Lee Applbaum on breathing new life into Grey Goose

As Grey Goose embarks on an exciting new chapter, The Spirits Business speaks to its marketing head, Lee Applbaum, about the need to revitalise super-premium vodka.

Grey Goose and Patrón had remarkably similar starts in life: both were founded by game-changing entrepreneurs, both sought to establish a super-premium segment in their respective categories, and both received critical acclaim from the connoisseurs of the spirits world. But later their roads took different turns. While Patrón has benefited from, and indeed massively contributed to, rising demand for luxury Tequila, Grey Goose has struggled to retain market share as drinkers turn away from high­-end vodka.

But parent company Bacardi, which acquired Grey Goose from Sidney Frank in 2004 and Patrón from John Paul DeJoria in 2018, is seeking to revitalise the super-premium vodka category, and give its famous French brand a new lease of life. The man spearheading this effort is Lee Applbaum, the global chief marketing officer for Patrón, who, since the acquisition, has assumed marketing responsibility for Grey Goose.

“As a marketer, you are very lucky in your career if you get to work on one iconic brand,” says Applbaum. “So the opportunity to lead two global brands is unbelievable.” After cutting his teeth at Coca­Cola, Applbaum moved into retail, where he says he relished the industry’s “speed and cadence”.

He joined Patrón in 2013 from Australian department store chain Target, and has since helped the brand grow into the powerhouse it is today.

SHINING EXAMPLE

His aim is to apply Patrón’s “agility” to Grey Goose, something he says new Bacardi CEO Mahesh Madhavan wants to see more of in the business. “When Bacardi bought Patrón, Mahesh spoke about using it as a shining example of what a brand can do when it is agile,” Applbaum recalls. “We hope to inspire the Bacardi organisation with the agile ethos of Patrón and its entrepreneurial spirit.”

According to Brand Champions data, Grey Goose’s volume sales fell by about 500,000 cases between 2014 and 2017. Super-premium vodka on the whole has suffered from declining interest in the US market, which has “disproportionately impacted” Grey Goose, says Applbaum. Reversing the wider trend in spirits, drinkers are trading down to cheaper price points in vodka, he claims, creating an “incredibly tough” trading environment. And the industry’s response hasn’t done it any favours.

“At a broader level, the category has been dumbed down,” he says. “It has lost a lot of what makes it special and unique, and the industry – and Grey Goose is no exception – has done itself a disservice by not differentiating one vodka brand from another. It’s a sea of sameness in many ways.” Applbaum and his team are therefore seeking to “meaningfully differentiate ourselves”, which he hopes will help the sector to reach a point where “price is not the leading driver of preference”.

Grey Goose, which is produced in France using winter wheat and local spring water, has “no issue” when it comes to its luxury credentials, Applbaum claims. “The issue isn’t about the intrinsic value of the brand. We get top marks for that. It’s softer than that – it’s about emotional connectivity.” According to Applbaum, consumers – principally in the US – have not found Grey Goose relatable, and have therefore been less willing to pay a premium price for it. They have turned their attention to more affordable homegrown products – namely Tito’s.

But 2019 marks a new chapter for the brand, and Applbaum’s team has spent the past few months “working tirelessly” to “completely tear down all of our assets” in preparation for a full global brand “reset”. He explains: “Some people say ‘relaunch’ but I like this idea of a reset. We have taken a pause, have gone back and looked at what consumers and the trade were saying about us. They have been saying the same things for 10 years, but we weren’t really listening. And in 10 years we have had 10 campaigns – that level of creative schizophrenia has done no favours for the brand.”

Grey Goose will launch an entirely new suite of creative assets this month, covering TV, print, out of home, digital, social and experiential touch points. Applbaum says he is mindful not to use the word ‘campaign’ since “campaigns can be short-­lived”. He adds: “We are building a sustainable brand and creative platform for the next 10 years. It is rooted in consumer insights, but it seeks to really differentiate us from not only the competitive set in vodka, because I feel that bar is quite low, but from super-­premium spirits more broadly.”

