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 Cathal Gillen, Global Marketing Effectiveness Manager at William Grant & Sons.


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

As a spirits company we have had to unfortunately pause a lot of our on-trade activity which needless to say is not only a key distribution channel, but also a key channel for reaching consumers. Our brand ambassadors have had to make the biggest change in how they engage with consumers and the trade. For example, our Tullamore D.E.W. Global Culture & Distillery Ambassador Kevin Pigott organised virtual Tully Snug sessions. These helped connect people during the great disconnect, allowing friends to try a virtual representation of an Irish snug filled with cocktails, stories and spoken word rounded out with singing from resident singer songwriter Dan Elliot.

We’ve also had to react to changing consumer preferences as people moved from bars to at-home consumption. Early on in the outbreak this included quickly understanding SKU size preference, we were selling out of bigger formats in some countries as shoppers bulk purchased. Meanwhile the drinks & categories people were drinking at home also changed. For example we saw big spikes for tequila in markets like the U.S., helped by consumers wanting an easy-to-make cocktail in the form of margaritas for their weekend Zoom calls initially, and then back garden socialising as the summer progressed.

Like most we’ve also upped our activity & investment in e-commerce due to the shift to that channel by shoppers. While this growth has stabilised, the lockdown has no doubt sped up e-commerce adoption by a few years affecting some categories more than others.

With the pausing of some projects, we’ve also used the opportunity to stand back, think and evolve some of our tools for diagnosis & strategy. For example in our brand health trackers we’ve piloted how we can get better at measuring “mental availability in context” using the Category Entry Points thinking from Ehrenberg-Bass. This is especially relevant when it comes to the mass shift in the types of occasions happening now versus 12 months ago. Understanding if people are aware of Hendrick’s Gin or Glenfiddich is one thing, but understanding when our brands are salient for outdoor socialising or gifting, provides a much richer picture of when our brands come to mind for consumers and shoppers. This can be not only powerful for evaluating brand health, but also for informing strategy


How have you been engaging with your team?

Like most, video call meetings have filled up the diary. To counter the screen time overload we’ve also encouraged more walking meetings which comes with added health benefits. Other initiatives organised include monthly “Fika” catch ups for more informal coffee chats with other members of the wider team, trying to fill in for those impromptu interactions that happen around the office. We also have the benefits of being able to try out some of the brand’s virtual events, including a Tullamore D.E.W. Comedy & Music Zoom evening which was a great way to catch up with the Dublin based team.


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

One learning was around human interaction and what this means for branded events. We have an innate need to interact with friends & family in person. As fun as the early Zoom friend catch ups were, they quickly became tiresome and it will be very difficult for virtual brand experiences to replace live events or experiences anytime soon (or ever).

A more generalist learning was just around the speed to which governments and businesses were able to move out of necessity. Things thought not possible before were suddenly possible. It just reinforces the need for a “burning platform” to cut through the barriers and red tape to get everyone on board to really drive change in a business.


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

The biggest changes have been the obvious one in terms of working from home, and also business travel. Our team would do a lot of travel, whether that be to London to our other global marketing office or market visits. I think we like other companies will inevitably revert back to old practices albeit at a reduced level, relationships are still a key part of why business travel is such a thing in the first place, and they are much easier to build in person.

We had quite a good flexible work policy beforehand anyway but I do think the lock down will give more permission for people to work from home, for example not feeling bad about dialling into a meeting. Similar to business travel, I don’t think the extreme “office is dead” narrative will hold true, with the aftermath felt but in a more positive way. As a culchie, I’d love to see it being the norm for people to work/live down the country and just pop up to Dublin for a few days. This not only takes pressure off our cities, but also helps revitalise towns & rural areas.


What brands or businesses have you admired through this crisis?

I have probably more admired SME’s in the way they have had to adapt. For example Niall Sabongi who is behind the likes of Klaw and The Seafood Café, refocusing their consumer offerings via online offerings such as Sustainable Seafood Ireland or on-tap specialist WineLabs launching their curated wine delivery service. Flying Elephant Productions have been really smart too, turning their leftover stock of plywood earmarked for the summer festivals into really slick desks for working from home.