Get into the spirit
By Shaan Bajaj
I don’t know who said it, but the quote ‘When you love what you do, you’ve never really worked a day in your life’ is exactly how I feel about my work. It truly excites me.” Nakul Roy, the Commercial Director Thailand at Bacardi tells me when we meet to discuss the path that led him to his sixth year at Bacardi. Before moving to Bangkok, his story began at the age of 17, when he left Mumbai to pursue an undergraduate degree in Marketing and Communications from Bryant University before taking on a sales role with international beverage company Diageo in Miami. Since then, he tells me, he’s never looked back.
“I knew I wanted to get into the spirits industry; it seemed quite fun and I liked the high-energy aspect,” he recalls with a look of nostalgia. He continues with a laugh, “The role with Diageo was like a dream come true; a university student selling booze right out of college!” After a one-year stint in Miami, Nakul moved to Toronto, Canada with Diageo and stayed there for almost five years. Then he joined Allied Blenders and Distillers, with a short stint in India and moved to Dubai as their Global Business Development Manager where he spent the next two years launching and introducing the mass market brand Officers Choice Whisky amongst others across various markets in Africa and the Americas before moving to Bacardi as their Market Development Manager, Gulf. He shares with Masala his journey, one that, like the products he markets, certainly packs a punch.
What drew you to Bacardi?
I always thought Grey Goose vodka was one of the best marketed vodkas out there, along with Bacardi’s rum portfolio, and its reach of 175+ countries. When I started to do my research on which other companies I would like to work at, Bacardi spoke to me because of their rich history and resilience through tragedy. They are a privately-owned, seventh-generation family company who’ve been around since 1862. On a deeper level, their core values, fearlessness, and family-orientated founders attracted me to them. They stand by doing the right thing while empowering our teams to develop an entrepreneurial mindset, and they treat employees like family.
My experience so far has shown me Bacardi walks the talk; their focus on putting people first is intrinsically built into the company’s DNA. For example, when leadership teams send out an email, they refer to everyone as ‘primo’, Spanish for cousin. Bacardi really gained my respect during COVID, as while companies were downsizing and reducing salaries, every single person at Bacardi was retained and everyone was paid their full salary, just with reduced bonuses.
In 2019, Bacardi released a new campaign targeted at ‘celebrating moments that matter.’ What does that look like in practice?
It is so simple, and yet it is one of our core purposes. We focus on providing a liquid with high-quality ingredients for you to celebrate both momentous occasions and everyday moments. It is about tying in a moment that matters to you, whether is it celebrating the birth of a child, or a festival featuring your favourite artist, or a toast with your friends. We want you to have the right spirits. Alcohol, when consumed responsibly, brings people together, and I think that is the beauty of it.
Advertising alcohol in Thailand is notoriously tricky. How do you manage the roadblocks, and what is considered common practice within the industry?
Thailand’s alcohol advertising is a dark market, so we ensure we are within the boundaries of the dos and don’ts. I think marketing strategies are no longer conventional either; you have to take digital marketing and e-commerce into account. We also leverage our partnerships as added extensions of our strategy, in terms of how they can help us promote our brands. That can look like a cocktail on their menu, brand calls, using micro-influencers, or social media. We are constantly trying to find ways to manoeuvre through. We also just launched a surrogate brand, Dewars Club, for one of our renowned whisky brands. It will basically be a marketing platform to organise events.
The Thai Alcohol Beverage Business Association (TABBA) have been trying to gain more flexibility for the industry and we have to re-look at the rules from a mature and responsible perspective that is effective too. In some ways, I feel like cannabis has been allowed to be advertised a lot more freely in Thailand than alcohol.
Working in the alcohol industry can be seen as an unconventional career choice within the Indian society, sometimes with negative connotations attached to it. Did you experience any difficulty? If yes, how did you manage that?
