Words by: Theodora Sutcliffe
“I feel like it’s my job to remain culturally relevant,” says Cîroc global brand director Natalie Wills. “If I’m not culturally relevant, I’d feel like I’m doing the brand an injustice: I love music, I’m pretty obsessed with the news and I live on Instagram.”
Growing up first in Zimbabwe, where her activist father lived in exile from South Africa, then, after Nelson Mandela put an end to apartheid, in South Africa, there was not a great deal of culture around. Wills enjoyed a fun childhood, with ponies, and rescue animals, and horse-riding competitions around the country. But hardly any bands visited South Africa, and those that did were usually obscure, washed-up, or both.
A gap year gave Wills her first real taste of the bright lights and the big city. She moved to London, got a front of house job at Maxwell’s Restaurant Group and parlayed that into a role at head office, which she kept up over her long Christmas holidays while she studied. “They’d pay for me to come over, and during the busy Christmas season I’d help book in all the Christmas parties,” she recalls. “They used to do events at, for example, the Winter Music Conference in Miami, and I’d be asked if I wanted to attend that and help them with the DJ management: I feel I learned a huge amount about the entertainment industry while I was with them.”
After studying at the University of Cape Town, Africa’s top university, Wills started work with brewing giant SABMiller, which had originated as South African Breweries. Yet after a couple of years her itchy feet kicked in. “I completely loved living in South Africa, but if you wanted to get anywhere outside Africa it was a very long flight and a crazy amount of money,” she recalls. “Wherever you went, you were always travelling on rands, which meant that even if you bought a cappuccino it was expensive: and I really did want to travel.”
Like many a South African before her – Wills also holds a UK passport – she upped sticks for London and, after a summer spent waitressing, found roles with Tiger Beer and Unilever. In 2011 she rejoined SABMiller at a senior level to work on Miller Genuine Draft.
“When I started, the brand was very fragmented around the world. Every market was activating different things and it just didn’t feel like the brand was connecting with consumers,” she says. As a light-tasting beer, Miller was tailor-made for younger consumers, so her brief was to win with millennials by doing something different.
Perhaps Wills’ biggest achievement was anchoring the brand within the electronic dance music scene. “One of the biggest campaigns that I feel most proud about is Miller Soundclash,” she says. “This was a grassroots music activation I put together that mobilised aspiring DJs all over the world to enter in the hope of winning a chance to play a once-in-a-lifetime gig in Las Vegas with a superstar DJ as the headliner.”
The brand rejuvenation and consumer impact of Miller Soundclash caught Diageo’s attention. A headhunter approached Wills via LinkedIn shortly before AB InBev announced its intention to buy out SABMiller; Amsterdam looked like an exciting place to move to.
And, despite a difficult market for vodka generally and declining Cîroc volumes in the US, Wills has big ambitions for the brand. “In the UK, we just became the number one luxury vodka, overtaking Grey Goose,” she says. “As a result of that we have an ambition to be the number one luxury vodka in Europe and, given the situation in UK, we really feel this is absolutely achievable for us.”
For that, she thinks, the elusive millennial market is key – and not only for volumes today. “For us, the reasons that millennials are so important is that they’re the youngest generation of legal drinkers today so their behaviours and attitudes will really shape the future of our industry,” she says. “For the first time we have people that are digital natives, that have huge networks, and I think that is so exciting: we need to keep this generation interested.”
Influencer marketing, both at the large scale – Cîroc recruited the Brazilian actress-model Alessandra Ambrosio earlier this year – and at the more micro scale is core to the strategy. So too is the continued rollout of new flavours: Cîroc French Vanilla is the eighth in the range. “We know that innovations and flavours are really important to draw millennials,” Wills says.
A lot of research and expensive data goes into the choice of which flavours to launch, and when. French Vanilla was driven partly by the fashion for the Porn Star Martini, partly by broader cultural trends, and partly by ease: it’s a rare consumer that actively dislikes vanilla. Any new flavour launch also requires enthusiastic buy-in from Sean Combs.
Combs – the artist also known as Puffy, Puff Daddy, P. Diddy, Diddy and, for a day or two, Brother Love – famously signed a joint venture with Diageo to manage Cîroc. But that deal only covers the US, while Wills looks after non-US markets. “We work as a team when it comes to innovation, but in terms of the day-to-day I’m not involved with him at all,” Wills says, referring to Combs exclusively by the name he was born with. “His team is really passionate and he himself has become an incredibly successful businessman, and that’s all through creating products that he’s super-passionate about.”
Despite a global decline in vodka popularity, Wills is bullish about Cîroc’s prospects, not least because luxury vodkas are set to continue to grow: she hopes that vodka will undergo a revival on the scale of the ongoing gin craze. “I think that within vodka the key thing we need to do to bolster the growth is really be culturally relevant – offer consumers new, innovative things,” she says. “If I was to sum it up in one phrase, my job is to keep Cîroc hot in culture.”