In uncertain times, it is more important than ever to share experience, insights and advice with your peers so we can all learn from one another. With this in mind, we are having conversations with members across various sectors to understand how themselves and their teams have been coping with the COVID-19 pandemic, what they have learned from it and how they continue helping their customers.

For this week’s instalment in the series we’ve chatted to Fiona Curtin, Communications & Planning Director at Irish Distillers Pernod Ricard.


MII: Hi Fiona, can you tell us about how have you been adapting your marketing activities during the COVID-19 outbreak?

I think my word of 2020 is pivot! Of course, our first priority was to ensure our teams were safe and could work from home. The health, safety and wellness of our employees is our absolute priority and very quickly we were able to implement our business continuity plan and scenario planning in line with government directives. We closed the visitor experience of both our brand homes in Bow Street and Midleton just before St. Patrick’s Day but through trojan efforts by our production teams we were able to divide into teams and keep the distillery production open. We also pivoted to the production of alcohol gel for hand sanitiser for the HSE with our partners Mervue Laboratories. Of course, when all pubs and bars were shut by the government, this clearly impacted our customers and many other small business.. During this time we worked hard with our retail partners to ensure continuity of supply and ensure a solid support structure was in place to ensure the shelves were stocked. I am proud to say that there was a significant focus on communication to all teams during this unparalleled uncertainty from the leadership team and this was very welcome.

From a marketing perspective on a day that was to be a significant St. Patrick’s Day campaign launch, we found ourselves having to pivot to launch a fund to support our bartenders across the world, particularly in the US which is one of our biggest markets for Jameson. Together with HQ we quickly designed a framework for the various programmes we needed to mobilise and re-thought, re-planned and pivoted many activities in light of Covid 19. As ‘ staying in’ was the new ‘going out’, we launched ‘Jameson Connects – the Stay Inn’ online series. The series hosted live music performances, pub quizzes and merchandise giveaways to help keep spirits high and our Jameson community connected. Over 32 markets globally took this content and amplified it locally.

We are now progressing to our phase 4 which is the rebound phase, but with different markets are at different stages around the world, we have to ensure we are agile and can pivot back and forth as required by market. Luckily we can learn from other markets who are already in the rebound phase. It is clear that consumers will emerge back to the bar in safe steps, choosing to stay close to their home first and emerging slowly once they are sure all precautions are taken by the outlets they are choosing to spend their money in. We are partnering with our trade partners across the globe to ensure they have the requisite assets and support to make their venues safe and comfortable for our Jameson community.


How have you been engaging with your team?

We always had a Monday morning huddle so that was a foundation we continued. Beyond that we also added end of day catch ups so we could quickly align on any issues or cross team projects. This significantly sped up decision making and allowed us to keep the flow of information cross team. I continue my 121s with team leads and ‘hop’ into their teams calls with their teams every so often to ensure I answer any questions they have or just check in and support and complement them on the work outputs which have been consistently strong throughout the lock down period. We’ve had to be creative on shoots and content production, but I think the team has done a phenomenal job keeping the show on the road and pivoting as required! Last week I had a session in real life with my team leads and it was good to feel some sort of normality coming back albeit with strict adherence to social distancing measures! Our planning session moved from mural to flipchart and the energy in the room was tangible.


What have you learned from a marketing perspective from COVID 19?

I think I’ve learned to fly the plane as I am building it. The need to be decisive and agile at the same time is so important; being able to roll with the punches and remain resilient. The key is to keep the consumer at the heart of every move. And of course the absolute need for regular and transparent communication with the team, up, down and across the organisation – and across the globe. The power of keeping connected using huddles, quick catch ups and virtual cocktail evenings is so important.

Nothing is as certain as change and we need to prepare for all eventualities. My view is that it is important to continue to communicate through a crisis and show empathy for consumers and customers alike. They value that you haven’t disappeared. We may not always get it right but at least we are there for them. We’ve had a really positive response to our Bartender fund and Black Lives approach and will continue to lead with purpose driven activity going forward.

While I am a big believer in traditional comms, the power of digital, social and tech really came into its own through this time and it was amazing to see the creativity of the team kick even more into gear to come up with exciting new elements to our campaigns. For world whiskey day for example, we decided if people could not be in the pubs around the world, or in our home at Jameson Distillery Bow Street or Midleton, we would bring our home to consumers’ living rooms around the world. So we hosted our first live broadcast from Bow Street with Gavin James, our new Cooper and bartenders in New York, Joburg, Dublin and London. This proved so successful that we then launched a virtual distillery tour from Bow Street and we plan to add a few more ideas into our mix leveraging technology going forward.

We initially closed our online store for two weeks in line with directives, but soonrealised we could operate a shift in line with safety protocols. Since then our eCommerce approach has been more successful than ever, so we are doubling our efforts here and are planning a hackathon with our partners soon to really leverage social commerce, ecommerce and the hometainment opportunity in full.

For me it’s a real double down on the basics as well; being distinctive, being emotional (and empathetic) and being creative. A real rally call to prioritise creativity in the organisation which we are embracing. I also think I am lucky to work with great partners at TBWA and Thinkhouse, Hogarths and Accenture and really have the honest conversations to create solutions and accelerate great work for our brands.


How have your work practices changed? What will you do differently going forward?

We’ve had smart working at Irish Distillers for a good few years with flexibility for teams and this will continue. I suspect remote working in some format will continue to be the new normal and being able to reduce my daily commute is definitely welcomed. I think some of the practices like daily huddles will continue as well as the agency WIP meetings and other tools to improve communication and information flow. We managed to pivot to virtual yoga sessions and virtual cocktail classes though our Thrive at Work programme and I am sure some of these elements will continue to be packaged up into the future for our brand ambassadors all over the world. Although there is no real substitute for brainstorming in real life, I have managed to embrace new tools like Miro and Mural, vlogs VR and even Tik Tok! Of course certain parts of our brand activity such as experiential have been hugely impacted, so we are now looking to see how best to digitise our Jameson Distillery on Tour and Jameson Hosts platforms as well as scale up our eCommerce efforts and build out our brand partnerships with the creative communities across the globe. And, of course we are planning something big for next St. Patrick’s Day where we can hopefully be together once more and celebrate with a glass of Jameson in hand.

Has your brand purpose been challenged by COVID 19? How?

Jameson is all about connections; about the Irish warmth and openness. We invite everyone to pull up a stool and join in and create moments that matter with your tribe. Obviously doing this virtually was a big step forward and the future points to more virtual and in real life connecting. We are hugely excited for what this new socialising in new spaces and places brings for our industry. We are embracing how digital and data can propel us forward to real thought leadership in conviviality across multiple touchpoints for consumers. In the future our need and desire for genuine connectedness and togetherness will be even more amplified. Our ‘Bond & Connect’ space and ‘Better Together’ purpose are more relevant than ever to meet evolving consumer priorities…


What brands or businesses have you admired through this crisis?

I think the Irish government’s response was clear and supportive of its citizens at this difficult time. The yellow covid notices and the weekly updates in the papers and TV briefings from the CMO were helpful to ensure people knew what to do. It was interesting to witness the move from animation to user generated content to real live shoots over the period. I think Nike managed to demonstrate well how everyone who has a body can still be an athlete at home and also manage through both Covid and Black Lives Matter in a way that showed leadership and a strong point of view. For me the stand out advert locally was the granddad and the monster under the little boy’s bed for Three Ireland by Boys and Girls. I feel it simply demonstrated how great rituals can still continue virtually and tugged at the heartstrings!