Tabasco on turning 150 and balancing heritage with modern relevance

Tabasco’s top marketer discusses brand recognition, plans to celebrate the milestone and why working with distributor partners is the key to global marketing

With its red-capped bottle, diamond label and celebration of its 150th anniversary this year, Tabasco is one of those rare brands where the word iconic doesn’t seem out of place.

Sold in more than 185 countries and labelled in 22 languages, the hot pepper sauce hasn’t changed much since it was first produced in 1868 — it’s still run by the same family, uses the original recipe and has the same manufacturing base on Avery Island in Louisiana.

The brand’s founder Edmund McIlhenny grew and harvested peppers on Avery Island before shipping out 658 bottles of sauce at $1 apiece to grocers around the Gulf Coast. Today, the brand has eight sauces, including garlic and sriracha, but Avery Island is still at its heart.

With approximately 150,000 visitors each year, it is also a tourist destination for Tabasco lovers across the world, providing culinary workshops, factory tours, and a Tabasco restaurant and gift shop.

Betts Theriot, the head of international marketing at McIlhenny Company, the business behind the brand, explains how important history is to Tabasco:“We’ve had to modernise some of the facilities but the way that we make the product — by aging our pepper mash in oak barrels for three years before its bottled — is the same.”

Theriot has been at the company for 19 years and clearly lives and breathes the brand, from having Tabasco on her salad every day to her upbeat southern drawl.

There are only four members of Tabasco’s central marketing team, but Theriot works with a network of regional managers, agencies and distributor partners around the world. A core part of her job is raising awareness about the versatility of the product.

Theriot explains: “While we do have strong brand recognition, you need to stay in front of consumers in so many different markets, which is why marketing is extremely important to Tabasco.

“The one thing that is very important to Tabasco is we want to encourage people to be inventive and use Tabasco in different ways. This means with different cuisines and different meals throughout the day – it can liven up their ham sandwich or salad for lunch just the same as on a burger at dinner. It’s a form of marketing because we try to teach our distributors, consumers and sales people the power of the diamond logo and the power of the brand and how great it is.”

The heritage power of the diamond logo is something Theriot refers to often but it’s a balancing act of honouring the brand’s history while ensuring it is appealing to modern audiences. Tabasco also needs to see off competitors, such as Louisiana Hot Sauce Original and Huy Fong Sriracha.

However, Theriot believes the brand doesn’t have a main rival: “Our main competitors vary depending on the region but there is no global rival. The biggest thing that sets us apart from our competition and accentuates our brand is that we are 150 years old and still family owned. It’s not just the family that owns the company it’s the multiple families that work here. There are generations of employees at Tabasco, which gives it a real sense of comradery.”

For example Tabasco has delved into ecommerce and has its own online store. There are a variety of products available to buy, including posters, clothing and food, although it’s biggest sellers are, of course, the sauces and there is an option to purchase your favourite by the gallon.

“We are working right now to boost our ecommerce section. Ecommerce is a totally different way of doing business and consumers are using it more,” she says.

Working with distributor partners

Despite the importance of marketing Theriot admits that Tabasco “spends more conservatively on advertising than you’d expect”. This is largely because the brand relies heavily on its distributor partners. Although Therriot and her team will provide global campaign ideas, distributors are responsible for selling and marketing within their region.

While we do have strong brand recognition, you need to stay in front of consumers in so many different markets, which is why marketing is extremely important to Tabasco.

Betts Theriot, McIlhenny Company

“Our partners advise the brand on their local market; while we create a lot of social content and we think about all the different ways our distributor partners around the world can use the brand, they are also creating their media spin and working on different projects within their markets,” she says.

Tabasco keep a close eye on food trends – another aspect that partners help with. Due to the nuances between markets, Tabasco encourages conversations about local areas and new ways or foods that will work with Tabasco in that individual area.

Celebrating 150 years

Tabasco’s sense of history combined with new tastes is how its celebrating its sesquicentennial, hosting events across the world, including in New York, London and Shanghai. It’s working with local chefs and bartenders to create special recipes for these events and will be releasing them throughout the year on its website and social media for all fans to enjoy.

The celebrations kicked off with a comedic burlesque in New Orleans called TABASCO: A Burlesque Opera, and although the company won’t be bringing out new products, Tabasco has created an anniversary edition Pepper Sauce that’s a “special gift” to friends of the brand.

A 150th anniversary is a huge milestone for any brand, but for Tabasco which has managed to remain culturally relevant without constantly rejuvenating the brand it is a huge success. Theriot concludes: “We are a fun brand with a great story and heritage, we aren’t just a product that was created 10 years ago. We’re the real deal.”

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