CMO of the Week: Pernod Ricard's Pam Forbus

When Pam Forbus joined Pernod Ricard North America as its SVP-Chief Marketing Officer in June, there was one big action item awaiting her response before she could even start tackling how to help the company’s spirits portfolio navigate the COVID-19 crisis.

When Pam Forbus joined Pernod Ricard North America as its SVP-Chief Marketing Officer in June, there was one big action item awaiting her response before she could even start tackling how to help the company’s spirits portfolio navigate the COVID-19 crisis.

“My first decision to make as CMO in my first week on the job was, ‘Should we join the Facebook boycott?” says Forbus, who had managed similar terrain in her most recent role at Walt Disney Studios as senior VP of consumer experience, data science and insights. “I had very deep experience in what I call social media manipulation of some of our movie ratings, movie reviews, attacks on our celebrities and Hollywood in general from what I would call bad apples.” 

Forbus told Pernod Ricard’s incoming chairman-CEO Ann Mukherjee of joining what became the July “Stop Hate For Profit” initiative, “We can join the boycott and we should. But it’s not just Facebook. There’s a lot of other even worse platforms and it’s not going to solve the problems. But what happens August 1?” Forbus had monitored many similar factions during her years at Disney, “and it’s a [game of] whack-a-mole,” she says. “You shut them down, they pop up somewhere else.”

To help create a systemic solution to online hate groups, Forbus and Pernod Ricard spearheaded the Engage Responsibly initiative, joining forces with the Association of National Advertisers, the Global Alliance for Responsible Media and industry partners like WPP and Salesforce to give social media responsibility the same attention that brands have been giving climate change for years. “If you think about the environment, and environmental sustainability, we all want to do our part with lower-emission cars. But if you expand the environment to include our social environment, that's equally important to our well-being.”

Pernod Ricard’s social responsibility initiatives coincided with a surge in demand for many of its most popular American liquors, which helped North American sales outperform the company’s global revenue in its most recent earnings. And some product categories, like tequila, have been sold out entirely — the result of an anticipated agave shortage that collided with the rise in off-premise spirits consumption in the U.S. and Mexico.

Brand Innovators caught up with Forbus from her current home base in Plano, Texas to learn more about her first six months as CMO, the lessons she learned at Disney and why doubling her brands’ media spend has already paid off. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Brand Innovators: You joined Pernod Ricard as CMO in June after 20 years working on the data & analytics side at PepsiCo and Disney. What appealed to you about the opportunity, and how has your experience in audience insights prepped you for this role?

Pam Forbus: t’s been quite a ride. I have worked on some amazing brands. But really it was [Pernod Ricard Chairman and CEO] Ann Mukherjee. I have known Ann since 2005, so for 15 years. She was my boss for seven at Frito Lay and again at PepsiCo. We just stayed very, very close and when she presented this opportunity I just jumped at the chance to go join her again. I know what a courageous, brave leader she is and I know how much she believes in marketing in terms of data analytics, which is my background and passion point. The thought of leading marketing with her and the way she thinks would just be a dream come true. 

I was really sad to leave Disney, but at the time we were in COVID. I was working on the movie side of the business, so there were furloughs. I had gone to the “Mulan” premiere, and maybe a week later everything got shut down. It was a beautiful film, so I’m glad they had an opportunity to premiere it on Disney+ and provide a great platform to watch it. It’s tough times in entertainment right now. 

So I was sad to leave Disney, but with Absolut, Jameson, Glenlivet, Malibu and on and on, there was some great marketing already happening. And I knew the kind of impact Ann could make. Because she doesn't just transform marketing in the way you do marketing, she makes it a total company sport. She definitely puts the consumer in the middle of everything we’re doing. And I knew that probably for the first time in my career I wouldn’t have to be pushing and selling that orientation, it would come from the top. It was about executing excellence and really making a difference. 

So that’s what we’ve been doing. It was a lot of heavy lifting to get the foundation in place, really understanding the brands, understanding the consumer — both right now and thinking through what’s the next change in the consumer behavior and what sticks with the changes happening in COVID.

Engage Responsibly was the first major initiative you began working on right as you got started as CMO. Why did that approach make sense vs. joining the existing July boycotts?

We need to fight for social sustainability as much as we need to fight for environmental sustainability. It’s the same idea of carbon offsets. So we said to our partners, “If you are going to spend money as a brand on some of these platforms, can you do an equivalent offset that supports causes of groups that are being harmed by this bullying, or other groups fighting hate online?” 

That created this whole idea of a certification for brands to be socially responsible. We think it’s important because you can’t imagine the future without these social media platforms, from a marketing standpoint. I can’t imagine it from my own life and how I connect with my daughter who lives in Africa, for example.  

That extended to campaigns we did for brands like Absolut where we said, “Vote first, drink second.” That was a followup to a campaign from last February called “Sex responsibly,” and recognizing the role an alcohol company in consent. This whole idea of responsibility, it fit so perfectly with Pernod’s values. If you go to Pernod’s global website, our mission is creators of “conviviality.” It’s a French word with latin roots, but it means bringing people together to share and celebrate life's moments. So we said, “We have to play a part in helping these places that are not convivial right now, but can we play a small part to be responsible?” That made our mission now to not just be about return on investment, but return on responsibility.

Though bar and restaurant sales are obviously down year-to-date, retail sales for liquor are way up. What products or trends do you see that are driving that growth for Pernod right now?

Maybe this is just my belief, but before I even got to Pernod there were trends that were in progress that are just now being accelerated. There was a trend to ecommerce for years. Who would have imagined you would have a liquor store deliver spirits to your house? The percent of people who were doing that before was so tiny, and now 20% of our buyers are doing that. It just exploded because the growth rate grew so quickly. So we had to quickly expand our ecommerce team and change our investments to really focus on ecommerce so you could have your spirits brand delivered. 

