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 they and their teams have adapted their marketing strategies throughout the pandemic, what they have learned from it, and how they prepare to return to the new normal.

For this week’s instalment in the series we’ve chatted to Karl Donnelly, Marketing Director, Bulmers Ireland.

MII: Hi Karl, it has been a tough year for drinks brands and industry. Are you confident that you will recover to pre-covid levels when the on-trade fully re-opens?

It has been a very challenging environment all right, however we are now in a very optimistic place regarding the future. At Bulmers Ireland we have a fantastic portfolio of much loved Irish and international premium brands. Our plans for the remainder of the year and for the years to come will continue to be a source of strength and will see us through whatever the remainder of 2021 has in store.

We have a hugely exciting year planned for the Bulmers Brand that has significant ATL investment for the first time in a number of years, our acquisition of the Budweiser brand in July last year provides us with a great opportunity to re-invent a powerful global brand, combined with Corona, Five Lamps, San Miguel and our recently launched Hard Seltzer – Seven Summits, we have a very strong portfolio for the on-trade return. Whether the on-trade opens to pre-covid levels we will have to wait and see, as we know, re-opening will be on a staged basis so it may not be until next year when we know the answer to that. Currently, we are factoring in that a certain percentage will not re-open in the short to medium term. This is combined with the fact that on-trade consumption has been declining year on year by -1.5% over the past number of years.

However, we are fundamentally social creatures, craving interaction with one another and the Irish Publican has demonstrated massive resilience in recent times. While nobody can precisely tell us what’s in store for the future, this insight into human behaviour gives great confidence in the on-trade seeing a strong return.

How has your approach to marketing changed over the past year, and will this continue into the new normal?

Initially activity grounded to a standstill but not for too long thankfully. As a culture, we encourage a strong learning environment as well as an ability to embrace change and adapt at pace. This is a constant in FMCG marketing and was clearly put to the test especially in the early days of the lockdown. It is a testament to our internal commercial teams as well as our agency partners how well everybody stuck together and continued to strive for progress with our brands.

We placed a stronger emphasis on building our online communities, reaching new users through social & digital, remaining culturally relevant by tapping into ‘lockdown survival’ trends and tuning in to how people were feeling, something that was increasingly changeable.

As lockdown continued our emphasis shifted to entertainment and education. The idea was to create a space for people to consume content they enjoyed, and not feel like they were being sold to every time we connected with them.

We also used our social channels to recruit participants to our consumer community portal – Bulmer Pourtraits is our newly developed consumer panel which we used to get closer to consumers’ mood & motivations.

We identified appropriate ways to drive penetration within the Covid climate. Our focus on the off-trade was clear. Most importantly, we had to gauge the consumer culture and didn’t want to be overly commercial with our messaging. We wanted to support where we could and provide opportunities to engage in activity that was actually going to be useful for the consumer. We needed to ensure that our content mirrored the reality of how our consumers were enjoying our brands, which was at home. We organised a very successful campaign on social where we provided customised Bulmers Bar signs which was a fun way to engage with our consumers, overall our social channels have seen over 300% increase in engagement rates. The commercial results were also positive, our adapted plans connected better with consumers and helped to achieve the highest share of Cider sold in the off-trade in the last number of years. Bulmers brand share of Off Trade Cider increased +3.7pp in 2020.

How did you adapt your brand to connect with consumers during this time?

We were actually in the latter stages of finalising a new brand idea for the Bulmers brand when Covid struck. Obviously, we had to be nimble to adapt. We opted for a soft launch of the ‘When Time Bears Fruit’ creative platform in August 2020 as the on-trade re-opened. It’s a brand idea that we developed before Covid entered our lexicon but obviously the last year has been, to some degree, about biding our time, which we believe will just give the idea more strength and a much richer meaning for consumers.

Moving towards ‘normality’ is a slow process but we believe wholeheartedly in the power of our new creative platform and as a result our strategy remained as it was before the pandemic – to invest in big brand activity, even now when the landscape has changed so dramatically and access to our on-trade sales channels has become compromised and restricted.

But throughout all that’s happened over the last year, the Bulmers Orchard in Clonmel has carried on regardless. That’s been a great reminder to keep focusing on what matters, what makes the brand special. And to think long term. We’re giving consumers a great opportunity to experience that magic for themselves by winning a glamping experience in the Bulmers Orchard later this Summer. That, in a way, is symbolic of what we’re doing. Rejuvenating the brand, in a way that feels true to itself. Giving a new generation of consumers an introduction to the magic of the Bulmers brand. We’ve been planting the seeds for this over the last year, building a bank of assets and building our social community.

What was the most important lesson you learnt from a marketing perspective during the pandemic?

Aligning a portfolio to take advantage of macro trends has been fundamental to Bulmers Ireland gaining share during the pandemic. The Premiumisation trend is a good example of this. Premiumisation was born out of the economic growth seen in recent years following the rebuilding of the economy after the financial crisis in the earlier part of the previous decade, and alcohol benefitted. You saw it in a number of different ways; cocktails became more of a thing, consumers brand called their preferred Gin – a big change from the days of “I’ll just have a G&T”, you saw it in Beer with greater brand differentiation across glassware and serve size, it can also be seen within Cider with Rosé Cider emerging as a premium offering.

Premiumisation wasn’t a product of the pandemic but the conditions were right for it to be a catalyst for change. The pandemic hit cohorts of the population in different ways, older people were more insulated financially so they could afford to choose better and spend more, while the young who tended to be more financially constrained chose better too as choosing something different, something a bit more premium was one of the few choices they could make now that the on-trade was closed, and they weren’t able to socialise with friends in the same way they had before. We expect the brands that gained share to continue to do well as the on-trade reopens.

So to summarise, the learning is to ensure we understand macro trends and guard against being too insular. It is not that anybody could foresee what was going to occur but when brands are in strong health and planning with the macro in mind, they will be in a better position to face challenges or indeed avail of opportunities that may arise.

What are you most proud of from a marketing perspective that you and your brand team have delivered, or plan on delivering?

Remote working is one thing, one thing which I think we all agree has worked well. But remote understanding can be another. There is a physical chemistry that happens when people sit around a table to crack a problem that can be harder to achieve virtually. But I’m really proud that we’ve delivered on three massive projects, almost entirely through remote working.

Developing the When Time Bears Fruit brand idea into a compelling suite of communications that are worthy of its brand leader status for Bulmers. We are confident this will appeal to those that would remember some of the iconic Bulmers activity of the past but will also drive further brand penetration with new consumers too.

Adding one of the world’s most iconic beer brands, Budweiser, to our portfolio. Taking and adapting their international communications to the Irish market and developing a brand activation, to appear soon, which we believe will be the most innovative partnership with Ireland’s publicans ever achieved by a beer brand here.

Developing and launching a new brand, Seven Summits, from a blank page, to an exciting range of hard seltzers, now on shelf and already gaining traction. It is not often marketers in Ireland get the opportunity to embark on such a project and see it come to fruition in a matter of months.

To achieve the above, I have a huge amount of respect and gratitude to everyone in the Bulmers Ireland marketing teams and our agency partners at Goosebump, Teneo and Starcom.

What did you learn about yourself over the last 15 months?

Apart from being able to make killer brownies….on a more serious note, while it sounds a little basic, it really is the value I place on human connection, and in that context socialising in our pubs and restaurants, having the craic, laughing and savouring the company of our friends and family.