love to do that. Memories should be more important now when we’re all time poor and we’re bouncing back from Covid.

It's a great moment in time to help the travel and tourism industry bounce back. As more people come to Australia in the next couple of years, it’s more important we help them make the most of the experience while they are here.

Then there’s the fun stuff: How do you get amazing brands like RedBalloon to cut through the clutter? Everyone is competing for attention, but I would back us to be able to do it because of the sorts of things we are promoting. We can also help change the way we as consumers think about consumption and how we spend more time with people as the world bounces back, not less.

Don’t miss out on the wealth of insight and content provided by CMO A/NZ and sign up to our weekly CMO Digest newsletters and information services here.  

You can also follow CMO on Twitter: @CMOAustralia, take part in the CMO conversation on LinkedIn: CMO ANZ, follow our regular updates via CMO Australia's Linkedin company page 


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