I think a lot of people have wine and beer in their house, but maybe don't have a lot of spirits in their home because they have their cocktails at a bar or a restaurant. So when restaurants and bars shut down, the thought was, “I need to stock up for my home bar.” And as restaurants started opening back up, restaurants started cocktails to go. Even in Texas where I’m at right now, that was against the law. You couldn’t have a cocktail and take it outside of the restaurant. Laws were passed in days that hadn’t been worked on in years. So we were able to help our restaurant customers with branded cups, or insulated bags so they could do promotions around cocktails to go. All of our customers were starting up website menus, we helped with that through our digital expertise. So we’re really trying to help the businesses or small businesses we support with any efforts we can do.

Are consumers drinking more? I’m not sure if they are, I think it’s just different. We’re having Zoom happy hours, so we’re still gathering in groups just not large ones. We’re tracking all of this, by the way. There's a lot more couples time happening right now, so hopefully that sticks but maybe it won’t.

So that’s interesting, you think maybe total volume of drinking isn’t necessarily up, but the number of consumption cases has just expanded the entrypoints?

Yeah, because people are stocking up bars when maybe they never walked into a store that sold alcohol before. Not every state is like California, where you can just go to the grocery store and get what you want. What we’re seeing is consumers who are light buyers, they gravitate to the name brands they know. And there’s a lot of boutique brands out there, there’s unique craft small brands for consumers to choose from. 

But we’re seeing the big brands are actually thriving. We've doubled our media spend because of this, because when you're not spending on on-premise or events or music festivals or sports sponsorships, it's not hard to double your spend. And we saw it really working with our brands like Malibu and Absolut. Absolut was on TV for the first time in three years, and currently it’s growing faster than the vodka category. That is a trend we haven’t seen for many, many years. 

I think our marketing presence because of this has caused us to think differently about the marketing model. What sticks? Of course people will get back into restaurants, and we'll have to turn that part of our marketing back on. But we'll think of it a little differently because we’re seeing media work. But we’ll follow the customer, wherever the consumer is, that's where you need to be, you need to follow and know their path to purchase wherever they are. 

What are some COVID-19 relief efforts Pernod has spearheaded since the global spread of the pandemic this spring?

We’ve been super involved. While we’re a French company and a lot of our distilleries are overseas, we do have a few in the U.S. So we were able to tap into many of our American whiskey distilleries like Rabbit Hole in Ft. Smith Arkansas, TX in Fort Worth, Smooth Amber in West Virginia — they all immediately started creating hand sanitizers. And we had to work really closely with the administration to remove a lot of regulatory hurdles to do that. We started working really quickly and continued to work with first responders on meeting their immediate needs. 

Since then, both Jameson and Malibu have done a few things to be supportive of different groups. Jameson worked with the charity of the U.S. Bartenders Guild, and we've been supporting it for many years. We pledged $500,000 to support the charity and then did some matching funds. Bartenders are so important to many of our brands, Jameson being one of them, so supporting our local bars was really important. And with Malibu, we pledged money to the National Urban League, and made more contributions as part of that campaign [with DJ/producer Dillon Francis]. 

Given the uncertainty of the next few months, where are you in your planning cycles for 2021?

We were planning quarterly last year, which is really painful to the team. Going from one planning cycle to doing it four times in one year was a really heavy lift, but it helped us stay agile. We're moving to two times a year for 2021, and by 2022 we’re planning the full year. We’re planning two things: What's the base case if things don’t change, and what do we hold for Plan B if states or markets start to open back up? 

We have a fiscal year that started in June, so we don’t see much change for 2021. And 2022 we’re planning similarly: what does it look like for reserving funds for when on-premise comes back? We’re already planning for 2023, as crazy as it sounds. We want to think big and bold, and think bigger campaigns. We’re really wiring media to the shelf now that we’re getting some of our foundation insights in one place. I think you're gonna see some big things because we want to get it right. We’re also bringing on some new agencies, we brought in WPP for our media agency of record Wavemaker, so I think you’ll see us more visibly in the future.

You mentioned that the “race for ecommerce is on” when it comes to planning for 2021 and beyond. Anything you can tease as far as Pernod’s plans to accelerate those efforts in the year ahead? 

It's been a challenge, I’ll tell you, because the retailer priorities are about managing inventory. That makes it hard to sell in new innovation, although there is some. I think you’re gonna see some innovation from Absolut and Malibu this year. We’re working on our next followup for a big summer Malibu campaign, that’ll be the first thing we launch next year. They did a great job shifting to digital, and what was really amazing was their return on investment, their impact, their performance of the campaign was way higher than previous campaigns that were much more physical. It kind of got us thinking people live online. And while our social media needs to be safe and sustainable, it’s important to our brands and our consumers especially in times of COVID. It’s a nice place to go to connect. 

It's hard when you see things that are painful, but I have faith that we will get this fixed and that our digital marketing will be even stronger in the future. We’re learning how to make it work and we’re getting smarter about it. That won’t go away.

And also, who knows what 5G’s going to bring? That’s what I keep thinking about, how do I blend the physical and digital worlds with 5G? I think back to my Disney days when we were creating a lot of augmented reality experiences. I’m excited about the future, we’re getting all our data in place. I think it’s a great time to be in marketing actually. As painful as it is to work together virtually, we’re all getting really smart about what matters and really focused on the priorities. That should make us all better practitioners.

Andrew Hampp is an entertainment marketing consultant for Brand Innovators and the founder of consultancy 1803 LLC, based in Berkeley, California.

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