Interview: John Hayes on Brown-Forman Meeting the Challenges of 2020

John Hayes Brown Forman president interview

Our 2021 Growth Brands Spirits Supplier of the Year is Brown-Forman.

Founded in 1870, Brown-Forman celebrated 150 years in 2020. The company offers an array of industry-leading brands across various categories, including Jack Daniel’s, Woodford Reserve, Old Forester, Herradura and Korbel. We recently caught up with John Hayes, president USA & Canada, to discuss Brown-Forman’s recent achievements.

Beverage Dynamics: How did Brown-Forman succeed despite the challenges of the past year?

John Hayes: There is a balance in answering this question in terms of long-term brand building and changes in consumer shopping habits.

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As the pandemic started to take root in 2020, consumers increased their shopping preferences to known and trusted brands that were available across many off premise channels, as well as emerging e-premise channels. Brown-Forman was in a good position, as we have several authentic and trusted brands like Jack Daniel’s, Jack Daniel’s Country Cocktails, Woodford Reserve, Old Forester, Herradura, and Korbel Champagne.

As we shifted more investment to media, and we followed the consumer, we were fortunate that we had several new campaigns in the works on brands like Jack Daniel’s, Woodford Reserve and Old Forester. We quickly transitioned our on-premise and event activation to virtual, maintaining trade and consumer touchpoints as best we could.

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Culturally, we have always been a very collaborative organization and it felt like we didn’t miss a beat by our physical separation.

As a company we were very disciplined early in the pandemic and the months that followed by staying closer to the customer and our distributors and brokers with a very focused approach. We prioritized taking care of our people first, and I think our performance has been a reflection of that.

John Hayes, president USA & Canada, Brown-Forman.

Finally, we must thank our production team who implemented strict COVID guidelines that allowed us to operate without much interruption in 2020.

BD: What challenges did the company overcome?

JH: You can describe many of the challenges as opportunities due to the learning they provided us. We had to quickly assess things like channel and size mix shifts to meet consumer needs. We redeployed resources, people and dollars from the on-premise to the off-premise and e-premise channels, which had an added benefit of cross-functional development for many of our employees.

Like most suppliers we also had to manage the impact on the supply chain, as we realized unprecedented growth in large sizes, which impacted glass supply at the front end of the supply chain.

Also, we managed many of the challenges related to crisis management and how we responded to the social unrest that we all experienced. This impacted our employees deeply. We tried to be thoughtful in our decisions and responses and were guided by our values. We shared our commitment to Be Better, Do Better on Brown-Forman.com.

I am so proud of our employees and partners as we showed tremendous resilience and agility throughout the last year, and took challenges head on and continued to prosper as a company.

BD: What brands helped lead the way for Brown-Forman?

JH: Our portfolio is full of healthy and trusted brands as viewed by a large cross section of consumers. Basically our entire portfolio of brands enjoyed growth in the past year.

We are proud of the work we have done over many years in building brands like Jack Daniel’s, Gentleman Jack, Jack Daniel’s Country Cocktails, Woodford Reserve, Old Forester, Herradura, Korbel Champagne and others.

We continue to focus on long-term brand building, and we are experiencing exceptional growth in our Woodford Reserve and Old Forester family of brands. These brand families are now ‘must-stock’ brands across a variety of channels and outlets.

BD: What marketing/promotions helped lead the way?

JH: Although we were in a good position prior to the impact of the pandemic, we certainly accelerated our work across many social media platforms and e-premise channels.

We leveraged our brand ambassadors, master distillers and master tasters, and provided opportunities to tell our brands stories, share the art of making cocktails, and developed many more friendships with consumers. We launched several new advertising campaigns in support of our brands: Jack Daniel’s ‘Make it Count’, Woodford Reserve ‘Spectacle f or the Senses’ and Old Forester ‘Never Gets Old’, to name three.

The Jack Daniel’s ‘Make it Count’ campaign was actually the first global campaign that we’ve ever launched, and we put a significant effort behind this launch.

Kyle Swartz is editor of Beverage Dynamics magazine. Reach him at kswartz@epgmediallc.com or on Twitter @kswartzz. Read his recent piece The 2021 Growth Brands Hall of Famers.

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