Admitting fault, mistakes and not-so-shiny career moments in front of your peers is hard to do, but Tania Bui turns it into a fine art.
The Director of Marketing Excellence and Delivery at Frucor Suntory (and former chair of MoPed) had a room of marketing professionals captivated at Trinity Wharf as she took us through the 21-year journey of their iconic V Energy brand.
Spoiler alert, it wasn’t an easy road and in her words, “A lot of money hides a lot of sins”. As we heard, V’s astronomical success in the early 2000s was unravelled in its later years when the company lost sight of the brand basics: What was their why and how they were communicating that to their target audience.
A ‘fast follow’ off the back of Red Bull entering the Australasian market, V first hit our shelves in the late 1990s. Its catchy ad campaigns caught the attention of its demographic (18-29, early adopters) and continued to push and disrupt the category for the best part of a decade.
With their manufacturing capabilities in based in Manukau, innovation and product development was nimble, and new products could be turned around fast (and for a huge profit).
But as they approached their 21st birthday, they faced head winds – the market was changing with people becoming more conscious of sugar and regulations around advertising sugary drinks to teens tightened. To put it eloquently, Tania says, “It got a bit bloody tricky”.
1. They lacked the basics.
As mentioned, Tania says lots of money hides lots of sins, and once the team started unpicking the business they realised the basics weren’t there. For example, they had created a sales force who lacked the ability to sell.
“For seven or eight years, it was an easy sell, so we didn’t need or value those skills, or train people to have them. We had a national sales team that didn’t know the basics of commercial conduct or how to have a tricky conversation with a dairy owner,” she says.
Bested by Coca-Cola in this space at every turn (thanks to their slick ‘Red Walk’ merchandising process), the commercial team put their 375 field force merchandisers on ‘bootcamp’. It took seven months and they lost 40% of the field team because they couldn’t transition.
“The reality is, and many of us are facing this in COVID, it’s easy to be passionate when things are going well; it’s bloody hard when it is not. The sales team have to have the same passionate and committed conversation every day to build our brands – and it feels hard when you are on the back foot and you don’t have the money to make it easy.”
2. They were “doing shit that didn’t count”.
If you’re old / young enough to remember V in its heyday, every few months V would release a new flavour or campaign – from flavours such as Graphite to Tortured Orchard, and campaign activation after activation, including dropping cones off the Sky Tower or undercover street area to the sounds of dubstep (another mid-2000 trend).
But this proved to be the beginning of the end for the brand.
“When we had money, our brand managers had a bloody ball. When they didn’t, they became busy fools. When you have a lot of money and time and energy, it’s fun. But are you spending time and effort on things that will move the dial? Don’t do things that offer no utility.”
At the end of 2017 / start of 2018, the company stopped the business. Throwing things at the market wasn’t making a difference to the impact and sales of V, so they ground to a halt on new products, new campaigns and started to unpick where it was going wrong.
In that unpicking process one thing became clear: The shift away from brand communications. In the early years, the narrative remained the same.
“Then, we suffered under the sins of great profit and great times,” says Tania. “We started doing things the brand team thought were cool, but the consumers didn’t think so.”
So how have they got the brand back on track? Connected to the consumer.
In order to do so, they started looking at the data and insights over the years, and created actionable insights. They also gave the brand team room to think, instead of focusing on the idea that if you weren’t ‘doing something’ you weren’t busy – “You need permission to have that time, otherwise you can’t see the wood from the trees, and that’s what we were doing.”
Now, they spend 70% of their time asking the why: Why would we do this flavour? Why do you think this is a good idea? And every time the question is asked, it is with the lens of the consumer.
“If you can crack the why, then figuring out how to make money is the easy part”.
Gen Z are a savvy lot and brands need to work hard to be allowed into their space, so V adapted to suit the new 18-29 consumer. For many years the energy category had been operating in the negative space: That you weren’t as good as you could be and needed this drink to be good.
So they flipped it on its head, making V a complement to your already great self, and helping you unleash your true potential. They updated the brand and started working in the space of their consumer, such as at music festivals and through gaming.
Most importantly, they dialled back the whacky flavours to help their consumers connect to what it actually was – i.e. Tortured Orchard is a simple Raspberry Lemonade – and moved away from being so busy.
Tania ended the presentation with a short clip of their new campaign and, as intended, it feels true to the audience of today and, most importantly, to the V brand.
As a brand I personally have grown up with, it was fascinating to get such raw, rich insights into its history and hear that a company of Frucor Suntory’s size and scale can make mistakes – but also recover. It was a welcome reminder to trust what you know and don’t be afraid to ask ‘why’.
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