Aishwarya Ramesh

United Breweries' Gurpreet Singh on liquor trends in a market caught in intermittent lockdowns

A chat with the marketing head of United Breweries is telling of the trends in the liquor industry during lockdowns and unlock.

Hosting a Derby (race) in a pandemic can be a challenging affair and, so far, United Breweries (UB) and Kingfisher are bringing it together virtually. After a year of the Coronavirus pandemic, in the midst of Unlock 5, the Derby has gone virtual, with horse races accessible on the Royal Western India Turf Club (RWITC) website.

This isn’t the only change that Gurpreet Singh, head of marketing, UB, has seen. Singh has worked as a marketer at UB for almost 23 years, and the pandemic threw a fair share of challenges his way.

Gurpreet Singh
Gurpreet Singh

The last time we (afaqs!) interviewed Singh was on a warm February afternoon in 2020 at Mahalaxmi Race Course, Mumbai before the COVID-induced lockdowns. At the time, he was optimistic about the future of non-alcoholic beers as a beverage and claimed they were gaining popularity globally.

A year later, Singh tells us that during the lockdowns, people stocked up on non-alcoholic beers too when they weren’t able to access the regular alcoholic variety. “We had certain projections for our non-alcoholic products (such as Heineken 0.0 and Kingfisher Lite) for 2022, and we have actually achieved some of those numbers early.”

Singh also mentions that the supply chain was a challenging aspect of the business during the lockdowns. “It got better once the government reopened the inter-state borders. Till then, it was challenging. Take Heineken, for example. It’s mostly brewed in a brewery in Mumbai and it was declared a containment zone. We had to make sure that the workers were following safety protocols at the time and maintaining social distancing. We had to ensure safety at every level of operations.”

He says that as soon as the bars reopened (in unlock), a group of people went back, with masks and sanitisers, and another group decided to stay cautious and stay indoors. “The thing is beer is a beverage that is consumed in a social bonding setup. People meet their friends after a long day of work, and just talk and catch up. We’ve seen that context get cut out during the lockdowns.”

Singh explains that the consumption during summer months is important to drive the company’s sales. “The consumer preference for consumption is also changing. They prefer the bars and pubs, with an outdoor seating or a rooftop arrangement. In a pre-pandemic world, the consumers would come to the bars on a weekend. But now, we see them frequenting these establishments during the work day too.”

He stresses that the restaurants and bars are among the worst affected businesses during the lockdowns. The company has been attempting to do its bit to ensure that the bars are equipped with sanitisers, masks and are in a position to follow safety protocols.

“Most bars have overwhelming financial constraints and it’s important to ensure customer safety. Clubs, lounges and other establishments that used to depend on events for their revenues, are facing difficulties right now. People may not want to gather in large numbers over safety fears.”

Singh adds that the marketing plan for the road ahead involves content creation for the Indian Premier League (IPL). The company also wants to continue to promote in-home consumption. He points out that for that purpose, the company is now selling four and six beer pack, and are marketing them as ‘home packs’ so you can enjoy the (IPL) match with a chilled beer at home.

But what if you live with your parents, or family and still want to have a beer, or an alcoholic beverage at home? UB addressed this aspect of in-home consumption with an ad campaign last year. The first commercial in the series, featured a man, who has hidden a few Kingfisher beers in the fridge only to be caught by his father. Much to his surprise, his father gives him permission to take a drink and joins in too.

The series of commercials, each featured the key message of ’Ghar Pe Kingfisher’ (Kingfisher at home), under the brand’s umbrella thought ’Kya Plan Hai?’ (What’s your plan?). These commercials show people at home coming together over a Kingfisher.

In another film in the series by Wunderman Thompson, a man (father) attempts to cheer his daughter up when he learns that her friends cancelled on her Goa plan. In a first, we see a father-daughter enjoy a beer together as they dance around in bright floral shirts, reminiscent of beach vacations.

"We wanted these ads to break through that barrier of home consumption that exists between parents and young adults. There are certain houses where the parents drink and the next generation drinks too, but they don’t do it together. These films were a nudge to cross that barrier. The best friends you have with you right now are within your house. So, make the best of it, and break down the barriers and share a beer," says Singh.

It would be a natural fit to have that beer home delivered, without stepping out. Home delivery of alcohol has been permitted by players like Swiggy and Zomato in certain states in India. “It has great potential, but it’s still in its nascent stage in India, and proper policies have to be formulated around the same,” he concludes.

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