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 Aoife McGuigan, Head of Marketing, Suntory Beverage & Food Ireland.

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

From the very beginning of the pandemic we were passionate about continuing investment in both our soft drinks and alcohol portfolios while remaining relevant to consumers. Of course, marketing plans that had been worked on for months had to be literally rewritten overnight and we really scrutinised what formats we were using and what we were spending. For these plans to resonate with our consumers and their new normal, we looked to the Gemba. It’s a Japanese word we use a lot in our business, and it means being in the ‘place where it happens’ and being close to our consumers. By putting the consumer first and observing our own behaviours in lockdown (including a lot of scrolling on social media for me) we moved to creating engaging online content while maintaining a presence on TV. For example, in the absence of gyms and team sports, our Lucozade Sport team pivoted to bring workouts to people’s homes. Within days they created an online fitness series hosted on Instagram and Facebook. Ribena focused on the ‘drink later’ occasion and the role dilutes play within the family household and Lucozade Energy reminded consumers of its energy credentials to help you get through the day. As staying in becomes the new ‘going out’, we’ve also innovated to launch Ribena Sparkling, which people can expect to see on shelf from March alongside some brand-new creative that I can’t wait for people to see. Adapt we did and I couldn’t be prouder of the resilience, agility and commitment that my team has shown over the last 12 months.

How have you been engaging with your team?

From the outset of the pandemic our business priority has been the safety and wellbeing of our people (both mental and physical), whether office based or in our field sales team out on the road. We’ve all made the effort to focus on communication and it might sound like a cliché, but we’re probably better connected than ever before. That’s not to say it hasn’t been without its challenges. Every single one of us is in a different position, from kids and home schooling, pets barking at the most inappropriate moments and for others trying to negotiate work in a house share scenario. Because each of our experiences are unique, we’ve tried to incorporate both structure and flexibility including regular 1:1’s, team meetings and informal coffee catch ups.

It’s also important that each of us has ownership around our own diaries and are trusted to make decisions that work in the context of being at home with our own personal responsibilities and priorities. We’ve of course had the team quiz’s, cocktail making sessions with our Beam Suntory alcohol brands and a highlight is the bimonthly business townhalls were we all get together as ‘one team.’

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

I think the true fundamentals of marketing have remained the same. Throughout this madness we have remained committed at putting the consumer at the heart of everything we do. Reaching them with engaging, relevant content and bringing continuity and clarity. Something I’ve always been aware of is that I’m really fortunate to manage a high performing team, but what I have learned this year is that the resilience, passion, and work ethic of the team throughout 2020 has been phenomenal. It’s not easy to rip up brand plans, pivot and rework them over a period of days, or make big calls to postpone or cancel work.

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

The Covid-19 pandemic has certainly affected the way we work and, in some ways, for the better. Above anything, it’s given us a laser focus on our people’s health and wellbeing which remains our number one priority. I’m proud to say that SBFI has an excellent company culture and that’s down to the leadership, our people, but also the interaction we have with one another in the office, so the idea of working from home and not having the daily coffee station conversations and banter took time to adapt to. It can also be challenging for people to maintain their energy and creativity especially when you’re on camera all day. In response to this we’re encouraging those working from home to take walking or ‘walkie talkie’ meetings to get away from their screens, have reduced 1 hour meetings to 50mins, introduced a meeting free hour from 12-1pm, and we have a flexible Friday option of finishing @ 2pm which we encourage everyone to take. We know how effective flexible working can be and we’ll carry this, along with fearless innovation and our renewed focus on the Gemba through to 2021 and beyond.

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

If anything, our brand purpose has come to the fore throughout the pandemic. Lucozade and Ribena are trusted heritage brands, and both were established in the early 20th century to deliver a health benefit. Ribena was given to children as a Vitamin C supplement and Lucozade Energy was originally created by a chemist and renowned for its glucose and recovery credentials. Of course, in the current crisis they are not a cure for Covid and nor would we even suggest that, but consumers turn to trusted brands and who doesn’t need a daily energy ally to counter that afternoon slump. Our corporate vision of Growing for Good has also steered the ship towards supporting our wider communities. We’ve donated over 40,000 bottles of our drinks to frontline workers over the past few months and continue to donate any surplus to FoodCloud – a wonderful charity helping to tackle hunger and reduce food waste in Ireland.

What brands or businesses have you admired through the crisis?

I think every brand and business that has navigated the past 12 months deserves credit. I’ve been in admiration everyone in the food and drink industry helping to feed the nation from field sales and manufacturing, to grocery supply chains and independent retailers.

Lastly a TVC that made me laugh recently while being spot on with the insight, is Saatchi and Saatchi’s BT Broadband ad for the UK, were we find Paula facing ‘signal shame’ while working from home. Simple, funny and not remotely sentimental – a refreshing change.