Shreyas Kulkarni

“This change is probably the biggest one after the launch of the McDowell’s No. 1 brand in 1968”: Amarpreet Singh Anand, Diageo India

Anand talks about the entire brand portfolio renovation of McDowell’s No. 1, the reasons behind it, among other things.

“India consumes more whiskey than any other country in the world - about three times more than the US, which is the next biggest consumer,” said the BBC in May 2020 and added that nearly one in every two bottles of whiskey brought around the world is now sold in India. Whiskey is undeniably India’s true love.

Such is the love for the spirit that a Forbes ranking of “... The 25 Best-Selling Whisky Brands In The World” in June 2020 had 13 Indian brands on the list out of which seven made it to the top 10. United Spirits’ McDowell’s No. 1 grabbed the pole and rivals Officer’s Choice from Allied Blenders & Distillers (ABD) and Imperial Blue and Royal Stag from Pernod Ricard were behind on two, three, and four.

As per The Spirits Business, a leading trade publication on spirits, McDowell's No. 1 saw the most sales in 2019 with 30.7m units (nine-litre case sales, standard industry sales metric) while ABD's Officer’s Choice came second with 30.6m.

Statista, a market and consumer data firm, had forecasted India’s whiskey consumption at 6.23 billion litres in 2019 and 6.53 in 2020. Unfortunately, the 2020 number will suffer because of the Coronavirus pandemic and the various lockdowns introduced to halt the pandemic’s spread.

“This change is probably the biggest one after the launch of the McDowell’s No. 1 brand in 1968”: Amarpreet Singh Anand, Diageo India

The pandemic and subsequent lockdowns also affected the rollout of the renovated United Spirits’ McDowell’s No. 1, Diageo India’s (parent company of United Spirits) prestige brand. As per the brand, it has undergone a complete brand portfolio renovation and aims to make whisky a choice of drink for the next generation of enthusiasts.

The new approach will incorporate a new logo unit, a better-balanced whisky and a sustainable packaging- The biggest change for the brand since its launch in 1968. But, its plan to go forward was halted due to the pandemic.

Diageo India’s annual report states that the sales volume of the company’s brands in the ‘Prestige and Above’ segment declined 1.5% in the financial year ended March 31, 2020, and stood at 40.9 million cases (previous year 41.6 million cases). Net sales grew 0.4% and stood at INR 59,311 million net of duties and taxes (previous year INR 59,095 million).

In India, categories are divided into three or four pricing layers. The bottom of the Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) space is called 'popular segment'. Above it lies the 'Prestige Segment' where brands range from McDowell's No. 1 to Royal Challenge to Antiquity (it's top of the prestige segment). And then we've got the 'premium segment ’ and above that is the 'luxury segment'.

We (afaqs!) spoke to Amarpreet Singh Anand, executive vice president & portfolio head, Diageo India about this renovation, the discussions that led to it, among other things.

Edited Excerpts

Why a brand portfolio renovation now?

What we've been seeing in the last few years is that consumer preferences are changing around us. One, consumer taste palettes are changing because the young consumer of today is exposed to a wide variety of cuisines and so their expectations from their drinks have changed. Second, fashion styles have changed and it's reflected in today's consumers' opinion of what is good design and aesthetics.

When we thought about McDowell's, we didn't think of any incremental change... We imagined the next 10 years for the brand. This change is probably the biggest one after the launch of the brand in 1968... We've relooked the blend, the packaging, the bottle's shape and size... and the best time to reinvent yourself is when you're doing well. Whenever brands have reinvented themselves when they were on the top of the pedestal, consumers have rewarded them.

Tell us about the discussions you had with the agency about this renovation

We got Singapore based Design Bridge on board as a strategic design partner and made them immerse themselves in thinking about the brand itself and appreciate the values of the brand, who is the consumer of the brand and why would he consume it, which retail settings do they consume in...

This is a brand that's sold not in India, McDowell's is sold in 'Bharat'.

We asked Design Bridge to soak themselves in Bharat and its culture and understand its consumer dynamics.

Our brief to Design Bridge was quite simple. We've been the biggest recruiter brand in the category for many decades, we want to continue this trend and our vision is to contemporise the classical codes of whisky... the codes will always be loved by the consumers but there is a need to contemporise them and therefore, how should we go about doing it?

Ours is kind of a semi-dark category and there are what we call key brand assets. Let's say the golden colour is the key brand asset, the way we write McDowell's is a key brand asset, the embrace logo is the key brand asset. If you show it to consumers in an unbranded form, the brand recall will come through. We told Design Bridge that we wanted to retain some of those key brand assets but we want to present it to consumers in a young and modern way.

McDowell's this beautiful embrace logo and the positioning is about celebrating the bonds of friendship... The embrace is the hug you give your friends.

How’re you pricing it?

In our category, pricing is controlled by the excise departments and regarding the renovated mix, we're not increasing the price. Wherever the pricing is increasing, it is in line with the excise policy changes and that is for all brands.

McDowell's No. 1 is positioned around 'yaari' but with the pandemic, friends meeting each other has dipped, what are your plans now?

At this point, our focus is to build awareness for the new bundle that we will relaunch (in a phased manner). There is a new design that is younger and modern, we've retained the core characteristics of the blend and improved it. While we've invested in it, we've haven't changed the core profile of the blend because our consumers love it and the taste is a brand asset; we've kind of ironed out the sharp edges.

Who is this 'new' consumer you’re targeting?

Everybody is a consumer. Our focus is about how you offer a great experience which is working for both the existing consumers as well as new consumers who are entering into the category. It's a new mix and what we want consumers to know is that it's the new No. 1 that it is more balanced and smooth with younger imagery.

Bars and cafes are shut, and most people won't try a new alcohol brand alone while in-home consumption is on a high, how do plan to attract new consumers?

The biggest challenge in terms of rolling out the new No. 1 is more towards what's happening to the overall economic slowdown, the lower income levels, the dynamic regulatory environment.

From an occasion perspective, it has worked in our favour because what happens is that spirit and beer interact a lot. A lot of beer consumption is on-premise and outside as compared to spirits which are mostly consumed inside homes. Spirits have benefitted against beer. That is something which, at a macro level, has worked for us.

During such a dynamic environment, consumers reduce their tendency to experiment and they go for big brands which assure them of quality and heritage... when consumers are a bit short on incomes, big brands do well which is what has happened.

Any upcoming campaigns for the new No.1?

Our main focus was to announce the new No. 1 and we've made significant investments in terms of visibility, retail, digital, and social wherever alcohol advertising is allowed. We're also associate sponsors of the IPL and we're working on a new exciting campaign to launch the new proposition of the brand and that is expected to come out soon.

Take us through the packaging, is it the new sustainable packaging Diageo had introduced earlier.

Yes, it is. The new packaging has significantly reduced the amount of plastic usage on the outer carton and there are multiple programs we are running internally which are really about building stronger actions in terms of sustainability.

Your B2B revenue must have hit you hard during the lockdowns but with the staggered opening of bars and restaurants...

No doubt about it, the closure of bars and restaurants was a big hit but a fair call In the circumstances... As things become more normal, stuff will open up and more and we look forward to the festive season. Everyone wants to find a way of celebrating...