Patrón, Grey Goose CMO Lee Applbaum on 'relatable luxury'

The global marketing leader shares the liquor brands' marketing challenges, upcoming initiatives and more.

Margaritas and cosmos. Lee Applbaum’s gig doesn’t sound too shabby.

Campaign US caught up with the global marketing chief of Bacardi Global Brands’ Patrón Tequila and Grey Goose Vodka to see what’s been going on at the spirits company.

Check out the Q&A below to see what Applbaum has to say about the use of celebrities, challenges facing the liquor and marketing industries right now and goals for Patrón and Grey Goose this year. Oh, and we asked his favorite cocktail too.

It's no surprise that alcohol sales are down across the board, with younger generations drinking less and more people adopting marijuana. How are you handling that?

Patrón and Grey Goose support sipping mindfully and responsibly, so for us, it’s not about how much or how often consumers are drinking. There are undoubtedly more options for people to enjoy themselves than ever before. But we don’t worry so much about those. We’re focused instead on encouraging consumers to treat themselves as worthy of only the very best and to trade up to a super-premium spirit, rather than settling on something second rate. This actually plays into a larger shift in the spirits world – while its undeniable that consumers are drinking less often, they’re actually opting for more super-premium spirits when they do drink. So this shift actually plays right into our wheelhouse.  On the tequila front, the category is actually surging. Since 2002, tequila volumes have grown 158 percent, an average rate of 6.1 percent per year. In 2018 alone, 18.5 million 9-liter cases were sold and high end and super premium brands are actually driving the category with a growth of 430 percent in volume since 2002 – which is notable considering the super-premium tequila category didn’t truly exist until then. 

Patron and Grey Goose are both premium brands - how do you differentiate from other premiums?

Both Patrón and Grey Goose define their categories - but neither are defined by their categories. They are not just luxury spirits, they are luxury brands, and compete for discretionary dollars within the luxury category outside of premium tequilas and vodkas.

Additionally, the level of craftsmanship from crop to cork differentiates Patrón and Grey Goose. Now more than ever descriptors such as "artisanal," "handmade" and "small batch" are important for attracting consumers. We’re proud to say that those aren’t just buzzwords for us. Our luxury status is backed by our high-quality ingredients and production techniques.

Tell us more about the ingredients of each.

The brand’s proprietary single distillation process is designed to preserve the true character of the ingredients. Grey Goose has remained unchanged since the brand’s beginning and is comprised of just two ingredients: single origin Picardie wheat and spring water from our natural limestone well in Gensac-la-Pallue. Grey Goose is only distilled once, for a vodka you can taste.

There are a number of variables that go into creating an ultra-premium tequila that is unique and special to Patrón. The combination of our raw materials and our meticulous production process are two essential components to crafting our tequila. From agave field to bottle, we use the highest-quality ingredients and handcraft our tequila in small batches to ensure consistency and quality. At least 60 hands touch every single bottle of Patrón before it leaves the distillery.

Additionally, we have long-term contracts established with the families who grow our agave, the essential ingredient in tequila production, which help us build meaningful and lasting relationships. The piñas used to create Patrón must fit within our standards, which are far more stringent than the balance of the industry. The result is our characteristically smooth taste profile.

Unlike a lot of competitors, you don't use celebrities very often, if at all. Can you chat about that?

Our products speak for themselves so we don’t need to rely on celebrities as much as other spirit brands. Consumers are savvier now than ever, and they demand transparency and authenticity. A transactional, superficial partnership with a celebrity can easily dilute a brand’s credibility, no matter how big the star and no matter how superior the product. When we do engage with tastemakers, whether it be from the music industry or the culinary world, that partnership needs to be born of genuine, mutual respect for each other’s craft and expertise to keep the relationship authentic.

Of course, there are cases when partnering with a celebrity or notable talent can make sense. For example, we launched a limited-edition Patrón offering with legendary filmmaker, Guillermo del Toro. Both Patrón and del Toro both derive from Jalisco, Mexico, and it was this connection that brought them together and forged an authentic relationship. Del Toro took the time out to help craft the tequila that bore his name, resulting in a product built out of passion versus marketing.

What's the breakdown in terms of media spend for Patron and Grey Goose? Mainly TV? Shifting more to digital? Programmatic?

