Eric Sampers – Pernod Ricard
As Brand Director for two of the biggest names in Gin, Beefeater and Plymouth, Eric Sampers – it’s safe to say – knows a thing or two about the spirit. We thought we’d kick off the new year by finding out how he came to have such a role, what he sees for Gin’s future and why he thinks this industry in particular is such a great one to work in.
For those who don’t know you, what is your role and how long have you been doing it?
I was appointed as Brand Director for Beefeater and Plymouth Gin in April 2016, which means that I act as a global marketing director for these two brands within the Chivas Brothers/Pernod Ricard organisation, based in London.
You’ve got quite a wealth of experience – what were you doing before taking on the role?
I have held several brand management and marketing roles at regional and market level in Europe and the Americas for Pernod Ricard. Although I am French myself, I started to work with the company in Brazil 14 years ago. I managed a growing portfolio of local spirits for the Brazilian market and for export purpose until 2010. Then I moved to the US to look after the marketing of the whole Pernod Ricard portfolio in the American travel retail environment, plus some Caribbean and Central American markets. In 2012, after 14 years abroad, I went back to France to manage the premium portfolio of spirits and champagnes of that market.
Global strategies for any gin brand must be a hard thing to assemble, but even more so on such an established portfolio. What’s the main challenge for you when creating a global vision for your brands?
It is a challenge indeed, all the more since Pernod Ricard is such a decentralised organisation, with markets and our distribution affiliates picking on the Gin trend at their own pace. Our objective is to make sure Pernod Ricard explores the full potential of its Gin portfolio. Then the challenge is to deliver a consistent strategy for our brands across the organisation while making sure we engage every market where gin is taking off or is a significant business already.
And what’s the most fun part?
I have to say Gin people are different and extremely fun to work with. I have worked with other categories before: Scotch, Irish Whiskey, Champagne, Cachaça, Brandy… I love working with spirits and I love our industry, but there is something different about Gin; it is a very creative and dynamic category, people are very funny and interesting, competitors are nice with each other and our teams at Beefeater and Plymouth Gin are fantastic and very funny. I am enjoying every bit.
Finding a balance between being prescriptive about how a brand is presented while allowing it to responsive and flexible for local market needs is a fine line to tread. Do you have to adopt multiple strategies that allow you to build Beefeater Gin in different ways depending on how developed the markets are?
Definitely. Understanding where the local consumer is at when it comes to Gin is key. Then there is the very nature of our organisation that ensures this even more: our colleagues in other markets will make sure the local consumer and customer point of view is being taken into consideration when we discuss local/global strategy. Our job in London is to design a roadmap strategy that fits all needs while ensuring consistency. We are looking into managing the existing pool of traditional Gin consumers and understanding this new generation of Gin drinkers who are fuelling growth globally. They can be from South America, Eastern Europe, Africa, Asia, Oceania… Not just the UK or the US. We are trying to make sense of all of this.
Which markets excite you for Gin at the moment?
I am quite amazed with Belgium and the Netherlands, which are getting really engaged with the category. These are relatively small countries but they have a huge appetite for Gin, being historically and culturally related with the category. The same can be said for the Czech Republic and Slovakia. There are many interesting and “exotic” markets where Gin is growing: Turkey, Greece, Japan, Colombia, Argentina, Mexico, South Africa, Norway, Estonia… Too many to tell. And obviously even in large North American and European markets we are seeing interesting developments. It is very exciting to see that large, mature Gin markets such as the UK and Spain are growing as well.
We’ve spoken in the past about finding a way to connect Plymouth’s heritage with a modern audience and maintain its relevancy. What’s it been like for you getting to grips with what is an enormous history and then implementing your vision for its future?
A fascinating challenge. This brand has everything someone passionate for spirits can dream of: quality, provenance, heritage, famous endorsers, huge appraisal from the top mixologists and bartenders… It is part of alcohol beverages history and has so many interesting stories to tell. In marketing we have become so obsessed with engaging consumers through creating new relevant content for them. Plymouth Gin literally seats on a goldmine of content and you need to find a way to exploit it without sounding like you are looking back.
At the same time it is still a relatively small brand facing the harsh competition against all the new wave gin brands consumers perceive as craft. How do you deal with that? It is not as easy as it sounds. We have picked our brains with this and we believe we have found a way. We are lucky that at the heart of the brand there is a fantastic liquid, and it all comes down to making sure consumers get that.
They are very different challenges and each have their merits, but as an individual, do you prefer working on heritage brands or bring new ones to market?
This is a difficult one and I am afraid I cannot pick sides. I believe that spirits have a “soul” and this belief is very much influenced by the way brands have carved their own space in popular culture. For instance, when you read novels, many writers will spontaneously associate spirits brands to characters. In the vast majority of cases, and differently from cinema or TV, this is not part of a wicked plan to promote product placement. This happens because these brands talk to culture makers, represent something that will reinforce one particular trait of personality or enhance the aura of their fictional characters and so on.
To me this has always been fascinating. Working with a big established name also means nurturing this type of “cultural heritage,” while bringing a new product on the market is helping it making its first steps. I believe in the power of culture: In our industry, a brand without any relationship to its immediate cultural environment cannot be successful in the long run. I like the intellectual challenge of solving business problems and developing opportunities, but what really motivates me to get out of bed every day is to keep building cultural relevance for the brands I work with.
Beefeater 24 was one of the early premium Gins to emerge and has always been presented as a premium offering. How hard is it maintaining a premium perception on a gin, when most people will know the Beefeater name as the Flagship London Dry? Does having a sister brand help or hinder the wider public’s perception of where it stands on a shelf?
Yes, launching a premium offering to an established industry standard is one of the hardest things to do, whatever marketing textbooks say. With Beefeater 24 we have only modestly tapped into premium Gin, but we will do much more. Beefeater 24 is the child of Desmond Payne, who will be celebrating 50 years as a Gin maker this year and who is one of the most influential character of the industry. We are combining the strengths of the Beefeater name and the quality of the liquid with this particularly interesting fact to relaunch and introduce Beefeater 24 to gin lovers.
What’s the biggest challenge for you as a company in 2017?
At Pernod Ricard we have been surfing the Gin wave for quite a while now with Beefeater, thanks to the fantastic job done in Spain for instance, but competition is getting fierce and we must grow our brands faster. We must do justice to Plymouth Gin. Pernod Ricard has built a fantastic gin portfolio. It now wants to take full advantage of this gin renaissance.
And what are you most looking forward to?
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