Meet the marketer behind Aperol’s ‘monster’ growth
Italian aperitif Aperol has taken the UK by storm and the man behind its growth, UK marketing boss Nick Williamson, says it comes from “not playing the same game as everyone else”.
It’s summertime and when the sun makes an appearance, every inch of every pub garden is occupied by consumers looking to cool down with a refreshing drink.
For years, Pimm’s was everyone’s go-to summer cocktail but there’s a new name on people’s lips and its bold orange hue is brightening up even the dullest of summer days. The Aperol Spritz – a mix of Aperol, prosecco and soda served with a slice of orange – is quickly becoming people’s summer drink of choice.
The man responsible for driving its meteoric rise in the UK is Nick Williamson, marketing director at Campari UK, who joined the business three years ago when Campari Group first established a UK base.
Prior to setting up in the UK the group’s brands were distributed by third parties and marketing for Aperol was “very low level”, he says. But seeing the opportunity for growth in the market, the company established a dedicated UK team “which operates like a startup” and ramped up investment.
If we play the same game as others and chuck money on the telly we’re just going to get outspent.
Nick Williamson, Campari UK
“There are something like half a billion servings of prosecco in the UK each year and only a fraction of those have a splash of Aperol. So if we can go from 2% to maybe 4% or 5% of servings with Aperol, given the growth of prosecco too, then wow, you’re looking at a monster,” he says.
While Campari Group is “very shy” about giving away specific performance details, Williamson says the activity has “really accelerated” the brand’s growth in the UK. And the ‘It starts with Aperol Spritz’ messaging is clearly piquing people’s interest, given Google searches for Aperol are up by 50% year on year.
The growing popularity of the Italian aperitif has also been credited with helping drinks retailer Majestic Wine swing to profit despite the tough UK market, with sales of Aperol up 98% last year. It has also inspired an army of impostors, with Lidl selling an own-brand version called Bitterol and Jacobs Creek launching a pre-made prosecco cocktail called Aperitivo Spritz last month.
Playing a different game
As the sixth largest spirits business globally – with brands including Wild Turkey, Gran Marnier, Appleton Estate and Skyy vodka – Williamson is aware the brand “can’t just do the same as everyone else” as it will “lose the battle”.
Aperol is the only brand Campari UK advertises using traditional media (predominantly out-of-home) and it accounts for just 10% of the firm’s overall marketing spend. Generally it focuses on experiential activity, events, digital and social media with the goal of driving advocacy and word of mouth.
“If we play the same game as others and chuck money on the telly we’re just going to get outspent,” Williamson admits. “We have to do things a bit better and bit different.”
As a startup of sorts, Campari UK also can’t afford to put money behind all of its 30 brands. With no more than 3% market share in each of their categories, Williamson views them “very much as challengers in each sector”, but in order to drive growth initially the group is focusing on the brands he believes are almost unique within their categories, such as Aperol and Campari.
“Skyy vodka is a massive brand in the US and vodka is the number one spirit in the UK, so it feels intuitive that we should be spending money there. But it’s such a crowded sector,” he explains.
“Smirnoff used to have the market to itself and then along came Russian Standard, and then Green Mark and then New Amsterdam. There’s always someone willing to spend money but they’ll almost invariably lose a lot of money, so what’s the point of getting involved in that fight? We’re better off focusing on our distinctive brands.”
Campari Group was established in 1860 and is made up of two global teams – one in Milan and one which is about to relocate to New York – and a number of in-market companies.
“There’s a good balance as we have the backing of a big business in Campari Group, but within the UK there’s just 42 people. Everyone knows each other quite well and we’re all sort of jumbled up. Sales, marketing and finance, we all sit among each other so it’s a good collaborative feel.”
He says there is a good relationship between the UK team and wider group too, which isn’t always the case in his experience.
“We take the lead on some things and they take the lead on others. There needs to be global consistency but marketing needs to be locally relevant,” he explains. “Aperol is one of our biggest brands globally and in the UK, but there isn’t actually a global campaign for Aperol. There is a global positioning but then that’s brought to life in different ways by different markets.”
Williamson describes Campari UK as a “learning business”. “A lot of what we’re doing is evolving each year. It’s not ripping up last year’s plan and starting again thankfully, but actually even though budgets are getting bigger each year we’re doing fewer things.”
Two years ago the business was using around 12 different social and SMS channels, for example, but now it knows what works it only uses a quarter of those.
“When we started out it was costing us maybe £15-20 per person to [drive someone to a pub or bar],” Willamson says, whereas now Campari wouldn’t pay anything more than £2.50 per person to achieve that goal.
Selling direct to consumers
When it comes to increasing sales, Campari UK is experimenting with selling direct to consumer but has no plans to set up its own ecommerce business.
“There have been others in the business who have tested their own direct-to-consumer ecommerce platforms. The most famous of those recently closed so I think that says something,” he asserts.
One example is Diageo, which closed its luxury online retail destination Alexander & James last year after admitting it “wasn’t doing what it needed to do”.
Even though budgets are getting bigger each year we’re doing fewer things.
Nick Williamson, Campari UK
Williamson adds: “There are people much better placed than ourselves that do it – the obvious example is Amazon – and our business with them is absolutely booming,” he says.
He’s surprised it’s taken so long for online spirits sales to catch on as “people like a nice big range of spirits”. “Supermarkets have a fixed number of shelves so they can only stock so many, but Amazon has an infinite number and comparable pricing,” he adds.
Campari is also working with existing partners such as Tesco and Waitrose to make sure its brands are well featured on their sites. Williamson says online sales for Campari UK over-index by a factor of two versus the rest of the spirits category in the UK, “but there’s still a lot more to go for”.
Williamson describes the team dynamic at Campari UK as a “happy medium” having worked in both large and small companies. He left his first job at a small drinks business within two years as there was “nowhere to go” and then joined Diageo which he describes as “the complete opposite”. More recently he has worked at William Grant & Sons and Bacardi.
“Campari is certainly big enough for people to grow with the business, either in the UK or within the global business, but it also feels like you can make a difference,” he says. “We had a marketing team meeting this morning with seven of us around the table and everyone’s voice was heard. I’ve been at other businesses where in most of those meetings someone will be on the stage with a presentation; someone talks and others listen so you don’t get that interaction.”
As the UK business grows so too will the team, but Williamson isn’t necessarily looking for people with spirits knowledge. He reiterates that the company can’t just do the same thing as everyone else.
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“When we were looking for a new senior brand manager recently a head hunter came in and said I’ve got a short list from x, y, z competitors and I said put those in the bin. Those aren’t the best businesses at driving advocacy. Look at Adidas, look at Burberry; these are the sorts of people we’re after.”
The business ended up hiring someone from Foot Locker in Amsterdam who could bring both advocacy and ecommerce skills to the table.
“It’s about finding that blend, but I’d go for someone with great brand-building skills over someone with amazing spirits knowledge every time.”
I am not convinced there is much causation here. Take a look at the long term trend led by Italy and followed by France and UK https://trends.google.co.uk/trends/explore?date=all,all,all&geo=GB,IT,FR&q=aperol%20spritz,aperol%20spritz,aperol%20spritz. Unless there was a fiendishly complex plan to build influencers in Italy who used word of mouth on tourists, it looks more like a classic case of a trend that went viral, and the marketing people may have given the bandwagon a little extra push.