I, personally, have not had any pushback. Although I am known for going a little against the grain, I also come from a very modern, liberal, open-minded family where education has been vital. So a lot of the credit goes to my family too. Additionally, India’s next generation has come a long way and their consumers have gotten a lot more modern, with significant interest in cocktails and spirits – and let’s not kid ourselves, Indians are some of the largest alcohol consumers in the world! [Laughs]
It might be viewed as an unconventional choice, but when you are brand-building premium companies, you are taking your brand out and telling a story. Someone once asked me, “How do you feel about alcoholism?” But we are far from promoting that. We focus on our craft in our spirits, and we want to tie that in with celebrating moments that
matter. Everyone makes their own choices, and we are, in every single way, promoting responsible drinking. It is not about binge drinking; we don’t condone that. Alcohol can be wonderful when consumed responsibly, in a celebratory way.
How did the COVID-19 pandemic affect the alcohol industry, specifically Bacardi, and what is the current climate? What is in store for the future?
It affected our industry, not just Bacardi, very hard in Thailand. Bacardi was reliant on tourists, instead of local consumers, and it was a rude awakening for us because we lost a lot of business. Since I got here in 2020, we’ve had to change that. We’ve been shifting our strategy to speak to the local consumer through digital marketing, alongside re-strategising our trade partnerships. We need to choose partners who view it as a partnership, as it is not just about the output, but rather, generating an experience and extracting value from that. Whether that is a nice cocktail or enhancing a bottle-service experience, we want partners who can bring that to life. That was a big challenge but credit goes to the team for putting together a solid strategy and planting the seeds that I believe will be our road to growth and success. In 2022, the industry is bouncing back in a big way, there has been a lot of ‘revenge spending’ and pent up demand but we want to capitalise on this growth in a very sustainable way. We will continue to use tourism as a little bit of our base, but we plan to engage more with local consumers through music festivals like Kolour and Neon, art, fashion, and even in the digital space. Hopefully, we will also be bringing five exciting new SKUs in the next year.
What has been your biggest challenge?
Not sure about the biggest, but this role has got to be one of the bigger challenges I have faced, and that is because of COVID. Thailand was fairly open when I first moved, and then all of a sudden, the whole country pretty much shut down. I remember thinking, “Aw, no! My whole strategy!” I came here ready to rock and roll and instead, I hit this roadblock. Our on-trade channel was closed; the only channel open was retail. The lockdowns were frustrating, but I had to focus on builing morale while motivating and encouraging my team to be patient. We used the time to lay out the foundation of our strategy for the post-pandemic era.
What has been your biggest accomplishment over the years?
I have had a few small accomplishments, but I think the biggest one is yet to come. I believe my journey in this organisation will take me to a few other markets, but first I want to ensure we get Thailand right, as it is vital for us in Southeast Asia. Working in this market comes with many rewards; if we manage to crack it, it can create a ripple effect for the region. I think that will be my biggest accomplishment till date, especially if I’m able to set up a sustainable and realistic approach for the next person, one that places the consumer at heart. I like to focus on future accomplishments, and my team and I are not afraid of the challenge, despite being up against big brands who have been here for years, and we are doing everything in our power to accomplish that.
What advice would you give to someone looking to join the alcohol industry?
If it excites you, 100 percent do it. I do not think you will ever look back. It is a fun, energetic, fast-paced industry with many rewards. However, it is not for everyone as it is a lifestyle industry; you have to be passionate about it. I work hard and I am tired all the time, but it genuinely excites me to go out there and build something that we can look back on.
And finally, what is your favourite Bacardi cocktail?
Our portfolio includes some fantastic brands with over 200 SKUs, but I particularly enjoy Patrón Tequila. I love a Tommy’s Margarita. The difference between a classic margarita and a Tommy’s Margarita is the use of agave nectar instead of triple sec. As agave is a natural sweetener made from cactus, it really complements the flavour and brings out the spirit. Even more enjoyable with a nice spiced rimmer.