Because Grey Goose and Patrón are luxury brands, it’s important to use channels that communicate our brand’s equity. The more traditional routes, such as TV, print, and OOH continue to be highly emotive mediums and therefore play a role. Whenever considering these traditional mediums, we strive to be a part of a bigger, culturally relevant moment. Whether that be award shows or major sporting moments, we want to be a part of the conversation.

But increasingly, digital and social channels are taking up a bigger slice of the pie chart. Not only are they the most reliable ways to convey the lifestyle behind the luxury, such as with beautiful cocktail or bottle imagery, but they’re also the best vehicles to tell a deeper brand story and impart a sense of integrity and transparency. You can post really digestible, hard-hitting bits of information about your brand or product, and then, on top of that, your audience can provide feedback in real time. Sometimes followers will even engage with one another, and create these real and ground-level conversations amongst themselves. Facilitating and actually taking part in these conversations, versus simply driving them, are very important to Grey Goose and Patrón.

What are the biggest marketing challenges you're facing and how are you overcoming those?

Consumers understand that Grey Goose and Patrón are super-premium brands and give them credit for having quality credentials. They aren’t shocked or offended by the super-premium price points, but they may not purchase the product if they find they can’t relate to the brand. The Grey Goose consumer, for example, isn’t looking to be told that Grey Goose is the superior vodka. They’re looking for Grey Goose to give them a reason to cohabitate with the brand. As mentioned, over the last decade or so, Grey Goose presented itself as a product that should be reserved for special occasions. But vodka consumption opportunities are much broader: brunch, midweek happy hour, date night. So the main challenge we face is positioning the brand as having a sort of relatable luxury—a product that anyone deserves to buy and consume, regardless of income. Most of the time, it’s a matter of discretionary dollars, often just $10 or $15. So we need to encourage and remind consumers that they deserve to treat themselves to the best, and that settling for "good enough" isn’t actually good enough.

There are new category offerings every day, so we must always maintain what makes our products unique - our hands-on, craft and authentic production processes - by continuing to educate consumers in interactive and engaging ways.

What are you most excited about this year for Patron and Grey Goose?

It’s an exciting time for the tequila category, especially the super-premium category, but to continue to grow, we must continue to educate. In addition to creating a distinct liquid, we aim to be the top choice in education and aim to perfect experiences for our consumers. At Patrón, we are constantly looking for new and interactive ways to educate about our history, heritage and unique production process. In addition to new product launches that will break boundaries in innovation, we’re also putting together interactive and engaging consumer experiences that will bring Patrón to life like never before.

Grey Goose had 10 campaigns over 10 years – it was hard for our consumer to understand us. While the brand has an amazing heritage and incredible quality credentials which consumers gave us credit for, Grey Goose represented the outdated codes of luxury – exclusivity and pretense. Over the past decade, we found that our audience had begun to reserve Grey Goose just for special moments, like an engagement or an anniversary, mainly because our campaigns revolved around those occasions. This is why we launched our new platform Live Victoriously back in April to reset the brand and re-forge the connection to consumers by demonstrating that luxury and relatability were not binary to Grey Goose. With the launch of Live Victoriously, we’re seeking to change this perception and encourage consumers to recognize that they don’t need a specific occasion to celebrate with Grey Goose - they are the special occasion and deserve to enjoy the very best, anytime, anywhere.

Can you explain a little bit about how you work with your agency partners and what you expect from them?

I am fortunate to be leading a talented team, both internal and external. We partner with some of the most innovative and world-class agencies, bringing together thought-leaders and experts in various disciplines. The expectation is pretty simple: to deliver the highest quality work that will inspire our consumers, and build love for our incredible brands.

And just for fun... are you more of a tequila guy or a vodka guy? And what's your go-to mixer?

Variety is the spice of life. I honestly don’t think I can call myself a tequila guy or a vodka guy now that I work so closely with both spirits.  Moreover, I love a great glass of Whiskey or Bourbon.  The reality is I am guided less by the spirit category and more by its backstory and commitment to artisanal production.  We are so fortunate to have so many brands crafted with uncompromising care in our portfolio that I can stay on a pretty solid rotation.  As for mixers, my only rule is fresh and natural.  The mixer should be as carefully crafted as the spirit and complement but never overwhelm it.  It’s the supporting actor, not the lead.

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