Accelerator Interview | Steve Wilson former head of innovation at Diageo


Adventures in the drinks trade

Steve Wilson is a former head of innovation at Diageo who now advises the world’s biggest drinks companies on brands and marketing through his consultancy Invigor8tion. He began his career as a chemist at International Distillers and Vintners working on Gilbey’s Gin when he became involved in the creation of Baileys Irish Cream. In his 38 years in the business he has been responsible for a number of Accelerator brands.


How on earth did a chemist in a gin business become involved with Bailey’s Irish Cream?

Gilbey’s of Ireland, a subsidiary of IDV, was essentially going bust and clearly needed to do something, anything to get the company moving. Gin wasn’t going to do it for us in Ireland and the whiskey market was sewn up.

At the time there were generous grants in Ireland available for products for export. So IDV, which was famous for inventing its own products rather than marketing other people’s set out to create an export brand.

In the 1970s companies were waking up to the fact that women were an important market and they liked different drinks to men. Mixers were all the rage and drinks like Snowball (advocaat and lemonade) were very popular.

We had tried a whisky liqueur similar to the existing Irish Mist that wasn’t really happening. Then, recognising that Ireland was famous for dairy produce, we looked at creating a liqueur based on a classic cream cocktail called a Brandy Alexander.

This was a combo of brandy, crème de cacao and cream. So we decided to take the ingredients we had to hand to make a mass-market version of this with Irish whiskey, chocolate and cream. And so Baileys Irish Cream was born!

There was one snag though – the whiskey and the cream kept separating and that’s where I came in. I was a chemist and I worked out a way of stopping this happening.


IDV then became part of Grand Metropolitan which subsequently merged into what is now Diageo. How did those buccaneering days compare to the world now?

It was invigorating then, there were no rules or processes. You just did it.


You know all about Accelerator brands – so is the fast track open to all?

You can’t accelerate everything at once – you just don’t have the resources, particularly the human resources. But you can create Accelerator brands if you can find the answers to three questions.

Does the consumer need or want it? Now, consumers might not actually know that they want something but it’s your job to find out they do before they realise it.

The second is, can you excite consumers about the brand, activate them? You may produce a better brand than the competition but that won’t necessarily get you there. To cut through you have to excite people.

The third, and companies often forget this, is can you get the trade onside? The trade is interested in money so you have to deliver that in terms of a lot more volume or, more likely, attractive margins.

Baileys is a classic case in point, it came in at 17 per cent proof which meant that it attracted less duty than its stronger rivals, although it sold at the same price. So the trade got more margin.

Actually there’s one more thing which is absolutely crucial, and that’s getting all the people in the company behind the product. Obviously they all want it to succeed, or they should do. But it’s amazing sometimes how different people from different disciplines have different expectations and ambitions for the same product.

Some of them want more share, others more profit. Some will see it as an aggressive move, others as defensive.

This is hopeless. It just can’t work. It’s why lots of incredible brands are produced by smaller companies or ‘one-man bands’; they’re all behind the brand for the same reason.


But the big battalions will surely win in the end?

They used to because they were the ones with the big ad budgets and advertising, in the end, was the key to it.

But it’s not like that now, not all the time anyway. A few years ago in the United States a vodka called Svedka appeared from absolutely nowhere. It was a classic Accelerator brand.

It didn’t do any advertising but it was huge with the younger generation. It completely slipped under the radar of the big boys by working social media brilliantly; its line was ‘Let’s party like it’s 2033.’

A big company couldn’t have got away with some of the things they did, even if it had known how to go about it. But it all helped to activate its market, and the brand is still around now. Svedka isn’t about having more money but having a better idea and better activation.


So what does the future hold? A greater emphasis on social media?

The market is really exciting now. The growth of online and social media in particular means that smaller, innovative companies and brands actually do have a chance to keep up with the big boys.

It’s still difficult of course and the bigger companies are waking up to things like Facebook and Twitter, although they still have problems using them effectively. For Accelerator brands in particular it’s a very exciting time.


So what’s the secret of accelerating growth?

The ability to muster the resources of a big company but behave like a small one is one of the keys in turning any brand into an

Accelerator brand.

Steve Wilson


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