Not many people would consider themselves “really, really lucky” after a January move from the Caribbean to a frostbitten England in the throes of a third national lockdown.
However, Bacardi’s on-trade director Leila Stansfield, who jetted home after a three-year stint at the drinks maker’s head office in Bermuda, tells The Morning Advertiser (MA) she was ready for the shift.
“Brands are built in bars, not in boardrooms, so it was always part of the plan,” she says. “I really desperately wanted to get back to be with consumers, with [on-trade] customers, and working with a team.
“In that sense, I have really enjoyed getting back out there talking to customers for the first time seeing what the trade’s up to – even more excited now that we've got partners that are open that we can work with to deliver stuff that impacts consumers,” she adds.
After more than a decade working for Bacardi in what she describes as an unconventional career path that also featured a 10-month spell in Hong Kong, Stansfield explains that returning to the UK with a new role – and a new lockdown – allowed her to catch her breath.
“It gave me a little bit of time to get my head around the team and our priorities and now we’re ready to go,” she says. “From the minute the trade opened we’re there to help support them make the success of the opportunity they've now got.”
According to Stansfield, the maker of Bombay Sapphire, Grey Goose and its eponymous rum poured over ways to bolster both the wealth and welfare of its on-trade partners during lockdown, launching support scheme Raise Your Spirits.
“The first thing we did was we picked up the phone,” she tells The MA. “So, within a week of everything happening, our team spoke to every one of our customers because what we didn't want to do is just roll out a standard, same-for-everybody, solution.
“We found out what was going on in their world and what they needed from us. That really helped us tailor the solutions that we offered.”
This culminated in the nearly 160-year-old drinks maker embarking on a partnership with Deliveroo – stumping up costs so that operators could deliver cocktails to locked down drinkers – and working with cocktail delivery service Drinks Drop to deliver more than 4,000 cocktails from 33 bars during Margarita month in February.
“On the wellness side, we've got a scheme internally that we've had for years called Bacardi Assist,” Stansfield continues. “It's an opportunity to have free counselling and advice so you can talk to somebody confidentially or find lots of advice online.
“We've had it for years, because we know anybody can go into these moments of stress and get to a tricky spot, so for the first time, we opened it up to our trade partners, bar staff and bartenders – the uptake was really positive.”
Close trade relationships ‘critical’
During a year which Stansfield reflects has been “really tough” from both personal and professional perspectives for all at Bacardi, she believes the seasoned drinks maker has become “quicker”.
“We were always a quick and agile company,” she explains. “I think there's something about being family owned, being private, you don't have all the bureaucracy, so you can just get on with stuff quicker.
“But I think the pandemic has helped us zone in on the actions that are going to drive results. Our team has spending less time travelling and, on the road, and actually, therefore more time talking to customers.”
While Stansfield explains Bacardi will “definitely” get back on the road to show face at customer bars and restaurants, she states the mutual convenience of Covid-enforced digital solutions – like virtual training sessions – have an enduring part to play.
“In the on-trade and beyond, digital has just been supercharged in the last year – and that's true in our business,” she says.
“If I think about the way that we offer training, it used to be that our fabulous brand ambassadors would walk into an outlet and train a team of five to 10 people – now they’re delivering training with hundreds of people.
“It means we're not just talking to top bartenders, but we can talk to all serving staff who are more likely to be talking to the consumers if we're shifting to table service.”
However, it’s the drinks maker’s ability to understand consumers that Stansfield sees as the key to Bacardi bouncing back from the past year – which saw its value plummet by 14.2% during the first quarter of 2020 according to Brand Finance.
“What's going to define it is our ability to listen to where the consumer is heading and respond to what they're looking for,” she says.
“It's partly around that meeting those consumer needs, through innovation in menus, through staff training, but then it's also about partnerships.
“For us, having those close relationships with the trade is just it's at the heart of who we are as a business. And the way that we do that is going to be critical to setting ourselves up and setting in the in months and years ahead.”
‘Leaving money on the table’
Speaking to The MA after the first week of resumed outdoor trade in pubs from 12 April – a week in which she confesses she’s been out every night – Stansfield explains that her glass is very much half full as she looks towards the trade’s recovery from well-documented Covid symptoms.
What’s more, she explains one of the key side effects from the on-trade’s pandemic year has been the amplification of a number of “exciting” spirit category consumer trends.
“One is about this shift to premiumisation – so, quality over quantity,” Stansfield explains. “More than ever, those consumers lucky enough to have kept their jobs have got bit more money in their pocket and they're looking for that trade up, ‘treat for me’, moment.”
Additionally, after struggling to familiarise drinkers with the world of cocktails, Stansfield believes that consumers are now more likely than ever to dip into the category after a year of education and experimentation behind closed doors.
According to Google Trends data, the number of people searching for cocktail recipes grew exponentially – up by 340% year-on-year at its peak – while shakers flew off of virtual shelves and homebound Brits took to social media to share their cupboard cocktails and quarantinis.
“In a matter of months, you've got people all over the country dusting off their cocktail shakers and getting mixing in the kitchen,” she says. “Even my own mum was researching how to make a brilliant Patrón Margarita and she's teaching her friends how to do it on Zoom – it's crazy.”
Rounding off a tipsy tryptich, Stansfield explains that she’s seen drinkers who would have previously propped up city centre bars in search of an after-work cocktail migrating to their locals and continuing to plump for well-known brands on streamlined menus, amid the pandemic’s office closures.
“You've got people who were going into the city to work, were used to the experience in city bars, and now when they head back to the suburbs – and their locals – they're looking for that same experience,” she says.
“When you package those three trends together, it's about having trade up. What's exciting is not only is this going to really hit what consumers are looking for, but it's also going to deliver a better margin more money into the trade.
“If you're a suburban bar, and you don't have a cocktail on the menu, you're leaving money on the table,” Stansfield adds. “Where we can help as a business is to help with the menu so that trade up, those cocktails, are a really easy option, and help with training so that staff know.”
‘Important role in society’
Ultimately, as the restrictions that greeted Stansfield as she returned to the UK from Bacardi’s Bermuda-based head office continue to unravel, she believes a mixture of unique experience and quality will continue to coax consumers back into the on-trade.
“Something magical happens when you step into a bar,” she says. “It's something you just can't replicate when you get home – there's something about the atmosphere, the buzz, the service, the smile and the welcome you get from the bartender or the staff at the table.
“There's something about the quality of the drink, which is close to what you could make but just a bit different – your Bombay and tonic, the ice to the top, the fresh bit of lime, there's something that makes it special. Altogether you just can't replicate that at home.”
Based on what she’s seen so far, Stansfield describes the high street as having come back to life as pubs and bars have flung open their doors to the parched public.
“You can just feel the buzz,” she tells The MA. “You can be hear laughter bubbling up from pub gardens.
“We as an industry, and our bars and restaurants and pubs, play such an important role in society. We are the ones that help bring that that social wellbeing and I think people have realised that more than ever.”