United Spirits starts rethink of key brands’ marketing strategy

United Spirits is leveraging neuroscience to study consumer behaviour and is partnering with Nielsen Holdings for the same


Brands like Royal Challenge, McDowell’s and Signature have undergone ‘fundamental transformations’, says United Spirits chief marketing officer. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Brands like Royal Challenge, McDowell’s and Signature have undergone ‘fundamental transformations’, says United Spirits chief marketing officer. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

United Spirits Ltd, the makers of McDowell’s No.1 and Johnnie Walker whiskies, has identified 15 liquor brands out of its portfolio of 150 to drive its growth, sprucing up marketing and, in some cases, relaunching brands.

At the same time, it is also shifting towards high-margin products.

United Spirits has started with top brands, such as Royal Challenge and McDowell’s No. 1, said Amrit Thomas, president and chief marketing officer at United Spirits in an interview, adding that the process will extend to other brands including Signature and Johnnie Walker.

“Brands like Royal Challenge, McDowell’s and Signature have gone through fundamental transformations. These transformations are enabled by renovation and innovation. These are going to be business-changing opportunities,” said Thomas, who was earlier with Hindustan Unilever Ltd and Nestle Ltd.

United Spirits is planning to change communication strategy, taglines, packaging and even the design of some bottles.

Johnnie Walker will be relaunched with a new tagline of “Keep Walking With Joy” against the old “Keep Walking”.

As part of the changes, United Spirits is using next generation marketing techniques, leveraging neuroscience to study consumer behaviour. For this, the firm is partnering with Nielsen Holdings Inc.

“We are cognitive misers, as human beings, as we end up shaping those decisions which are material and important to us at that moment and at that time; the rest of it is left to our subconscious. And therefore, we are using neuroscience to examine how consumers watch packaging and marketing activation,” Thomas said.

Though marketing is seen as a creative field, United Spirits is increasingly focusing on science and data to drive marketing programmes, said Thomas adding that the company is trying to reinvent the “four Ps” of marketing—purpose, personalization, partnership and performance.

“Purpose” refers to going beyond a product to convey a theme while “personalisation” aims to capture the aspiration of a particular individual, such as a start-up professional or a sport champion.

“Partnership” refers to forging tie-ups with other stakeholders and the “performance” metric aims to make marketers accountable for brands.

“Through McDowell’s No.1 we are taking this idea of purpose of initiating and strengthening the bonds of brotherhood and friendship and making it the brand’s key role to facilitate that,” said Thomas.

“Another example is Signature. We are creating a brand extension platform called Signature Startup. And the purpose of this platform will be to enable and facilitate an individual’s choice of non-traditional professions and inspire them to start up and follow their passion,” said Thomas, adding that the word start-up is an evocative one in today’s entrepreneurial environment.

Ramesh Jude Thomas, president and chief knowledge officer at brand consulting firm EQUITOR Value Advisory P. Ltd, said that liquor companies are looking for easy-ride platforms and “start-up” is the flavour of the season. “As was Officer’s Choice and Passport in another era,” he said.

United Spirits has also started co-producing regional movies under the banner of Bagpiper Productions, which allows them to embed a certain theme which could support the brand. The company has already produced a Marathi movie.

“We decided to partner with regional films. Many brands have done that through in-film product placements, but that’s not what we’re doing here. Here the idea is actually to take a share of the movie budget, and to work with the producer to seed and embed the theme. So we partnered with Eros Productions for Marathi movie Guru, a Sanjay Jha movie which released in January,” Amrit Thomas said, adding that the company has also partnered with a Kannada movie.

United Spirits is also using the Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket tournament as a tool to promote brands with the help of cricket stars including Virat Kohli, said Amrit Thomas who is also chairman of Royal Challengers Bangalore.

“Liquor brands by definition exist in a regulated environment because of the hypocritical vote bank environment that drives legislation here,” said Ramesh Jude Thomas of EQUITOR.

“To this extent, liquor cannot use the prevailing platforms for establishing or maintaining brand equity that most categories (except tobacco) have access to. In other words, making the connection between what a brand is allowed to say and its core product benefit is a tough one to begin with. Add to this the proliferation of offerings and this is a CMO’s nightmare. Like asking athlete Ussain Bolt to run a three-legged race, with more and more people crowding the starting line,” Thomas of EQUITOR said.

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