‘Alcohol can be a controversial subject and it’s not credible to fail to mention that…’

Ian Wright, corporate relations director at Diageo, looks after the reputation of its brands. Ruth Mortimer speaks to him about juggling the different parts of his job across the company’s global network.

Ian Wright

Marketing Week (MW): Can you explain what falls under corporate relations at Diageo?

Ian Wright (IW): The central plank of the job is responsibility for Diageo’s reputation. When I started in 2000, I was communications director, with responsibility for communications, media relations, employee communications and CSR.

I became the corporate relations director in 2004 and took on responsibility for government affairs, public affairs and public policy. Now I look after our anti-counterfeit area as well, including brand assurance, equity and the provenance of the brand.

MW: Why does Diageo need someone with such a wide-ranging role?

IW: When I arrived at Diageo, it was only two years old and in the process of a strategic realignment. It was previously two conglomerates – Grand Metropolitan and Guiness – so it was a good time to join because we were establishing what Diageo brought to the party that was bigger than the sum of its parts.

We established that the business was serving seven groups of stakeholders: employees/potential employees; investors/potential investors; government; regulators; communities in which we operate; commercial partners (distributors, retailers and suppliers); and media.

Then we asked, “What about consumers?” After all, you can’t buy a pint of Diageo or have a Diageo and tonic. We decided in the end that consumers were also stakeholders, but they have interest in the provenance of our brands. The impact of the company in the communities where we operate also has an impact on our reputation. So everything is linked.

MW: One of your well-known corporate programmes is a drive for responsible drinking. Why is this so important?

IW: From the start, our chief executive Paul Walsh recognised that alcohol can be a controversial subject and it’s not credible to fail to acknowledge that; we need to engage on the issue.

The majority of people who use our products do so responsibly. When issues of misuse come up, they are different in different places. “Binge drinking” isn’t a problem in many countries outside the UK, but they have their own issues.

It’s not in our interests for people to use the products irresponsibly – they will have a bad experience as might their family or friends and other people observing. They may then not return because they associate it [with us].

MW: So what practical programmes do you have in place to aid responsible drinking?

IW: We don’t sell direct to the consumer. But we do a lot of bartender training so people can spot those who are overdrinking, intervene and make sure they get home safely. In Nottingham, for example, girls’ cutting their feet [on glass] is one of the biggest reasons for hospital admissions on a Saturday night.

So we support volunteers trained in conflict resolution at a low level to help calm trouble on the street and they also hand out flip-flops. If you deal with apparently trivial symptoms, you can get to the root cause.

Health secretary Andrew Lansley also said while in opposition that he didn’t want to over-regulate, but he wanted business leaders to take on a series of initiatives to help the health of the nation – the Responsibility Deal (RD). When the government couldn’t fund the training of midwives in offering alcohol advice to pregnant women anymore, we thought it was a useful thing to support. It’s not our responsibility, but as part of the overall [RD initiative], that was something we were happy to do.

MW: Is the responsibility message important globally as well as in the UK?

IW: It’s absolutely integral. We bought the manufacturer of [aniseed spirit] Yeni Raki in Turkey about six months ago. We would not have been given permission to buy that unless the Turkish government approved of our position on responsibility. It’s similar with an ongoing Ethiopian bidding negotiation – the government there wouldn’t deal with us unless it thought we were up to scratch. So being responsible has an effect on how governments perceive us.

It also has an effect on consumers. In countries such as Kenya or Turkey, we see that owning a national brand like Tusker [beer] or Yeni Raki gives consumers permission to try our other brands. The introduction of Western spirits there does benefit from being from the platform of a brand owner that is seen as a national property or national leader.

MW: With that in mind, how do you split your time in terms of global regions?

IW: We don’t have infinite resources so it takes planning. When I started, our business was split roughly one-third North America, one-third Europe and one-third Latin America, Asia and Africa.

Over the next three years, 50% of our business will be in Latin America, Asia and Africa and developing European economies, such as Russia and Turkey. Those markets have huge growth rates. That doesn’t mean we can neglect the rest of Europe or North America, so we need to devote resources to maintaining our reputation in the existing markets and establishing our reputation in developing ones.

MW: Is managing your reputation more difficult in the era of social media?

IW: People get fixated on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn. We think because it’s new to us, it’s new to the world. But there have been citizen journalists in Korea for a decade because everyone has broadband and they have long been posting their own versions of events. So it’s not a new phenomenon, but social media is having a huge impact on corporations.

Our brands are very active in communicating with people who make comments or tweet about them. It’s a fantastic way to recommend things.

But our responsibility at the corporate level is more to ensure that we tackle anything that is unfair, misleading or untrue. You don’t want the first thing that comes up when someone searches for you online to be a mistake.

Wright’s Experience

Marketing Week (MW): What did you do before you started working at Diageo?

Ian Wright (IW): I was at the Boots Company for five and a half years, initially working for Boots Healthcare International, which is now part of Reckitt Benckiser. And subsequently for three years, I was a director of Boots the Chemist.

MW: Have you always worked in-house for brands?

IW: I have been a consultant too. I ran what was the largest PR company in the Midlands and before that I was in politics – a staff officer at the SDP. And that takes you right back to me leaving university in 1981. So I’ve been both a consultant and in-house.

PR 3 – Wright’s 3 Big Challenges

  1. The current economic situation is a challenge. In our case, it’s complicated because we have to let our various stakeholders know that our business is in good shape and the contagion they may see in Europe and North America doesn’t necessarily extend to the rest of the world. I need to make sure we perform to the levels we have promised.
  2. Another big challenge for me is the shifting balance of business – you can’t necessarily assume all markets will behave in the same way as the one you come from. It may not be the best idea to treat a problem in Malaysia or Turkey in the same way as in the UK.
  3. The anti-counterfeiting [issue] means there is an enormous amount of conversation with governments about protecting intellectual property. You need to be able to enforce that through trading standards or raids on criminals. There are two sorts of operations – the ‘mama and papa’ [informal] one and then the organised villains. We see a lot of organised crime. You can have an overall strategy, but unless you are checking the products and raiding in local markets, you can’t deal with it.

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