The brand reset will be centred on the idea of “connectivity and relatability” and will seek to communicate that “the small moments in life are just as important as the big ones”. According to Applbaum, Grey Goose’s focus on luxury has benefited its brand image, but has limited the occasions during which it is enjoyed. “Historically, with Grey Goose we made a mistake in positioning ourselves too narrowly as made for those big celebratory moments. In doing so, it did reinforce our luxury credentials, but it certainly did nothing to help with the frequency of responsible consumption.”

As such, he wants to see consumers celebrate both big and small moments with Grey Goose, which is a less expensive “treat” than a new luxury car or handbag. In short, he wants the brand to be less elitist. Grey Goose has been a staple of VIP bar areas for years, and while Applbaum stresses that “bottle to table” consumption is “important”, it “cannot be our reason for being”.

AFFORDABLE LUXURY

“I don’t want to lose the halo, but that cannot be our only perceived occasion. It’s a careful balance, and Grey Goose as a brand over-leaned into this idea of nightlife, status and big celebration at the expense of being more relatable. We are a luxury brand, but we are an affordable luxury. We don’t want to be arrogant or exclusive.”

Applbaum’s plan to launch a creative platform that has longevity reflects Bacardi’s wider strategy. Speaking to The Spirits Business last year, Mahesh Madhavan said Bacardi rum’s Do What Moves You campaign would be its key marketing drive for the next decade. He also said the next 10 years would be Bacardi Limited’s best yet.

“It’s vital that the vision for Patrón and Grey Goose ladders up to the corporate vision,” says Applbaum. “What Mahesh has inspired this organisation to do in a very short space of time is to play the long game. We can deliver short-­term results to our shareholders, unquestionably, but that doesn’t have to come at the expense of doing what’s right for the brands and business in the long run.” He adds that while Grey Goose’s new platform will evolve over the next 10 years, it will provide a constant grounding for the brand.

In the new messaging, Applbaum notes that terroir will become less of a focus. In recent years, Grey Goose has centred its communication on its French origin, ingredients and glamorous association with the Côte d’Azur. The platform will aim to ensure that Grey Goose is “perceived as authentic and not just authentically French”, says Applbaum.

“Unlike other spirits, like Tequila and Cognac, vodka doesn’t need to be made in a specific region. So the fact that Grey Goose is made in France doesn’t really ladder up to suggest that it’s a quality vodka. France has a lot of quality cues, but we can’t assume that. We have to tell a story.”

Last year, Grey Goose reintroduced its vanilla expression in response to demand from bartenders, and is exploring “interesting ways” to innovate. However, Applbaum concedes that the brand previously over-indexed on flavour, so will approach such projects in the future “very thoughtfully”.

He says: “We have had some flavours that have languished on the shelf because they were designed for short­-term gain. There’s plenty of room for true innovation – we’re just not there yet.”

NO LIMITS

Beyond finite trends, Applbaum’s goal is to see Grey Goose “transcend” the vodka category altogether. “We are proud of being a vodka, but we don’t define or limit ourselves by that definition. When we look at our competitive set, we are thinking about super­-premium spirits and, even more broadly, luxury brands.

“Consumers often decide how to spend their discretionary income on an impulse, so we are in competition with every super-premium spirit on the back bar, and with luxury brands more broadly.”

Since super-­premium vodka is a large and mature category, Applbaum does not believe its rate of growth can match that of Tequila. “Growth in super­-premium vodka will be incremental rather than exponential.” In a reverse of fortunes, the category has an opportunity to increase its market share as consumers look to trade up. “There may be a share shift in vodka from mid­-tier back to super­-premium, as opposed to moving from other categories, as is the case with Tequila,” observes Applbaum. “We lost our share in price compression, and that’s where we’re going to gain our share back.”

It’s a big ambition, but Applbaum believes he has the right team to achieve it. “I have a team of marketers at Grey Goose, some of them have been on the brand for years, and they are hungry for success. They are smart, talented, world­-class marketers who are committed to seeing this reset through and transforming not only our brand but the category.

“The aim to re­-establish the pre­eminence of Grey Goose is something that excites everyone. It’s a lot of fun and all eyes at Bacardi are on what our team is doing.”


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Author: Amy Hopkins {authorlink}